Claudia Salinas (CA Innocence Project): “People lose faith in the justice system”

By Catalina Haberman (12th grade), Sofia Moorefield (12th grade) and Flora Haberman (10th grade)

This article is part of a series of four stories about social justice and wrongful convictions in the United States published in the LILA Gazette in January 2023.

There are about 70 different innocence projects that exist throughout the United States. The first was opened in New York in 1993 and the California innocence project, who we’ve reached out to, opened in 1999. The project has three main missions: firstly, to free the wrongly convicted, secondly, to affect policy, and thirdly, to educate on the issues of wrongful conviction. The CIP works with legislators to write and pass bills that advocate for the rights of victims of wrongful incarceration. 

Could you tell us about the CIP (California Innocence Project)? 

There’s the CIP located in San Diego and then there’s the Northern California Innocence Project that’s out in Santa Clara. We divide up California pretty much down the middle so that everything from San Luis Obispo South are cases that we’ll take, which means convictions have to have occurred in the counties. Since the Santa Clara project takes everything up north, we are probably one of the biggest thanks to Justin Brooks, the Co-Founder and director of the Innocence Project, who is one of the original founders of a lot of the innocence projects. 

Who is it funded by? 

We have some grants. That means federal and some state money. Then of course we couldn’t do this work without very generous donors. We have supporters from mainly California but from all over the world too who donate their money to help us do this type of work.

How is your organization structured? 

I am a lawyer among several others. We have a policy person, a development person, and a case assistant who aren’t lawyers in the office, but we’re all very much connected to the scene. That’s just staff that are paid on payroll and get paid to be there. Still, we literally cannot function without our volunteers. 

We have volunteer legal interns who help us with the initial review of cases. We have volunteer attorneys who help us once we gather enough documents to do a preliminary review who help us write memos that the attorneys in the office can review and decide whether we’re able to move forward, close it, or refer it out. We also have a clinical internship, which is about anywhere from 10 to 14 law students that are at California Western School of Law who help us with investigating cases. I started off as a law student working in different capacities before I ended up as an attorney there as well. 

How does the CIP select cases and find clients? Do people tend to reach out to you or do you find the cases?

I oversee the initial intake of cases, so you’re asking the right person. While we can reach out to people, we typically do not, as we already have a bunch of cases that we have been working on for many, many years. Each of our law students are actively investigating anywhere from 7 to 14 cases at any time so we’re never really looking for clients. Often, an incarcerated person will contact us themselves. If they’ve heard about us, they reach out to us and we send them an application. They fill it out and if we see that they at least meet the minimum requirements, then we move forward from there.

Do family members of those convicted ever reach out?

Yes- we get family member phone calls all the time. A lot of times they call from the very early stages of not even going through a trial yet. We get their information, they stay logged in our system and if for some reason they get convicted, then at least we have that in our system and we can always reach back out if we want to. Attorneys also sometimes reach out. My favorite is actually when it comes from a prosecutor themselves or a police officer, for the very reason that if they already kind of believe it, it could expedite the process. They’re not battling us so much in the courts and they can give us access to discovery, help us with the investigation. 

What do you think of the recent development surrounding Syed Case? The podcast Serial, created by Sarah Koenig in 2014, is largely responsible for the further investigation that has gone into the case. What do you think of the media’s heightened involvement in crime? 

I haven’t done a deep dive into the case myself, nor have I actually seen the podcast- so let me actually preface it with that. I do think the media can be very beneficial in cases like this but they can also hurt it in more of the trial stage. If it’s a very politicized case, very graphic in detail or it’s a case that could divide the people in general, you’ll never really get a fair jury, which is really unfortunate. So if this man ends up having to go through a retrial of some sort, I just don’t know if the media’s input is helpful because I don’t think you’ll get an impartial jury that way. From the innocence project’s perspective, in terms of reopening a case, it can be very beneficial to have the media’s support because sometimes the DA doesn’t want to work with you and the courts unfortunately don’t either. In short, the media can definitely hurt a case but it can definitely help a case as well.

Why did you choose criminal law specifically? How did you get into it?

I am originally from Fresno, California and growing up I kind of always knew what a lawyer’s job was. I did mock trials for many years in high school. I knew that I wanted to do that and it wasn’t until my uncle was starting to get in and out of the system, being harassed by police officers that I thought, you know what? I want to be able to defend someone in my family. That was my initial motivation when I graduated from high school, but I actually worked in a police department for four years. I was a 911 dispatcher so I got to see things from that side of the world. I saw a lot of investigations, both good and bad. I saw the politics behind what they call a thin blue line. I always felt I needed to be defense oriented. I just felt right to be able to represent someone in their most vulnerable kind of position, specifically innocence work. As I learned what the Innocence Project was in undergrad, I also majored in criminology, got to do a lot of different internships. I just want to be there for these people, considering their decision is final and it feels like their absolute last hope. 

Why did you choose to join the California Innocence Project?

I got introduced to the Innocence Project when I was taking a victimology course in college. It was there where I began hearing discussions about how people who are wrongfully convicted are actually victims as well. Most people don’t really think of it that way. They think the only victim is the person who got hurt, but in reality, that is not the case. A person who is wrongfully convicted, especially of something as heinous as sexual assault or anything along those lines, carries a lot of negative connotations. A lot of those people end up developing mental health issues, and their families just have to make do. That is what really interested me. 

I decided then to go to law school and realized that most of these innocence projects were based there. I realized that if I could go get my law degree and also be in the Innocence Project at the same time, that would be amazing. I looked up which two were in California and took a tour of both of them. They both obviously have the same mission and do really great work. We actually worked very closely with them. But something about the California Innocence Project here in southern California captivated me, and I got to meet with Justin Brooks. I saw that he just had a fire in his eye that I wanted to mirror.

So that’s kind of how I ended up here and don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. 

How has your perspective of the justice system changed since taking your position?

I never thought that the justice system was very fair growing up because of where I came from and the experiences that I had. I think it further confirmed that wrongful convictions aren’t talked about enough. I knew there were injustices, but I never knew just how many people actually were incarcerated behind bars. What is really an issue in terms of the justice system is how the government tries to keep its fundamental flaws hidden from the public.

If either an exoneration happens, or some type of release, the government usually tries to keep it quiet because it looks bad and people lose faith in the justice system. The public should know and should be outraged. It’s equally important to be aware of how much money actually ends up paying for these wrongful incarcerations, whether for the investigation at the beginning, the trial that it went through, or once they’re released, the compensation owed to the victims. Sometimes people get funding that’s over the million dollar mark. It’s just a different side of the legal system that I got exposed to, and that I felt was concealed growing up. 

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