University of San Francisco School of Law Professor Lara Bazelon & Racial Justice Clinic Students Lead Successful Effort to Exonerate Yutico Briley
SAN FRANCISCO (March 29, 2021) – University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law Professor Lara Bazelon, along with USF Racial Justice Clinic law students Kendall Baron ‘21, Angela Crivello ‘22, Dustin Ercolano ‘21, Melody Haddad ‘22, Laura Odujinrin ‘22, and Sallia Wilkins ‘21 have successfully led the effort to exonerate Yutico Briley. In 2013, at 19 years old, Briley was convicted in Louisiana of an armed robbery that he did not commit. For this crime-- which lasted two minutes, resulted in no injury, and netted $102--he was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole. This is the first exoneration case for the USF School of Law Racial Justice Clinic.
“Yutico Briley is a once in a lifetime person and litigating his case is a once in a lifetime experience,” Professor Bazelon said. “I am profoundly grateful for the unwavering support, dedication, grit, and hard work of the Racial Justice Clinic students who were there for every step of this long journey.”
Bazelon and her law students in the Racial Justice Clinic had been working on Briley’s case since August 2019. The Racial Justice Clinic’s mission is to address racial discrimination throughout the criminal justice system through discrete long-term projects designed to have maximum impact. In addition to wrongful conviction cases and factual innocence petitions, the Racial Justice Clinic represents students of color facing expulsion for alleged disciplinary offenses and now has a unique partnership with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s Innocence Commission and an internal unit that reviews excessive sentences.
Briley’s conviction hinged on a single cross racial ‘show up’ identification — a controversial, suggestive form of visual identification where the victim is presented with only one suspect. Briley also had an ironclad alibi that the jury never heard about because his trial lawyers did not investigate it. Bazelon and the USF law students claimed that Briley’s original attorneys failed him, noting that those attorneys should have argued that the suggestive ‘show up’ identification is faulty and flawed, especially when the victim is white and the suspect is Black. They also claimed there should have been an attempt to fight against the District Attorney’s Office to stop introducing a multiple bill that raised Briley’s minimum sentence to 49.5 years, noting his youth, that he was a cancer survivor, and that the victim was not physically injured. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Angel Harris, who overturned Briley’s conviction, called his treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system “appalling.” She apologized to Briley, as did Deputy District Attorney Emily Maw, the Chief of the new Civil Rights Division in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. Newly elected District Attorney Jason Williams recognized the problems with Briley’s case and was instrumental in rectifying the injustice.
"This case has taught me how important it is to have good advocates in a criminal case at the outset, because our system is too flawed to leave room for error at trial,” said USF law student Melody Haddad ‘22. “Thankfully, Yutico’s stars aligned between obtaining an excellent attorney, a new judge being appointed to his district, and a new DA taking office. For other wrongfully convicted individuals, this won't be the case. I am honored to have been a part of Yutico's release and will continue to fight for others like him.”
Asked how he felt after he was exonerated, Briley said, “It was something I had dreamed of for so long. So for it to happen was surreal.”
The Racial Justice Clinic is already back to work.