It’s a story so horrific, some would hesitate to believe that it’s true: at the age of 16, Brian Banks, then a promising high school football star heading for a career with the NFL, had his dreams stolen away from him when he was falsely accused of raping a classmate and spent more than five years in jail – and another five on probation – over the claims, despite a lack of evidence.
Banks’ case, which has since been turned into a feature film “Brian Banks," now showing in theaters, is one of many cases of wrongful convictions that lawyer Justin Brooks has played an instrumental role in overturning. Brooks is the director and co-founded of the California Innocence Project, a clinical program at California Western School of Law where lawyers work together to help the wrongfully convicted clear their names and, in some cases, win back their freedom.
Brooks and his team usually work with those who are currently wrongfully imprisoned. In Banks’ case, he had already been convicted and had served his time. It was enough to make Brooks initially wary of taking on the case, but Banks’ story was just so disturbingly unfair, that he found himself compelled to act, he explained during an interview with Oxygen.com.
“I had never taken a case on before from someone who was out of custody,” said Brooks, who has been practicing law for more than 30 years, and whose organization fields more than 6,000 requests a year from people looking for help with their cases. “It just seemed to brutal that this kid had everything in front of him – he was on his way to the NFL – and to have all of that taken away just seemed too horrible.”
“I said to him, ‘I really only take on lifers and people on death row, and he said, ‘I am a lifer. I will never get away from this. I will be a convicted sex offender for the rest of my life.’ And so it compelled me to take it on.”
Banks told his story during a 2015 interview with the New York Daily News: on July 8, 2002, he stepped out of a summer school class at Long Beach Polytechnic High in Southern California to take a phone call. In the hallway, he ran into a classmate – 15-year-old Wanetta Gibson – and the two went to a quiet part of campus and “made out.” The two never had sex, but later that day, he would find himself arrested for allegedly kidnapping and raping Gibson.
He spent a year in a juvenile facility until it was his turn to defend himself in court. While Banks had maintained his innocence and repeatedly tried to tell authorities and his lawyer that he and Gibson had not even had sex, Banks said that his lawyer told him “that I had no chance in trial because I was a big, black teenager and the jury would be an all-white jury and they would automatically assume me as guilty because of that.”
His lawyer convinced him to take a plea deal that he said would only get him probation; the lawyer was wrong. Banks was sentenced to six years and spent another five on probation, during which time he was made to register as a sex offender and wear an ankle monitor. Although he tried to get back on track to play football professionally, the limits of his probation made it nearly impossible to live a normal life.
While Banks’ story seems rare, Brooks explained that it’s increasingly common for those who have been accused to opt for lackluster plea deals in lieu of a risky trial.
“It happens every day. It happens every single day, because when you’re a defense attorney and you’re advising your client, it’s not really about whether they’re innocent or guilty, it’s about what you’re up against, and what your chances of success are gonna be,” he explained. “And in the old days, when I first started practicing [law] 30 years ago, the sentences weren’t so great [and] you could go to trial and not be running the risk of dying in prison, but now, with almost every case, you’re looking at life.”
“The criminal justice system has become a giant casino where it’s, take door number one or door number two,” he continued. “Door number one, you might be able to get home to your family. Door number two, you die in prison and that’s what Brian’s choice was - you take this deal, I may be able to get you probation. You take this deal, you die in prison. So, innocence gets lost in all that, because it’s really about, what is the evidence here and what are your chances of success and what are the risks on the other side of that?”
The likelihood of an accused party opting for a trial has steadily declined over the last 50 years, according to a report published last year by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and cited by the Innocence Project. When looking at state and federal criminal cases in recent years, researchers found that accused parties chose a plea deal more than 97 percent of the time and only opted for a trial on less than three percent of occasions.
Brooks credits these changing numbers to the increased risks defendants now face when having to choose between a plea deal and a trial. And for Banks, his decision was made under even more duress: he was going to be tried as an adult and faced 41 years to life if found guilty, Banks told the Daily News. Prior to jury selection, he said, he was offered a plea deal that involved pleading guilty to one count of rape in exchange for prosecutors dropping the other charges; he would also have to submit to a 90-day observational period at Chino State prison, where psychologists would interview him and decide whether probation or three-to-six years in prison was an appropriate sentence.
His lawyer assured him that he would get probation, and Banks was given 10 minutes alone in an empty room to make the most important decision of his life, he explained.
“I was unable to speak to my mom. I was denied that right,” he said. “At the age of 17, I felt like 90 days was doable after already spending a year behind bars.”
Banks’ sentencing did not go as his attorney had thought. He ultimately spent more than five years in prison and another five on probation. He sought the help of the California Innocence Project, and was eventually able to have his conviction dismissed after his accuser reached out to him on Facebook and, later, admitted while being unknowingly filmed to lying about the rape. While Banks’ legal team was unable to use the tape in court, it did contribute to clearing his name.
“We had a video recantation from the victim, and there was no physical evidence that convicted him of it, and yet still, because he pled out … If I hadn’t got the Los Angeles District Attorney to concede the case, we would have lost,” Brooks explained.
Banks was exonerated in 2012, and returned to the football field briefly with the Atlanta Falcons. He went on to become a motivational speaker, using his experience with an unjust criminal justice system to encourage others who have been wrongfully convicted.
His story plays out in the feature film “Brian Banks,” which is currently being shown in theaters nationwide. Aldis Hodge stars as Banks, while Greg Kinnear portrays Brooks in the film.
Brooks hopes the release of the film, and the sharing of Banks’ story of triumph, will promote positive change.
“When I started this work, there was only a handful of us in the world who were doing it,” he said. “And now, we have sixty innocence organizations in the United States. We have a hundred more around the world. I oversee 20 innocence projects in Latin America, from Chile, all the way up to the Mexican border. So this work is happening everywhere – people can go to our website … and see what we’re doing or they can also look for projects in their area.”
One way that the average individual can fight against wrongful convictions is to take their duties as a juror seriously, Brooks also explained.
“I hope viewers will, if they become jurors, that they will really look closely at the facts,” Brooks said. “It’s painful seeing new cases every day where, if people really scrutinize the facts, they wouldn’t have been convicted, to start with.”
For actress Sherri Shepherd, who plays Banks’ mother in the film, she just hopes viewers take away a sense of hope.
“I hope this film shows people that, no matter what you go through, you can still get up and walk and let go and move forward,” she told Oxygen.com. “If you meet Brian Banks, he’s the most humble, kind person, and I hope that people see that you can get your smile back in a situation. It’s a movie of triumph as well as hope.”
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