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PCJP Celebrates 30 Years

Written February 21st, 2012 by

PCJP Director Heidi Rummel with Dean Robert Rasmussen (left) and former PCJP Director Chuck Weisselberg (right)

The USC Law alumni attending the recent 30th anniversary of the Post-Conviction Justice Project hail from nearly ever corner of the legal world – they are judges, public defenders, state and federal prosecutors, public interest lawyers and partners at law firms.

But, regardless of where they are today, many alums said they are forever bound by their work and commitment to USC Law’s PCJP, where they collectively represented more than 5,000 prisoners as law students.

“There is no doubt that some of the smartest and best legal advocates in the country cut their teeth in the Post-Conviction Justice Project,” said Heidi Rummel, co-director of PCJP. “Their representation of deserving and difficult clients is the underpinning of the success of the Project. It’s an amazing group of individuals to bring together in one room.”

For many in attendance at the January 25 celebration, PCJP was a career inspiring, if not a life-altering experience. Many credited their career success to their professors – Dennis E. Curtis, who founded PCJP in 1981; Chuck Weisselberg, who co-directed the clinic from 1987 to 1998, Carrie Hempel, co-director from 1996 to 2008, as well as Bill Genego, Noel Ragsdale, Denise Meyer, Stacey Turner and current co-directors Rummel and Michael Brennan.

More than 120 former PCJP students and clients attended the reception, which was the first formal gathering of the Project in 30 years.

Doreen Lawrence Hughes ’98 said the Project not only helped her become a skilled attorney, it gave her a better understanding of her clients. “From a practical standpoint, the Post-Conviction Justice Project taught me basic lawyering skills,” she said. “But more importantly, the Project helped me to become a compassionate attorney. I learned to listen to clients rather than always having a solution.”

Matt Thomas ’82, who was a founding member of PCJP, said he became a Los Angeles pubic defender after his experience in the Project. ”I’m very honored to be part of the first class,” he said. “The Project really helped me learn how to interact with clients and know the value of helping people. I have been public defending ever since.”

Since 1981, nearly 700 USC Law students in PCJP have represented state and federal inmates on post-conviction matters ranging from challenging convictions, adjusting the term of incarceration, and parole matters. USC Law students have appeared at parole hearings, state and federal court proceedings, and have filed habeas petitions challenging denials of constitutional rights.

Weisselberg, who now teaches at UC Berkeley Law School, thanked the clients who attended the reunion.  “I am honored by your presence tonight and the trust you placed in us. As clients, you faced really difficult circumstances, and I’m always astonished how much trust you put in us to handle the most important aspect of your lives. We owe you a great deal of gratitude.”

USC Law Dean Robert Rasmussen acknowledged the PCJP alums for their work as well as their public service. He also introduced Elizabeth Henneke, the inaugural Audrey Irmas Clinical Teaching Fellow, a two-year position teaching and supervising cases and projects supporting the legal rights of women and children.

Victor Bono, one of the PCJP's first released client with former Project Director, Chuck Weisselberg

“Clinical education remains a vital and important part of the USC Law culture,” Rasmussen said. “We are proud that we were among the first to offer clinical education to our students. I have no doubt that what you gained from your experience here has helped you throughout your careers.”

In 1981, USC Law Prof. Dennis Curtis founded PCJP representing clients at the Federal Correctional Institute in Terminal Island, a medium security prison for men. Victor Bono, who attended the reunion, was among the clinic’s first clients.

More than a decade later, in 1993, the Project began representing state prisoners incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, serving life-term sentences for murder convictions. Many suffered a history of abuse, and some were convicted of murder for killing their abusers.

Sandra Davis Lawrence, whose landmark case was taken to the California Supreme Court, credits PCJP for her freedom. The Lawrence decision was the first time that the state’s highest court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case. “I am forever grateful to USC Law School and their amazing work and commitment to me,” Lawrence said at the reunion.

Lee Tsao ’96 believes he may have benefited from PCJP as much as the clients. “It’s really the experience that defined my career. I joined the Los Angeles Public Defenders office mostly due to my experience in the Project and guidance from Prof. Mike Brennan. It’s been a real privilege and I am so thankful for my experience in the Post Conviction Justice Project. It’s made me who I am today.”

Click here for more pictures from the 30th Reunion

California Supreme Court Reaffirms Lawrence Holding

Written January 17th, 2012 by

On December 29, 2011, the California Supreme Court decided In re Richard Shaputis (Shaputis II), in which it reaffirmed the “some evidence” standard first articulated in Lawrence in 2008.

In Shaputis II, the Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn the Board of Parole Hearing’s denial of parole to Richard Shaputis. The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal had gone too far in reviewing that Board’s denial by “reweighing” the evidence presented before the Board. The Court also articulated a new standard for lower courts to review Board denials based on an inmate’s “lack of insight.”


Click here to read the entire Supreme Court opinion.

PCJP Student to Argue Before the California Court of Appeal on February 9, 2012

Written January 17th, 2012 by

b51b9d2d3bde8ed5bddb99898589_grandeOn February 9, 2012, PCJP student Steve Papazian will argue on behalf of Jeanna Redwood before Division Seven of the California Court of Appeal, Second District. The argument was originally scheduled for November 3, 2011, but was later continued upon request by the Attorney General’s office.

PCJP Student Argues Before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Written January 17th, 2012 by

PCJP student Anand Krishnawamy with clinical fellow Elizabeth Henneke (left) and PCJP codirector Michael Brennan (right)

On December 5, 2011, Anand Krishnaswamy argued on behalf of PCJP client Destinni Mardesich before a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena.

Accompanied by PCJP codirector Michael Brennan and clinical fellow Elizabeth Henneke, Anand offered strong arguments in support of his client, and was congratulated by Judge Dorothy Nelson for his performance.

U.S. Supreme Court to Review Constitutionality of Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles

Written November 21st, 2011 by

After holding in 2010, in Graham v. Florida, that juveniles may not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes, the U.S. Supreme Court will again review the constitutionality of death in prison sentences for juvenile offenders.

In Jackson v. Hobbs, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a life without parole sentence for a 14-year-old convicted of an unintentional killing where he was not the triggerman. In Miller v. Alabama, an Alabama appeals court upheld a sentence of life imprisonment without parole imposed on a 14-year-old convicted of intentional murder. Both sentences were mandatory and did not permit any consideration of the juvenile’s age or adolescent status. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on both cases on March 20, 2012, and is expected to issue a decision in the spring.

For more information, check the following articles:

Equal Justice Initiative


Los Angeles Times

International Business Times


Young Kids, Hard Times to Premiere on MSNBC November 20

Written November 18th, 2011 by

“Young Kids, Hard Times,” an extraordinary documentary on youth prosecuted as adults, will premiere on MSNBC Sunday, November 20th at 7 p.m. PST.

The one-hour documentary, narrated by Rick Springfield, throws back the veil on the reality of young kids serving long sentences in adult prisons.

The film’s producers will host a live chat during and after the film on their Facebook page:


Here are some facts about juvenile sentencing in the United States:

• In 22 states plus the District of Columbia, children as young as seven can be tried and sentenced in adult              court.

• The United States remains the only country in the world that still sentences juveniles to life without                        parole.

• Youth prosecuted and incarcerated in adult facilities are at dramatically greater risk of sexual assaults                  and are 36-times more likely to commit suicide than youth in juvenile detention.


California Habeas Project to Receive Advocacy Award from Peace Over Violence on October 28

Written October 30th, 2011 by

On October 28, the California Habeas Project will be receiving a humanitarian award for advocacy from Peace Over Violence, a sexual and domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, and youth violence prevention center headquartered in Los Angeles. Norma Cumpian, a former PCJP client and domestic abuse survivor, will be presenting the award.

For more information, click here.


Crime After Crime Screening, October 26

Written September 27th, 2011 by

USC Law’s Post Conviction Justice Project, Entertainment Law Society, Life Sentence Films and Outside the Box [Office] are holding a special screening of Crime After Crime, an official selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, on October 26 at 7:00 p.m.

A discussion will follow with Yoav Potash, director, producer and editor of Crime After Crime and Joshua Saffran, attorney for Deborah Peagler, the main character in the movie. Heidi Rummel, director of USC Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project will provide an introduction.

The film chronicles the legal battle of Deborah Peagler, a woman brutally abused by her boyfriend, and sentenced to 25 years-to-life for her connection to his murder.

The screening is free and open to the public. It will be held at USC School of Cinematic Arts Complex, Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108, George Lucas Building, USC School of Cinematic Arts, 900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007.


Visit the movie’s official website:




Sin By Silence to Air on the Discovery Channel October 17

Written September 24th, 2011 by

Sin By Silence is a gateway into the lives of women who are domestic violence’s worst-case scenarios: women who have killed their abusers.

Inside California’s oldest women’s prisons, Sin By Silence shatters the misconceptions of domestic violence, telling the harrowing stories of the women from Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), created in 1989 to help convicted domestic violence survivors inside the prison break the silence about abuse. Instead of fighting a system that does not fully comprehend the complexities of abuse, the women of CWAA have fought to change laws for battered women, and extended their message to help others stop the cycle of violence.

Sin by Silence will air on the Discovery Channel October 17, at 8pm PT.

For more information about the broadcast, go to


MCLE Seminar on Lifer Parole Representation October 15

Written September 24th, 2011 by

The Post-Conviction Justice Project and UnCommon Law are hosting an MCLE event on October 15, 2011 in Los Angeles for attorneys and law students on representation of California life inmates appearing before the Board of Parole Hearings.  The training will focus on the parole consideration process and how it continues to evolve in response to successful litigation.  Speakers will include Board of Parole Hearings staff and Commissioners, recently paroled lifers, psychologist, and prominent lifer attorneys.  The $75 registration fee will be waived for former lifers.

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