University of Southern California


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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Zach Crowley ’12 and Max Castro ’12 Claim Wins Before California Court of Appeals

Written September 22nd, 2011 by

USC Gould School of Law students in the Post-Conviction Justice Project recently won two victories following oral arguments before the California Courts of Appeal, Second District.

Zach Crowley, a second-year law student, appeared before the court in May on behalf of his client Tresia Henry, who was denied parole two years ago by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after the Board of Parole Hearings recommended her release. The court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision granting her petition for release and holding that Schwarzenegger violated her due process rights by overturning the Board of Parole Hearing’s decision.

In a second case before the court, Max Castro, another second-year law student, represented Charmaine Petit, who was denied release by the Board of Parole. The court found no evidence that Petit was a danger to society and granted her a new hearing.

Arguing before the California Courts of Appeal is a rare opportunity for law students and a distinguished honor, said Heidi Rummel, co-director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, who worked with Crowley and Castro on the preparation of their legal arguments.

“Zach and Max did an excellent job representing these two women,” Rummel said. “Their arguments were as professional and compelling as some of the very best appellate advocates – and they won important victories for their clients. I am so proud of them.”

Crowley and Castro are two of 16 students in the Post-Conviction Justice Project who, under the direction of professors Rummel and Michael Brennan, represent women convicted of first- and second-degree murder at parole hearings and in state court habeas proceedings. Many of the women have a long history of abuse.

Castro prepared for his day in court for weeks – rehearsing his argument in front of his girlfriend, his fellow clinic students, favorite law professors and even alone in his car.

“Arguing before the court was by far the single-best experience I have had in law school and one of the most exciting things that I have ever done in my life,” Castro said. “It made me realize that I wanted to spend as much of my career as possible in a courtroom, and it also made me feel so useful for Ms. Petit. I feel so lucky that the Post-Conviction Justice Project gave me the opportunity to do it.”

Crowley said he believes his experience will help him reach his goal of becoming a skilled litigator.

“It was a phenomenal experience and one that I’m sure I will remember for the rest of my life,” he said. “Getting to stand up and argue in front of justices from the Court of Appeal is the kind of thing you would just never get to do as a young lawyer.

“I am working at a firm this summer, and a few weeks ago, I asked a fourth-year associate how often he had the opportunity to make arguments on appeal,” he said. “He explained that associates never get to do that sort of thing – it’s reserved almost exclusively for partners. I will always look back on this and feel grateful that I had this opportunity. Tresia absolutely deserves her freedom and getting to be a part of that process was truly a gift.”

In a twist of fate, one of the justices on the Court of Appeal panel in Castro’s case – Justice Jeffrey Johnson – also served as a judge at his Moot Court semifinal round at USC Gould a few months later. After the Moot Court presentations, Johnson offered Castro a summer externship. Johnson has become a mentor to Castro and will preside at his upcoming wedding.

“Working for Justice Johnson is not only a tremendous honor, but it is also, and most importantly, an extraordinary opportunity to learn from one of California’s most brilliant legal minds,” Castro said.

Since 1994, more than 400 USC Gould students have worked with hundreds of clients on matters such as consultation and representation at parole hearings, as well as state and federal lawsuits challenging denials of constitutional rights. To date, 35 women have been freed from prison, thanks to the work of students and their professors at USC.


California Supreme Court Grants Petition for Review on Marsy’s Law Cases

Written July 20th, 2011 by

The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear important cases regarding parole.

California’s parole-eligible prisoners may soon get a definitive answer on whether the three, five, seven, ten, or fifteen year parole hearing set-off scheme enacted in 2008 pursuant to Marsy’s Law (Cal. Pen. Code § 3041.5) violates ex post facto principles.

The California Supreme Court unanimously voted today to grant the petitions for review in In re Vicks and In re Russo, recent appellate cases that have caused some confusion as to whether certain applications of Marsy’s Law are unconstitutional.

Clauses in both the California and United States Constitutions prohibit the application of an ex post facto law.  A law is ex post facto when it retroactively lengthens a prisoner’s existing sentence.

Before 2008, when a prisoner was denied parole, the prisoner’s next hearing would be deferred for one, two, three, four, or five years.  After 2008, however, the prisoner’s next hearing would be deferred for three, five, seven, ten, or fifteen years.  In effect, the minimum deferral the Board can now give is two years longer than it could have been pre-Marsy’s Law; the maximum deferral is ten years longer.

Marsy’s Law also provided that a prisoner who has been denied parole may request to have his or her next hearing date advanced upon a showing of “changed circumstances or new information” demonstrating that, in the interest of public safety, an increased period of incarceration is no longer required.

In Vicks, a panel of justices in the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One concluded the risk of increased incarceration violated ex post facto principles if applied to prisoners sentenced before the California legislature enacted Marsy’s Law.

However, in Russo, a different panel from the same court as Vicks concluded that a prisoner’s ability to petition for an advanced hearing protected Marsy’s Law from an ex post facto challenge.

The majority of the Post-Conviction Justice Project’s clients were sentenced before the enactment of Marsy’s Law.

Off to Sacramento: PCJP students Mark Fahey ’13 and Celina Kirchner ’13 Lobby in Favor of Juvenile Justice Bill

Written July 2nd, 2011 by

Post-Conviction Justice Project students Mark Fahey and Celina Kirchner took time away from their cases this week to visit Sacramento, where they lobbied legislators in support of juvenile justice bill SB-9.

Fahey and Kirchner went from office to office at the state capitol, speaking directly with legislative assistants and aides about the importance of passing SB-9 and ensuring fair sentencing for California’s youth.

Mark and Celina visited Sacramento on behalf of LWOPers.

The bill, which still awaits a vote in the California Assembly, would end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole, a practice currently authorized under California Penal Code §190.5. The United States is the only country in the world that imposes this sentence on juveniles.

Juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (known as “LWOPers”) are generally entitled to fewer rehabilitative programs than most inmates.

The students’ visit to the state capitol also sought to draw attention to worrying statistics regarding juvenile LWOPers. The Human Rights Watch estimates that almost half of all juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole in California did not actually commit murder themselves — instead, many provided support to murderers or helped them during the commission of their crime.

The felony murder rule, which holds criminals responsible for deaths that occur during the commission of a felony, allows for these convictions even in the case of juveniles.

Human Rights Watch also estimates that, in the overwhelming majority of juvenile LWOP cases, the juvenile was acting with an adult during the commission of the crime.

Fahey and Kirchner both joined the Post-Conviction Justice Project in the summer of 2011, and each currently represents several clients serving life sentences at the California Institution for Women.

Designed by PCJP in Los Angeles, California
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