USF law professor, students help exonerate wrongfully convicted man

Annika Dahlberg

Staff Writer

(From left to right) Melody Haddad, Lara Bazelon, Yutico Briley, Laura Odujinrin, and Angela Crivello pose for a group photo after Briley was released from prison. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF OFFICE OF MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS

In 2012, 19-year-old Yutico Briley was convicted of an armed robbery in New Orleans that he did not commit.

Eight years later, Briley became the first person to be exonerated as a result of work done by USF School of Law’s Racial Justice Clinic. Law students Kendall Baron ‘21, Angela Crivello ‘22, Dustin Ercolano ‘21, Melody Haddad ‘22, Laura Odujinrin ‘22, and Sallia Wilkins ‘21 worked with law professor Lara Bazelon to overturn Briley’s wrongful conviction.

Founded in 2015, the Racial Justice Clinic’s mission is to address racial discrimination within the criminal justice system. By working on long-term projects, the team hopes to have maximum impact and bring about systemic change.

This includes fighting wrongful conviction cases, as well as helping craft factual innocence petitions, and representing students of color at USF facing expulsion for alleged disciplinary offenses. The clinic also has a partnership with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s Innocence Commission and an internal unit in the District Attorney’s office that reviews excessive sentences.

According to NOLA.com, the victim of the robbery which Briley was wrongly convicted of, was returning home when he was confronted by two young people armed with a gun who stole $102 from him. Briley, who was a few blocks away at the time and carrying a firearm, was taken in by police and underwent a controversial identifying procedure known as “show-up” identification. This process presents a single person detained by police to the victim of a crime, usually in close proximity to the scene shortly after the crime. The victim later described the identifying process as “very unprofessional.” The crime in question lasted two minutes and resulted in no injury, but still landed Briley a 60-year sentence without the possibility of parole.

The original lawyers on Briley’s case failed to obtain a video recording that would have provided him an alibi, showing that he was a few blocks away at a hotel at the time of the crime. The original subpoena for the video included an incorrect time frame, so it was thrown out and the second subpoena came in too late, as the video had been deleted.

Bazelon first heard about Briley’s case through her sister, Emily, who is a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine. Emily Bazelon wrote a book, called “Charged,” about the excessive role prosecutors play within the courtroom. After hearing an interview with Emily Bazelon on NPR, Briley reached out to her in a letter explaining his situation. Briley’s penpal “Miss Karen,” from Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society, a support group for the incarcerated and their families, also wrote to Emily, who then got Lara on the case.

But Briley’s incarceration would not be easy to overturn. His wrongful conviction meant that Briley had already been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury.

“The presumption of innocence is flipped, so you are presumed guilty. They are very hard to undo, these convictions. You’re basically prosecuting an innocence case,” Lara Bazelon said. “The students did that. This meant several trips to New Orleans to interview various witnesses, draft the pleadings, and develop the relationship with the client.”

Among the students, Laura Odujinrin worked with Bazelon to draft Briley’s petition for post conviction release. “Unfortunately [Briley’s] case is not unique,” Odunjinrin said. “His trial took less than 4 hours to send him to prison for the rest of his life and it took him eight years to try to get out. He’s not alone. There are so many others that have similar stories and I hope that this brings awareness to that.”

After two years of the Racial Justice Clinic advocating for Briley’s release, he was granted it March 18 after nearly a decade in the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. 

“I felt a tremendous sense of relief. It was a very long two years, and when you have a client that you know is innocent, every day that they’re in there is a day that you’re thinking, ‘I’m trying to get them out,’” Bazelon said. “It’s an emotionally draining situation for the client and the legal team.”

Following his release, the students who worked with Briley as part of the Racial Justice Clinic played an important role in his transition from prison. 

“When we traveled to Louisiana we had a couple of days to get some things in order. This included things like getting [Briley] a driver’s licence, setting up a bank account, getting him a cellphone, laptop, and clothes,” law student Melody Haddad said. “All of these are essential things that you need and we helped with that getting taken care of. We’re just trying to prepare him as much as we can for a successful future.”

Many of the law students also befriended Briley, 27, since most of them are close in age with him. Some of the students, including Haddad, also set up a GoFundMe for Briley to help with his transition out of prison. 

Briley said the whole experience feels like a dream come true, and that since his release, he has been “basking in the ambiance.” In his interview with the Foghorn, Briley shared that he had just bought a car that day along with some recording equipment and that he has been working on podcasting and interviews.

“My experience with Professor Bazelon and the students was great. They were very thorough with my case. We really established almost like a family relationship,” Briley said. “I’d like to thank everyone that participated. I know there were various people at [USF]. It was a wonderful experience just working with [the students].”

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