He'll Try Anything To Free These 12 Prisoners

Imagine you’re a lawyer with 12 clients in prison you believe to be innocent. How do you get a busy governor to pay attention to your pleas for clemency?

If you’re Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project in San Diego, you battle in court, you tweet Gov. Jerry Brown daily, and when that fails, you walk. Really, really far.

Brooks will mark the governor’s last 100 days in office by walking 100 miles from Berkeley to the state Capitol in Sacramento to call attention to the “California 12.”

His team has already won freedom for five of them in the courts. A bid to overturn a sixth’s murder conviction awaits a Los Angeles judge’s decision: the case of Jo Ann Parks, chronicled in my upcoming book, Burned. New evidence in the arson-murder case against Parks could set her free, although prosecutors are fighting hard to prove she deserves her life-without-parole sentence. So Brooks is simultaneously needling the governor to grant parole or commutation to her, along with the other members of the California 12 still behind bars.

This is not the first time Brooks has let his feet do the talking: Five years ago, he led his staff on a 712-mile trek from San Diego to Sacramento to introduce the California 12 to the world.

“To get the governor to grant clemency,” Brooks says, “you have to get his attention.”

Will New Science Set a Mother Free After 26 Years in Prison?

I’ve been away for a while, immersed in my next book. But I’m back now, and eager to tell you about Burned, which will be published by Dutton Books in January. 

A few days ago I watched the conclusion to a court hearing on the murder case at the heart of Burned. It was a nail-biter, with the judge’s decision yet to be revealed. Here’s what he’s dealing with:

On an April night in 1989, three small children perished in a Los Angeles apartment fire. Their twenty-three-year-old mother, Jo Ann Parks, escaped unharmed, the sole survivor and only eyewitness. Though they at first believed the fire had been a tragic accident, arson investigators

soon decided that Parks had sabotaged wiring, set several fires herself, and even barricaded her four-year-old son inside a closet to make sure he could not escape the flames. The prosecutor on the case pronounced Parks one of the most monstrous killers in Los Angeles history, motivated by a desire to be free of parental responsibilities and eager to cash in by suing her landlords. Convicted through the power of forensic fire science, Parks remains in prison to this day, sentenced to life without possibility of parole. 

More than a quarter century later, however, there has been a revolution in the science of fire. Much of what was thought to be gospel in 1989 has been revealed to be myth and guesswork disguised as science. Now the Parks case has been reopened and re-investigated, the subject of an intense legal battle stretching over ten months in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Lawyers at the California Innocence Project hope to prove that false assumptions, tunnel vision and outright bias turned a terrible accident into a wrongful murder conviction. Parks, they say, has spent more than half her life in prison for a crime that never happened. 

Will Jo Ann Parks be exonerated? Should she be? Is she “Patient Zero” in an epidemic of wrongful arson convictions waiting to be overturned? Or can prosecutors come up with enough evidence from the ashes to make sure she dies in prison? No matter how this case turns out, someone will be left burned. 

This is my first true crime book in a while. I’m jazzed to be returning to the genre that started my career, with a murder mystery and tale of possible injustice that keeps you guessing until the very end. Stay tuned for more….

Read an excerpt of Burned here.