Photo of Serena Witherspoon

Serena Witherspoon

  • Hosted by UnCommon Law
  • Sponsored by Apple, Baker McKenzie
  • Service location Oakland, California
  • Law school University of California College of the Law, San Francisco
  • Issue area Criminal Justice Reform, Racial Justice
  • Fellowship class year 2021
  • Program Design-Your-Own Fellowship

The Project

Serena (she/her/hers) will work to support incarcerated people with innocence claims as they navigate California’s parole process.

Since 1989, there have been 236 exonerations on the basis of wrongful convictions in California alone. Today, we have the benefit of years of research that has informed us as to which criminal procedure practices carry a high risk of error and can no longer be used to secure a criminal conviction. However, this information provides no retroactive benefit to correct the miscarriage of justice experienced by many people who remain in prison despite those exact practices being used to convict them in years past.

Although an incarcerated person’s plausible innocence claim is not supposed to be grounds for denying a parole request, under the current California parole process there is no framework that the parole board can look to in determining exactly how plausible innocence is established. The parole process needs a framework that can reliably establish when an innocence claim is plausible. Innocent people deserve every opportunity to secure justice.

Serena’s work in the parole process motivates her commitment to improving incarcerated people’s opportunities to advocate for their release.

Fellowship Plans 

During her Fellowship, Serena will represent people with plausible innocence claims who are eligible for release under California’s parole process. In collaboration with criminal procedure experts, she will design a framework that provides factors that establish when an innocence claim is plausible. Ultimately, she will design a training based on her findings to present to the Parole Board so that it has better tools to make determinations regarding innocence claims.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know and working with a man who has been incarcerated for 45 years for a crime he has always maintained he did not commit. He deserves a meaningful opportunity to fight for his freedom. Every incarcerated person does.

Serena Witherspoon /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

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