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Michael Brennan USC Post-Conviction Justice Project

USC law school’s Post-Conviction Justice Project changes the California Legal Landscape

June 5, 2017 11:09 pm

Since 1981, the program provides USC law student with the intense task of providing legal assistance to life-term inmates.


For over 30 years, the Post-Conviction Justice Project at USC has changed the lives of people who have been falsely accused of life sentences or denied their basic human rights. Co-director Michael Brennan has led the program since 1981 and continues to be inspired by his student interns.

Brennan is a professor at the USC Gould School of Law and specializes in three-strike law and the death penalty, as well as criminal defense and appeals. In addition to leading the Post-Conviction Justice Project, Brennan teaches Trial Advocacy where he instills essential techniques, such as a taking a strong stance in the courtroom, in his students. To learn more about Professor Brennan’s credentials and previous law experience, click here

Previous students are extremely grateful for their experience at the USC Gould Post-Conviction Justice Project. Under Brennan’s mentorship, alumni have had the opportunity to serve a multitude of clients in front of Board of Parole Hearings and all levels of the California Court system, while still in law school. Brennan continues to find motivation in the Justice Project and his students after 33 years of service.

“I think I’ve stuck with this so long because the work is so interesting,” he said. “The students change, the cases change and the processes change. It never gets old or boring.”

Fostering the future generation of lawyers

Brennan and co-director Heidi Rummel have provided USC law students with first-hand legal experience and training.

Prior to joining the USC Gould School of Law faculty, Rummel served in the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles from 1996-2005 prosecuting federal criminal civil rights offenses, including human trafficking, police misconduct, and hate crimes. She also prosecuted gang crimes, arson cases, and child pornography offenses, and served as deputy chief in the General Crimes Section. Previously, Rummel was an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, where she handled state court prosecutions and appellate matters. Rummel teaches a post-conviction clinical seminar, Legislative Policy Practicum, Criminal Law, Legal Analysis of Evidence, and Trial Advocacy. Click here to read more about Rummel and her involvement with the Justice Project.

Since the Justice Project started in 1981, more than 600 law students have assisted nearly 4,300 clients on matters ranging from consultation on civil issues related to incarceration to lawsuits challenging denials of constitutional rights. Students have advocated for new laws in Sacramento and approached the California Supreme Court to provide better representation for deserving clients from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Brennan maintains a firm and calm demeanor when working with clients. Even with strenuous cases, Brennan never loses his cool.

“Mike’s even-keeled devotion to his students’ development, along with his willingness to allow his students to own their cases and take risks, is something I will always appreciate,” says Adam Reich ’09, an attorney with Paul Hastings in Los Angeles.

The road to finding justice

When the Vietnam protests were rising in the mid-1960s, Brennan received his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He was the directing attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Fund, before becoming a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles and later taught clinical law at Emory University. He also took a position at a private law firm in L.A. but quickly became bored with the company’s legal work.

“I called a friend and said ‘I’ve got to do something else’,” Brennan recalled. “He told me that USC law was looking for a clinical professor to help supervise it [Post-Conviction Justice Project]. I got the job.”

The Post-Conviction Justice Project started by assisting male prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island. However, within ten years, students began representing state prisoners incarcerated at the California Institution for Women serving life-term sentences for murder. Many of their clients faced charges of first-degree murder for attacking their abusers.

As women at the institution learned of the Justice Project’s services, the student’s client base escalated quickly. However, receiving reduced life sentences for their clients was not easy. The court system was disinclined to exonerate life-term inmates, even women whose crimes stemmed from abuse after courts allowed expert testimony on intimate partner battering.

However, in 2008, USC law students successfully represented Sandra Davis-Lawrence before the California Supreme Court in a defining case for the state’s parole system. The students fought for Lawrence’s release after 24 years in prison based on undeniable evidence of her rehabilitation.

To learn more about the Sandra Davis-Lawrence case, read this article about how the court decision made history.

Paving a new path

After the Lawrence decision, the Project became increasingly successful at securing grants of parole and court-ordered release for its clients. Since 1994, the Post-Conviction Justice Project has obtained the release of more than fifty inmates from the California Institution for Women. Since last summer, the Project has successfully obtained grants of parole for eleven inmates — five were granted parole by the Board of Parole Hearings and approved by the Governor, and six were released through the successful litigation of writs of habeas corpus.

Rummel and Brennan continue to expand client base within the Justice Project. Since 2010, USC law students represent of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Additionally, they advocated for the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which was enforced in 2013.

“If you told me 30 years ago that I would still be here, I’d think you were crazy,” Brennan said. “But this is what keeps me going.”

Go to the Post-Conviction Justice Project website, http://uscpcjp.com/, to read the stories of its students, clients, and past cases.

If you are interested in learning more about the vast programs offered by the esteemed Gould School of Law, explore its website, http://gould.usc.edu/, to find out how to apply and read about more of its highly acclaimed faculty.