Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Exoneration of Brian Banks Leads to Shot at NFL

By Conor Flahive & Marisa Mandos

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More than 10 years after his dreams of playing college football were shattered by a rape conviction, Brian Banks is getting a second chance. On June 7, Pete Carroll, the same coach that offered the 6’2, 245 pound Long Beach phenom a full scholarship to play for USC, will give Banks the opportunity to work-out for the Seattle Seahawks in hopes of making the team.

Why? Because Brian Banks is innocent.

Brian is around the same age as us, 26. Like us, he loves sports. He was, after all, on his way to attending USC on a full football scholarship – until he was arrested and wrongly convicted for kidnapping and rape.

The American justice system has historically prided itself on the notion that it is far worse to convict an innocent person than to let a guilty person go free, but sometimes things don’t always pan out like they should. There is simply no justification for an innocent person being convicted but, unfortunately, it happens frequently. In May, researchers from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools released a report identifying 873 wrongful convictions since 1988. The report, part of a database that tries to pinpoint the problem of flawed judicial outcomes, found that 46 percent of the examined cases were sexual assaults, over half of the cases involved African-Americans, and over half of the convictions were the result of perjury or false accusations.

Unsurprisingly, the database’s most recent addition, Brian Banks, is an African-American that was convicted of sexual assault as a result of a false accusation by the alleged victim.

The story began in the summer of 2002, when Banks went into a stairwell with his childhood friend Wanetta Gibson. When they came out, Gibson accused him of rape. Despite the complete absence of any evidence, Banks’ attorney urged him to take a plea bargain - a plea bargain that Banks would a decade later profess in a press conference attended by us here at the thesportzbroz.com “destroyed his life.”

Although hesitant to so easily concede guilt in exchange for the encumbering conditions he would face serving the plea agreement’s six-year prison sentence, the possibility of losing at trial and facing forty-one years to life was daunting. Banks, a naive, 16-year-old African-American, on advice of counsel, and in fear of losing his case in front of an all-white jury, reluctantly accepted the plea deal.

The truth is, legal decisions in court cases are often made for pragmatic reasons, not factual reasons. The criminal justice system is often about evaluating options in light of other options, and taking the lesser of two evils. A plea bargain is used mainly as a vehicle for expeditious convenience. It allows prosecutors to perpetually deposit citizens into the criminal justice system. It allows defense attorneys to dispose of cases with virtually no effort, regardless of the guilt or innocence of their clients.

Brian Banks chose to plead guilty not because he hoped to atone for his sins but because he was convinced that it was a reasonable path, if not the only path, out of the fire. Unfortunately, Banks quickly realized that he had jumped from the frying pan directly into the fire. Banks served five years and two months in prison without a clue about what to do while those responsible for putting him in prison went on with their daily lives. Prosecutors continued to offer plea bargains to ensure a conviction, and defense attorneys continued to advise their clients to accept the pleas based on factors such as size, age, and race. Wanetta Gibson’s mother even successfully sued the Long Beach school system for $1.5 million.

Then, in a strange twist of events, in February 2011, five years after Brian Banks had been released, Wanetta Gibson contacted Banks. Gibson avowed that no rape ever took place, that she had lied about everything, and she was willing to help him clear his record. During a second encounter that was secretly videotaped, she told banks, “I will go through with helping you but it's like at the same time all that money they gave us, I mean gave me, I don't want to have to pay it back."

With the valuable tape recordings in hand, Banks contacted the California Innocence Project in San Diego.
Sidenote: Founded in 1999, the Innocence Project is a clinical program at California Western School of Law that reviews more than 2,000 claims of innocence from California inmates each year.

Photo taken by Marisa Mandos. 

With the help of professor Justin Brooks, the Innocence Project’s director, and a small army of law students, Banks moved to dismiss all charges in a Long Beach Superior Court. In a May 25 hearing, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Brentford Ferreira conceded that after reviewing the evidence, his office believed the case should be dismissed. Superior Court Judge Mark C. Kim, who presided over the original case, concurred and quickly announced that Banks would be exonerated of all charges.

Not only did the conviction come off his record, but the electronic monitor comes off his ankle and he no longer has to register as a sex offender.

When Justin Brooks was asked how Banks could thank the Innocence Project, he said “the way [Brian] thanks us is by having a good life.” For Banks, that includes a second chance at football, a chance he never thought he would get.

Whether Banks will find a career in the NFL remains to be seen. The success stories of Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress immediately come to mind, although they may not be archetypes for Banks. Vick and Burress both returned to the gridiron after being incarcerated. However, each had already proven his stardom in the NFL prior to being locked up, and each was only in prison for a short period of time.

That being said, Vick and Burress are world-class athletes who made big mistakes and got second chances. Banks, too, is a powerhouse, but he hasn’t had a first chance - not even at the college level. 
Brooks stated, “This guy is ready to play in the NFL.” And if you don’t believe him, check this out.

Still, what has come to be known as “The Brian Banks Story” raises two major issues in America’s criminal justice structure. 
First, the plea bargaining system has an innocence problem. Defense attorneys should use caution in recommending that their clients accept plea bargains when clients adamantly assert innocence (and there is no evidence to the contrary). Second, although the “Innocence Revolution has increasingly received attention in the past few years, wrongful convictions are still a huge problem. The battle to free someone wrongly convicted of a crime can be long and arduous, and false rape accusations in particular cause a powerful ripple throughout a victim’s life.

Ten years ago, we had dreams of becoming attorneys. Ten years ago, Banks had dreams of becoming a football player. We came to California Western School of law because we wanted to use the law as a tool to improve the lives of others, and we have continued to pursue our dreams so that others like Brian are afforded the opportunity to pursue theirs.

The public is left frustrated from stories like this– wanting to help, but not knowing how. The answer is supporting programs like the California Innocence Project because although there are many more “Brian Banks’” out there, there are simply not enough resources to exonerate them... yet.

To contact Conor and Marisa about this story, follow them on twitter at @ConorFlahive, @MarisaMandos, or, send a request email to sportzbroz@gmail.com to be connected directly.
To donate to the California Innocence Project, visit their website: CaliforniaInnocenceProject.com

To see Brian Banks on The Jay Leno Show, tune into NBC on Wednesday, June 6th.

And Like “The Brian Banks Story” on Facebook at Facebook.com/TheBrianBanksStory


  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing this important story!

  2. Thanks for covering the story! You guys are the best!

  3. UPDATE: The Seattle Seahawks violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement's offseason workout rules on the prohibition of live contact during one of the club's OTA days. As a result, the Seahawks will forfeit two of their scheduled OTA practices (June 6 and 7) as well as an additional offseason workout day on Friday, June 8. Seahawks' players are not permitted to be at the facility on those days.

    How does this affect Brian's scheduled workout? This morning on the Dori Monson show, Pete Carroll said Banks would still be put through practice drills tomorrow to see if he can "capture his dream." That being said, Banks should still assess whether the scope of his workout was amended. If the workout has been amended and Banks has less of an opportunity to showcase his assets, he may want to reschedule!

  4. The 873 wrongful convictions is hard to stomach. If you don't count 2012, that averages out to a little over 36 people each year...absurd.

    On a more positive note, phenomenal post and an even better story. I hope he makes it, God knows he deserves it.

  5. In case anyone hasn't heard...Banks had a successful workout today and has been cleared for Seahawks minicamps...!