"Brooks and Chinn: Making Dreams Come True"

In August of 1987, three events occurred, thousands of miles apart, involving three men.  In Philadelphia, Justin Brooks began the drive to Washington, D.C. to begin his life as a 1L at Washington College of Law. In the California Bay Area, Jeff Chinn boarded a plane to Washington, D.C. to also begin life as a 1L at WCL.  In Los Angeles, Timothy Atkins was sentenced to 32 years-to-life for first degree murder and two counts of armed robbery.  20 years later their lives would come together.

At WCL, Chinn first met Brooks at a 1L study group meeting and they soon became best friends.   From there, their lives and legal careers continued to intertwine.  Brooks says that “I even met my wife at Jeff’s house.”  Throughout law school, it also became apparent that both would pursue careers in public interest.   One of their joint activities as 1Ls was to teach Street Law lessons at a D.C. youth home for juvenile delinquents.  From there, they began a long period of working at jobs together including managing a local video store.

After graduation, Brooks became a fellow with the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown University Law School.  Chinn worked there for a short period of time and that led directly to a job as program director at Street Law, Inc., where he directed a law-related education programs for youths involved with the D.C. juvenile court.  

For a short time Brooks’ and Chinn’s career paths split.   Brooks went to Lansing, Michigan to become a professor at Thomas Cooley Law School, specializing in criminal law.  Chinn continued working at Street Law and eventually returned to WCL as Assistant Director and Public Interest Coordinator in the Office of Career Services.   However, both continually talked about finding a public interest project where they could once again put their talents to use together as a team.  Chinn says that “once Justin moved to Michigan, I didn’t think we would be able to work as a team again.  We often talked about different projects, but nothing ever worked out.”

In 1999, Brooks became Executive Director of the Institute for Criminal Defense Advocacy at California Western School of Law in San Diego and set out to create an innocence project clinic at the school.   The California Innocence Project was born.  The Project investigates claims of wrongful convictions in Southern California.  In early 2002, CIP received a CA state grant which included money for a new staff attorney.  Brooks called Chinn and offered him a position as Assistant Director and case manager.

Since then the project has grown and become very successful.  Brooks and Chinn supervise the 12 students who work in the clinic, as well as more than 50 volunteers, and the Project reviews approximately 800 requests for assistance each year.  The Project’s work has led to the release of five wrongfully convicted men in the past four years.  Chinn has worked on two successful compensation cases totaling more than $1 million for wrongfully convicted clients.   

Tim Atkins is one of the clients who has benefited from the work of the Project.  He sat in prison while Brooks and Chinn were in law school and for 17 more years after they graduated waiting for someone to listen to his story and help him fight for his freedom.  The Project took his case and found a key witness whose testimony was used to reverse his conviction.  At Atkins’ evidentiary hearing, Brooks argued that the new evidence showed Atkins was factually innocent, and in February of 2007, an LA Superior Court judge overturned Atkins’ conviction and he left prison as a free man for the first time in over 20 years.  A couple of months later, Atkins met Chinn in San Diego to talk about his compensation claim and to be honored by local criminal defense attorneys for his struggle for freedom.   Brooks says that “seeing Tim as a free man is a moment that Jeff and I have dreamed about since law school – to be working together for a cause that we believe in and to fight for clients against the injustice.”