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Court frees inmate in first court victory for law school's Northern California Innocence Project

Thursday, Jan. 24, 2002

SANTA CLARA, Calif.-Jan.24, 2002 - A Fresno Superior Court judge has ordered the release of a Fresno man after nearly six years in a California prison, exonerating him of gun possession charges in the first courtroom victory for the Northern California Innocence Project since it was begun a year ago by the Santa Clara University School of Law.

Fresno Superior Court Judge Ralph Nunez, with no objection from prosecutors, on Jan.23 granted a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of Ronald Reno by Linda Starr, attorney for the Innocence Project.

Reno, 39, had been in prison since his April 1996 arrest. On the advice of his trial attorney, Reno initially had pleaded guilty to the gun charge and was sentenced to 25 years to life under the state's "three-strike" sentencing law.

SCU law professor Cookie Ridolfi, who is director of the Northern California Innocence Project and worked with Starr on the case, said Reno had always claimed that the gun belonged to another man. That man, Preston Marsh, could not be located, and Reno was pressured by his lawyer to plead guilty, Ridolfi said.

The Innocence Project, operated by the SCU law school, took over the case last spring, after Reno encountered Marsh in the state's Pleasant Valley correctional facility in Coalinga. Ridolfi and Starr, working with SCU law students Ami Mudd and Marina Jorgensen conducted research, obtained affidavits and filed the habeas corpus petition that was granted this week, freeing Reno.

"Within its first year of operation, a client of the Northern California Innocence Project has been exonerated. This a clear demonstration that there are in fact innocent people in California prisons, and much more work needs to be done to identify and free them." Ridolfi said. The project, begun in February 2001, now has a caseload of approximately 700 cases, said Ridolfi.

The project has scheduled an anniversary event on Feb. 14 at the SCU campus, she said. A fund-raising auction and reception at 5:30 p.m. in the Adobe Lodge will be followed by a speech by Peter Neufeld, one of the founders of the National Innocence Network, and co-author of the best-selling book, Actual Innocence. Ridolfi also said that the Palo Alto law firm of Morrison and Foerster will be recognized for their work in writing and filing an amicus brief on behalf of the project before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Northern California Innocence Project is part of the National Innocence Network, begun by the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City. The SCU-based project handles Northern California cases, while the only other project of its kind in the state, at Cal Western School of Law in San Diego, takes on Southern California cases. There are approximately 20 similar projects nationwide.

Ridolfi said that the SCU law school, consistent with the University's mission to promote social justice, is providing some faculty support and office space for the Northern California Innocence Project, at 874 Lafayette St, Santa Clara.

The SCU School of Law, founded in 1912, combines a tradition of excellence with a commitment to ethics, diversity, and social justice, and is fully accredited by the American Bar Association. Its 900 students work in criminal and civil community law clinics, and may earn certificates in intellectual property law, international law or public interest law. Santa Clara University, located in the heart of northern California's Silicon Valley, is a Jesuit university with 7,350 students. Ranked second among regional universities in the West by U.S. News & World Report, SCU is known nationally for its graduate and professional schools and its strong undergraduate curriculum.

For more information about the Innocence Project, see www.ncip.scu.edu . To find more about the Reno case, or arrange an interview with Prof. Ridolfi, call 408-554-5126.

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