On May 11th, 1990 to Marilyn, Milera was with a group of people mourning a friend who had recently been killed by the Latin Kings. The group split up and Marilyn went out with a friend and another mourner who they both had met that night. Jackie Montanas, who had her own sordid history with that gang at around midnight. The three were driving near Humboldt Park when two guys who knew Jackie called out to her at a light. They all agreed to meet in the park to hang out.
It turned out that these two men were members of the Latin Kings. Jackie lured one of them into the bathroom to make out, and when he stopped to urinate, shot him in the back of the head. When she emerged alone, the other man asked about his friend and Jackie shot him to Marilyn and her friend were caught completely unaware and panicked. They fled the scene. Then the case fell into the hands of two of Chicago's now most infamous detectives who used incentivise snitches, false eyewitness testimony and coercive interrogation tactics to pull Marilyn and her friend into a case that should have rested squarely on Jackie Martinez's shoulders.
Then Marilyn's hired attorney inexplicably advised her to plead guilty while getting nothing in return from the prosecutors sending her directly to death row. News of this case would reach then twenty nine year old law professor Justin Brookes, and it drove him to uproot his life and begin a two and a half decade long quest to expose the misdeeds of those detectives and have the evidence of Morillas innocence. Finally heard. She was released on April 8th, 20 20. This is wrongful conviction with Jason Blup.
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Paul Weiss has long had an unwavering commitment to providing impactful, pro bono legal assistance to the most vulnerable members of our society and in support of the public interest, including extensive work in the criminal justice area. Welcome back to Wrongful Conviction with Jason Pflum today we have an episode for you that is deeply personal to me, but it's even more personal to our second guest today. Justin Brooks is the founder and director of the California Innocence Project. Justin, welcome back to Wrongful Conviction.
Always a pleasure, Jason. Thank you. And I'm about to introduce one of the most extraordinary people and stories that I've ever met or heard. And when I say that Marilyn Melero, who I'm going to introduce in a second, was sentenced to death in the 90s in Illinois after pleading guilty to a crime she didn't commit. So her attorney did such a terrible job that he actually resigned from the bar after the trial and became a priest.
Marilyn, I'm so sorry that you have to be here because of what you went through, but I'm so happy you're here. So welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. So this whole insane story began around midnight on May 11th and into May 12th, 1992, when two members of the Latin Kings were shot and killed in and around a bathroom in Chicago's Humboldt Park. But, Marilyn, I want to go back. Even before that, you were just 21 years old.
What was your life like before all of this happened?
Well, I was a mother of two. I used to work two jobs, live with my brother. I sold drugs at the time to help pay for the bills. I mean, a single woman of mother to it's very difficult to pay for bills on your own. So I had to choose another method to bring some sort of income and selling marijuana and cocaine was one of them. So you really had three jobs, two legal ones and one in the shadows.
But no judgment here. I'm not a religious person, but let them who is without sin, cast the first stone. And Justin, can you take us back to what happened and how the hell they decided to focus on an innocent woman when in fact they could have and probably did know all along who the real perpetrator was of this awful crime. Yeah.
So, I mean, this case, Jason, and we can get into each one of these elements as we go along, involves every cause of wrongful conviction that you discussed on this podcast. This case involved the false confession, false informant testimony, a bad identification, a bad lawyer, bad judges and bad cops.
So pretty much all the causes of wrongful conviction occurred together was the perfect storm, which led Maryland to spend twenty seven years in prison for a crime she didn't commit.
This case was such an insane injustice that it actually led you to give up your life as you knew it and found an Innocence Project, right?
Yeah, this this case changed my life. This I heard about it.
I was at the time in Michigan teaching law school.
And I read in the newspaper about this young woman, Marilyn Milera, who had been sentenced to death on a plea bargain.
And when I read that, I thought, how could she possibly have been sentenced to death on a plea bargain? It's it's a plea, but it's certainly not a bargain. And, you know, there's supposed to be some kind of negotiated result where you get a lesser sentence as a result of you giving up all the rights that you have to give up in a plea agreement and you're giving up your right to trial. You're giving up a lot of your appellate rights and you know, you're going directly to jail.
And with her, she went directly to death row. And I was so shocked by it that I found out more about her case. I ended up meeting with her on death row. She was scheduled for execution. And I remember the day vividly more than twenty five years ago, sitting across from Marilyn and saying, how did you end up here? And she told me this remarkable story about how this lawyer who had never handled a case like this in the past, had no training on death penalty litigation, never negotiated anything with the prosecution, played her straight up to a homicide case.
And the result was she was sentenced to death. And then she said the most amazing thing, which is and I'm innocent. And so I went back to the law school where I was teaching and I told my students her story and I said, you know, who wants to help me out on this case? And for brave souls raise their hands. And we started investigating it. And everywhere we looked, we found out that she was innocent and that her case was a complete fabrication.
Yes, of course, you know, when you first told me about this case where however I learned about it, I became obsessed with it as well, and it's kept me up many nights and I was so thrilled when it finally resolved. It was nice for you. And I have something else to talk about.
OK, so let's go back to May 11th, 1990, to Maryland out driving around with Jackie Montanas and another friend around midnight or so the night before a mutual friends funeral who had been killed by the Latin Kings. They were near Humboldt Park and they met two guys who knew Jackie, Jimmy Cruz and Hector Reyes. You know, these guys saw these three girls and they started chatting at the light and all three women went to Humboldt Park with these two guys who were members of the Latin Kings.
Jackie went into the bathroom with one of the men they were making out in the bathroom. He turned around to urinate and she pulled a gun out and shot them in the back of the head. She then leaves the bathroom. And then there's two stories. The story that convicted Marilyn, which we ultimately proved to be false, was that Jackie walked over, handed the gun to Marilyn, and then she shot the second victim. What we now know happened was Jackie came out of the bathroom, the other guy said, you know, where's my homeboy?
She makes a joke about it. She laughs and says he's taking a shit. He turns around and she walks over and shoots him in the back of the head in the exact same manner. Wait, so I have a couple of questions, but let's just start with this. How did they all not hear the gunshot from inside the bathroom? Yeah, we actually had a former homicide detective go to the park because I never understood why the guy outside wouldn't be fully alerted to what happened, but apparently because it was low caliber bullet and it was a contact killing, meaning the gun was actually on the back of his head.
His head actually acted as a sort of silencer. So there wasn't a lot of noise, even though it was a tiled bathroom.
Do we know why Jackie did what she did? So what Jackie has has said over the years is her motivation was a friend of hers was killed by the Latin Kings. But there's also been a lot of talk about that.
She was doing it to rise up in the gang, to be seen as someone who would do something like this.
So what did Marilyn do when the shooting happened? Well, Marilyn and the other girl are in shock. They see what happened. They run. And, of course, you know, when you run, it's going to be equated to guilt. Neither Marilyn nor her other friend knew what Jackie Martinez was up to that night. And then ultimately they're arrested walking out of this funeral that we've been talking about for their friend who'd been killed by the Latin Kings.
And Marilyn, can you give us just from your perspective, so here you were, a mother of two, you're snatched off the street after this funeral and you and 15 year old Jackie Montanas, the woman that girl really who actually committed this crime were brought down to the Latin Kings. And Detective, I can't believe they did this. Detectives tell them, quote unquote, these are the two girls that killed your homeboys, which put you at immediate and grave risk that threatens to make your kids into orphans.
And then the cops bring you down to the station, deny you legal representation, interrogate you for around 20 hours without any sleep. And ultimately, you signed a statement that they had prepared. It was a terrible moment. We had just left a funeral. The detectives just came straight and arrested Montanas and myself. Then they parked they received a phone call. Once they hung up with the phone call, they took us to Humboldt Park. We sat there for like a good ten minutes and they were questioning us.
I did not answer anything. After the ten minutes they took us to the beach and Spaulding, they displayed us before the Latin Kings.
And that must have been terrifying in and of itself at that moment. All I thought it was my ending was right there. You know, somebody is going to pull the trigger and kill us both. Then they took us to Grennan Central, place us in separate rooms. And from then on, that's where the interrogation began. They took turns Detective Guevarra Helverson and kept questioning me over and over, trying to get me to admit that I've committed one of the crimes which I kept telling them I did not.
So the interrogation kept going back and forth between Guevarra and Helverson. They wanted me to say something that I could not say. They wanted me to lie and I didn't want to lie. But they kept pressuring me and pressuring me. And it's just, you know, it becomes too where you like, what the hell? Just leave me the hell alone. And, you know, I spent time just crying and it was like they didn't care if they didn't care about the tears.
They didn't care about how I felt. They didn't care about, you know, how they were pressuring me, you know. And so, you know, mentally, emotionally and physically, it was very draining.
So, Justin, why was Marilyn in their sights and how did they come to focus on her?
So this case started for Marilyn with a combination of some corrupt detectives, Detective Guevarra and Halvorson, who, by the way, have been linked to now dozens of exonerations in Chicago and more than fifty million dollars in settlements for wrongful convictions. So you have a couple of corrupt detectives and a snitch who's just making stuff up and gave three separate statements that kept changing in order for them to be consistent with the detective story. And it started with her saying that Jackie Montanas had been bragging about these killings.
Then once they got Marilyn into the mix, then she changed the story and said that Jackie just took credit for one of the murders. And then once they got a confession out of Marilyn, after keeping her for nearly 24 hours in custody and keeping her up all night, then they built this new story where now the snitch claims to have seen these girls before the shooting and had said that they were going to go do the.
Shooting in gang vernacular, which was that apparently they said we're going to roll on some flakes, and by the way, the snitch had been charged with a drug crime that night, which, of course, was later on dropped after they used her testimony. And all this was to build in the evidence they needed to make their case and they would just literally just making up their case as they went along.
So it started with corrupt detectives and a snitch and then it went downhill from there.
Now, Marilyn, you've now gone through this unbelievable ordeal. No sleep, 20 something hours in the police station. And you signed a statement prepared by the police. At that point, you probably would have signed anything to make this sort of torture stop. But did you understand what this meant? I mean, you were implicating yourself in both murders. One is the shooter and the other as a conspirator, right?
Well, that was not explained to me at that point. And at that time, I did not know the difference. You know, when they're telling you. Well, if you want to grow old and see your kids and this is your best bet that you take the blame from one of the murders and Jackie Montanas will take the blame for the other. So it's like they leave you with no choice because you're going to put your children's before anything. So I just went ahead and signed that statement.
And of course, there's more insanity coming our way. Right, because there's a witness who ends up testifying to seeing the murders from her apartment window, even though we find out later. Right. I guess just in your investigation uncovers some interesting things about that. Sure.
So after they use this snitch testimony to get to Maryland, they now have to build the case up.
And this woman claimed to see the shooting from her apartment.
And the first weekend I was working on this case, I drove to Chicago with my students and stood right in front of her apartment building.
And it was crazy because all you had to do was go to the park to realize that she was lying. And when I measured it off the distance between her apartment and the bathroom where the shooting occurred, in front of it was four hundred and eighty nine feet. And she claimed at night in the dark, with hardly any lighting, she saw Jackie hand this gun to Marilyn and do the shooting. Now, this is like saying you were sitting in a football stadium behind one end zone in the dark and you saw someone hand somebody a hot dog behind the opposite end zone.
I'm going to take your analogy one step further, because four hundred and eighty nine feet is closer to two football fields and it's dark and there was foliage in the way. Right. So, I mean, they don't even have that kind of football stadium there was even with foliage. So there you go with your law students and it takes you five minutes to realize that this whole thing is complete horseshit. It was factually impossible for her to see what she said and nobody investigated it.
Now, when we finally tracked her down, coincidentally, the one person who said they saw this shooting, the one person in the city of Chicago, was in a relationship with one of the victims and none of that stuff was ever reported or investigated.
So that's the bad identification portion of this case. So now we have bad cops, bad snitch testimony and bad identification.
And then there's this lawyer, this lawyer in quotes, Jeremiah Lynch.
So he was hired to represent Maryland. There were friends who hired him. He was paid a retainer.
I don't know if he capitulated his role in this case because he figured there was no more money coming. So why not just play this out? A death penalty cases takes a lot of time and energy and doing a trial, it's very expensive and time consuming. But he took this ten thousand dollar retainer and as a result, he had a couple of meetings with Maryland, short meetings, and he didn't meet with the district attorney and he didn't go to the crime scene, even though later on when he was questioned, he wasn't that far away, his office from the crime scene.
And he claimed that maybe he jogged by there one time, just basic stuff wasn't done. And he had no training in this. And this was his final case as a lawyer. After Marilyn was sentenced to death, he actually took off out of the courtroom and it took me a year to find him.
Usually lawyers are easy to find that when I found out he was studying to be a priest at University of Detroit and he now is a Catholic priest. And, you know, if this was a movie, we'd have to change his name because it would be too corny that his name was Father Lynch. And he literally did lynch Marilyn in this case due to his incompetence. The Pacers Foundation is a proud supporter of this episode and of the Last Mile organization, which provides business and tech training to help incarcerated individuals successfully and permanently re-enter the workforce.
The Pacers Foundation is committed to improving the lives of Hoosiers across Indiana, supporting organizations dedicated primarily to helping young people and students. For more information on the work of the Pacers Foundation or The Last Mile program, visit Pacers Foundation dog for the last mile, dawg. So Marilyns lawyer, this tax lawyer who's now a priest, gave her terrible investigators, strong counsel, because when you plead guilty, there's almost always some sort of a deal made in leniency given.
But in this case, there was no deal on the table. So she doesn't even get a trial. And on top of that, her right to present evidence of innocence at that time and into the appellate process had been waived. So she went straight to a sentencing hearing in front of a jury. And it's just the prosecution telling 12 normal, everyday people what a terrible, violent, evil person she is. And then there's the question of whether she gets death or whether she gets life in prison.
Now, the reason there was so incompetent, it's because you could at least make an argument if the sentencing was being done by a judge that the judge had sort of off the record indicated this isn't going to be a death case, but when it's a jury, you have no assurances of anything. So the jury now gets to hear everything that the prosecution wants to put on a crime scene, photos of dead bodies, testimony from the victim's family, all these things in the sentencing phase of a death case.
And Marilyn ends up getting sentenced to death.
And it's worth noting that Illinois I don't know how long ago it was more than 10 years ago there was a professor at Northwestern who assigned his students to find innocent people on death row and the students found 11 innocent people on death row. Students, by the way, and at that point, Governor Ryan, at the end of his term, commuted the death sentences of everyone on death row in Illinois because he realized that I think during his term they'd executed ten people.
And here these students had found 11 innocent ones. So his you know, they weren't even batting 500, even if they got it right on the ones they executed. And it's extremely unlikely that they didn't execute some innocent people along the way. So, you know, they were maybe getting it right about three out of 10 times. And we're talking about the death penalty, for Christ sakes. So, Marilyn, can you give us some insight into what it was like on death row as a young mother now separated from her children thrown into this Twilight Zone nightmare?
Well, when I first arrived to Dwight and I was taken to Cottage 15, where it's basically segregation and they have a wing where they held the death row inmates. And it's basically glass where segregation inmates can see the different inmates. And they put me past that glass into a cell. And I went in the room. They had brought me some boxes with clothing, all my beatings and everything that's required from the institution to give it to you and wouldn't make my bed.
I just sat there and started praying and I just kept praying and praying, got on my knees. And I'm like, Lord, just take the reins, whatever, you know, whatever you want me to do, I'm here and I'm going to do it, you know, just let me be at ease. Let me be at peace. Let me be right by you and let me get through this as fast as I can. You know, it was a beginning of a new start for me away from everybody and getting to know new people.
And the officer came back and saw me praying and kind of disturbed me like, hey, Miss Melero, would you like the Chuck Hall open? And I'm like, sure, left the chuckle open. The girls came by, introduced himself to me, and they sat there and they prayed with me, you know, through the Chocho. And so, you know, it was like. An experience being back there on death row, I try to stay as active as I possibly could.
Back there, you know, you're not allowed to be with other offenders, but the people that were back there. So we had moments where we were able to come out an hour at a time or two people at a time. I enjoyed it for the most part. Not that I enjoy being on death row, but the way I was treated. I was loved and cared for. I was tend to they would always constantly pray for me. We had lieutenants and officers, you know, kind of stay back there with us, keeping us company and praying with us.
And because you get to know these officers, if they're a part of you, you know, they no longer become officers. You know, some of them are compassionate and their heart goes out to you and they try to spend as much time as they possibly can, you know, keeping you on a positive note. And majority of the times, I would stay in my room and I would try to sleep my days away. And the officer were like, Miss Miller, get up, get up, let's go, let's go to the yard or whatever.
And I would go just to, you know, stay motivated. I try to do some schooling. I enrolled in myself for college within three months. They came back and told us back there that we were not worthy enough to take any schooling because we were different inmates. We were, you know, about to be executed. So they took the schooling from us. And one of the ladies back there decided that, hey, OK, so let's get some sponsors.
Let's write the church and see if they would, you know, sponsor us and pay for some schooling for us. And that's what we did. We started writing several churches, organizations to try to see if we got sponsors. You know, I was blessed to get to different sponsors, to get some of my education. You know, I have diploma certificates right now and I have like four more modules left before I attain my associate's degree on theology.
And it hasn't been easy. It's been kind of a rough time in prison because prison's not designed for you to be comfortable as a sign for you to be uncomfortable, for you to stay in trouble. But it all determines on the individual inside. And what is it that you want to do and accomplish while you're there? So I was determined to do the right thing, not just by me, but for my children and my family and for my attorneys who are fighting hard to get my release.
So I owed it to everybody, not just myself. So I pretty much stay busy trying to stay focused on a positive note while I was there.
Do you think they knew you were innocent? Yes, they did. They knew from the moment that I got there, because before my arrival, Montanas was already at Dweik Correctional Centre and she was always bragging about, you know, killing these guys. So they already knew that I was innocent.
And just and Jackie signed affidavits and admitted verbally numerous times that she alone planned and executed the murders.
So these are the arguments that we made for years and years and years.
But the problem was no one was willing to listen to them as long as that police stood and Maryland never had an opportunity to present this evidence in a trial.
So the process of how the hell this thing finally unraveled itself. It took the better part of two and a half decades. Really, right? Yeah.
Twenty twenty five years. I was working on it. I mean, when I started this case, to put it in context, I was twenty nine and Marilyn was twenty four and now I'm fifty five. And I won't say how old Marilyn is, but it's been a long journey. So now that death sentence got reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court because the prosecution got greedy in the sentencing phase. And then the prosecution's closing argument to the jury actually said, you know, ladies and gentlemen, Miss Molaro filed a motion to suppress her confession in this case that shows she has no remorse and that's another reason to sentence her to death.
Now, the problem with that argument is you're basically saying because somebody asserted a constitutional right, they should be executed based on that.
And when it went in front of the Illinois Supreme Court, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Maryland's favor to reverse the death sentence, saying you cannot use a constitutional right as an aggravating circumstance. And also, we don't even see a logical connection between a lawyer filing a motion and then a person not having remorse. So then we went back to a new sentencing. I handled that sentencing along with the Chicago Public Defender's Office. I first tried to get an all the innocence evidence, but it was very difficult because they didn't want to hear it, because they said this isn't about whether she's innocent or guilty.
This is about whether she gets sentenced to death because the court refused to withdraw her plea. So Maryland's always been stuck with this plea. She then gets sentenced to natural life, which was the best case scenario out of that proceeding. And then we start this two decades long odyssey trying to get her out of prison or get her a new trial. I took the case up on appeal. From there, we went into federal court. We argued the ineffective assistance of counsel, federal court, the oral argument, whether it was really frustrating.
One of the justices kept saying, well, it was her decision to plead. And I said, Your Honor, this is like going to a doctor's office and they say you're going to be dead in ten minutes if you don't have open heart surgery. And you saying, OK, were right to effective assistance of counsel means getting good advice. And there was no way this advice was good. But I lost a petition. The U.S. Supreme Court lost petitioned the governor's office three separate times for clemency.
I filed a petition in the United Nations trying to declare Chicago's justice system as a human rights violation, where they allow people to plead guilty and get death on a plea bargain. And due to all the incompetence in this case, the United Nations has still not ruled on that petition. So there's been a lot of proceedings and ultimately the most successful one occurred just a few months ago. And that was finally another petition to the governor asking for her release, laying the case out that evidence and never really seen the light of day.
It's madness. I mean, the idea that she was prevented from presenting overwhelming evidence of innocence is not. It's absolutely nuts is a terrible indictment of our system. There should be some mechanism for justice to see the light of day. Of course, the last resort in this case was a clemency from the governor.
And by the way, it wasn't just me that petition for that. It was the exoneration project, the Illinois Innocence Project. As you said, there's been a lot of innocence work in Chicago over the past few decades and a lot of great lawyers and organizations that were doing it. I know I called so many people trying to get this on the governor's desk that probably people listening were like, oh, you bothered about this case for so long. But anyway, it doesn't matter, because the point is that it finally worked.
So Maryland, so October 9th of twenty nineteen, there's a clemency hearing and then there's a God. Almost seven months go by the day until April six. Twenty, twenty. How did you find out that the governor had granted clemency? I had surgery not too long ago, and one of the officers upset with me at the hospital ended up working with Internal Affairs and she came to my room. She's like, Hey, Marilyn, I need to see you.
And I'm like, yeah, everybody's like, oh, shucks, I scare higher contraband, you know? So she's like, no, come here. I need to speak to you. I'm like, OK. And she's like, do you know? And I'm like, oh my God, you're leaving me too. And she's like, oh, you don't know. I'm like, don't know what she whispered in my ear. She's like, No, you're going home.
I'm like, stop playing with me. And she's like, I'm for real. I'm like playing with my emotions. This is not funny. I love you. You're good to me. You are good to me then. But right now you're kind of working a little nerve. She's like, no, no, I'm for real. She's like, Officer Dorsey is up there at the business office right now shutting down your account when all your paperwork, the people for the parole board is coming to see you, you need to sign the paperwork.
The governor is sending you your release form. You need to sign it. I said, I believe it when I see it. And I looked at her and she's like, I'm for real. I'm like, OK, I believe you. So then there is two officers who are just they go above and beyond. They're very compassionate. And I'm very fond of them because they break their neck to help women in there. And Lamar and Hardison were like, Miss Melero come to the day right now?
And I'm like, oh, shucks. And they're like, we're about to announce it on the intercom that you're going home. I'm like, no, no, no, no, no, no. Please do not do that just yet. They were like, Why? Because I don't want the girls to be in an uproar, because once they find out that I was going home, because they've been waiting and waiting and patiently. We were on lockdown, difficult situation to where we couldn't see each other.
I felt like maybe a riot would have kicked out in on the unit, you know. So what we did was we waited till the next morning. So I woke up about four o'clock in the morning and started packing my things and giving everything. I had a way I didn't care. I didn't want to take nothing home but my Bible, my pictures, my schoolwork and my legal work. That's all I walked out of there with. Everything else was left behind and the lieutenant came with the paperwork I signed.
That parole board came. I signed it at seven o'clock in the morning when it was clear that, like, we got to get you out the institution so you won't be on our 8:00 count. I'm like, OK, so we went to the B of I took my picture, took the fingerprints, took my stuff to property and was headed out the front gate and right at the Sally Port where the visitors come in outside at the gate is where my brothers were waiting for me and all the wardens were there, the administration was there, Heidi Brown and other people, and they hugged me.
We know we didn't have the coronavirus. We hugged and said our goodbyes and I'll shed tears. And everybody was kind of mad that I didn't say bye to the ladies in the institution, but I couldn't because we were on lockdown, you know. So I mean, when the girls found out, the officers blasted it, hey, malaria's going home.
And everybody started hollering out the window trying to let the other ladies on other units know that I was going home. And, you know, they were hollering and screaming, don't forget about us. Don't forget about us.
I tell you, Marilyn, when I got the call that that you were getting out, I couldn't even speak. It's just it's just been so long and. It's heartbreaking. I'm glad it's over, but I really hope we can learn from this story and I hope some changes are made.
Did you get a chance to see your children while you were in prison, or what was that communication like over all those twenty six years?
I was pretty blessed. I had a family who would take turns bringing my kids to see me constantly. So in that perspective, I was very grateful for my family. So throughout my whole incarceration, I was able to see them. It was heartbreaking sometimes because my oldest son will always try to undo the handcuffs to release me and stuff, you know, and he will always be like, my mom was going to listen. I'm like, no, baby, I got to stay here in school.
He's like, Mom, you're not in school. You're in jail, you know? So they pretty much know. So at that point, I knew that I had to keep it real with them and be like, yeah, mom is in jail, you know, but not for long. And I'll be home with you guys. You know, it took them to be grown man now, but I'm blessed to be here with them and be able to spend time with them and my grandkids and my family.
Since I've been out here, I've been on a movement trying to focus back on those ladies that are still there, that are also innocent, that no one knows about, because like myself, I've been fighting and it's been falling on deaf ears. And it's the same thing with the women that are in there. So I am fighting hard with the exoneration project to make these ladies known. So that's what I'm working on right now.
You've really hit the ground running and it's awesome to see that your spirit is beyond. And all I can say about that is welcome home. And of course, there was another development, which is that in May of this year, the Cook County state's attorney's office began a comprehensive review of now retired Detective Reynaldo Guevara's cases in what has now been called one of the biggest policing scandals in US history. And let me just say that again, one of the biggest policing scandals in US history.
This is a detective for the two detectives that were responsible for your wrongful conviction. But just what about Ernest Halverson?
Yeah, he's been tied into these cases as well. You know, as usual, it's not one bad apple. There was a lot of bad things happening in Chicago back then, and there's still problems now. And fortunately, we have organizations like the Exoneration Project in Chicago, the Illinois Innocence Project Center on Wrongful Convictions. It's a real hotbed of wrongful convictions in Chicago. And they're not just letting these lay down. You know, for a long time, it's been about just getting our clients out of prison.
But we need real reform and we need to examine these cases after they happen and look for the people responsible and hold them accountable and then look at their other cases.
I've been talking for years about how Detective Guevarra was part of Marilyn's case because people have been looking at him for a long, long time. But the problem is, in our system, getting the truth into a format that then can get presented within our judicial system and have a result is very, very difficult.
Is the greatest frustration of my life is that often we know the truth and we have the facts. But for some reason, the system won't allow those facts to be presented or won't give you an opportunity to to get the right result. And that's taken away.
Twenty seven years of Marilyn's life.
It's so remarkable to sit here and listen to Marilyn. And it just dawned on me she hasn't had one negative thing to say. There hasn't been any trace of, and maybe I'm just not hearing it. But I don't think it's there of bitterness. No, I mean, she's focused on during this interview on the things, the bright spots, the positive things that happened while she was on death row, while she was in prison, in maximum security prison for twenty six years for something she didn't do.
So all I can say is you are a blessing and it is an honor to be able to talk to you and to be a part of your story in some small way.
Well, I kind of knew that eventually, you know, I always believe in God and I've always placed my faith in him. And that allowed me to see me through that. It's going to be OK that I was going to come through this if I kept believing and maintaining my faith in him. It takes a lot to maintain faith after everything you've been through, but more power to you.
And she is extraordinary. You know, you said about how a positive and upbeat she is. I've had times over the last couple of decades when Marilyn has tried to cheer me up about the case.
And, you know, that's a very strange thing.
She's she's been a believer. She's an incredibly strong woman. And that's what we see with a lot of exonerations. They are different and they are survivors and they are fighters. And that's why they make it through this nightmare.
Well said, and it is justice delayed, but at least in this case, justice was not denied and there's still fighting left to be done on Maryland's behalf. And I know she's in the best possible hands with you and the California Innocence Project, as well as all the other great people that have been involved in helping to get you home. And I want to put a plug in to you've heard today about the work of the California Innocence Project, as well as the two other organizations that helped free Maryland, the Illinois Innocence Project and the Exoneration Project.
And we're going to have a link in our bio to all of those wonderful organizations. Please go click on the link and learn more and join us and get involved. So this is a part of the show where I, first of all, get to thank both of you for coming on and sharing your thoughts and your perspective and your spirit. And then I turn my microphone off and kick back in my chair with my headphones on, close my eyes and just listen to whatever else you have to say.
Maryland, we're going to save you the best for last. And I'm really looking forward to that. So now, again, Justin Brooks, founder and director of the California Innocence Project, a law professor and human rights fighter extraordinaire. Thank you again for being here with us today. You know, this case changed my life. Maryland changed my life. I was teaching law school and a nice, quiet life in the middle of Michigan with a nice little Victorian house.
And I'd been a criminal defense attorney for a number of years in Washington, D.C. But when I got involved in this case, I was shocked.
I was shocked that in the United States of America, a 21 year old individual could be sentenced to death on a plea bargain with no investigation into a case, a conspiracy between the police and the lawyers and the judges. Everybody let this happen.
They let this twenty one year old fall through this giant crack. And it shocked me. And I didn't think I could be shocked as a criminal defense attorney. And so it just changed my life and it caused me to leave my job in Michigan, moved to California, start the California Innocence Project. And this case is the inspiration for the more than 30 people we've been able to free in California. I don't think any of that would have happened without without Marilyn.
And now, even a few months after she's out of prison, it's still not real to me because it's been part of my life for so long. It's almost like I don't know who I am if I'm not representing Marilyn Melero and trying to get her out of prison.
So I'm really happy we could tell her story today. It's an important story. And that's certainly a big part of who I am. Amen to that and, well, that must be an amazing feeling to hear Justin say those words and to know that you are a key element in the freedom of so many others who were wrongfully convicted of 30 and counting. So and now what we've all been waiting for. No pressure. Thank you again, Marilyn Melero, for being here, for being so strong.
And we'll turn it over to you for closing arguments. I want to thank you. I want to thank everybody who's been involved in my case throughout my twenty seven plus years. I've had a lot of good people working on my case and some of them are still in contact with me. And that's a very emotional thing, knowing that these people can still stay in contact, which they didn't have to. But they are, you know, so I take that to heart.
Prison life was has not been easy for me. You know, I've had some struggles, my ups and downs, you know, my downfalls, you know, and it's part of the struggle. Why are you in prison? And sometimes you have to set up a mechanism so that people won't, you know, think that you're vulnerable or take the best of you. So I always had my head up and always stay positive. I've always tried to do my best to help other women.
My experience with my situation in my case had helped me to deal with other women in their situations as well and help them cope with their pain and suffering and being able to be away from their families. And, you know, while I've been incarcerated, I've helped create different programs, different groups and joined the Phoenix Rising. And as soon as a week with joining Phoenix Rising, which is a program from long term prisoners, I was voted in to become a committee member.
And I was honored by that because a lot of women have respect for me and a lot of my ideas. And we've always succeeded in everything that we've tried to accomplish. And the wardens would allow me to partake in a lot of the things and be a part of what they would do in the institution. And they asked me and Tammy Fike if we would create a program for the elderly and the disabled. And we took a whole unit, which was House Unit six, and we created that which became a safe haven for those women.
So they would not be mistreated, you know, and misled and extorted and beat down and whatever other case could have taken place with these women. And we've created various programs, groups, activities. You know, we constantly, always pray for the unit. The women's could get along together and not create a lot of chaos. And I'm very grateful that I'm here now. I'm grateful for Justin. You know, Justin always told me, hey, Marilyn, I'm never divorced in this case.
Do you get home? But like I told Justin, I'm home. But you're still not divorcing me. You're stuck with me for life. So he's got to deal with me. So, you know, and Lauren and the other Lauren and, you know, Justin, the the all these people. So I'm very grateful. And at this moment, I'm trying to demi, I'm still at peace. I'm happy with the women I've became while I was incarcerated.
And I'm going to continue to do what I'm doing. And that's helping people while I'm out here and reaching back out to the women that are still in there, as well as to the men. You know, I'm supportive of all the Guevarra victims, and I'm just going to continue to be me and be positive. And one day I hope to put together my work release center to help some of these women who don't have places to go. And that's my story.
That's my life, and that's my dream. And I believe I was assigned to do this.
Don't forget to give us a fantastic review wherever you get your podcast. It really helps. And, you know, I'm a proud donor to the Innocence Project and I really hope you'll join me in supporting this very important cause. And in so doing, helping to prevent future wrongful convictions. It's easy. Go to Innocence Project Dog to learn how to donate and get involved. I want to thank our amazing producers, engineers and editors, Connor Hall and Kevin Amortise.
The music in the show is by three time Oscar nominated composer DJ Ralph. Be sure to follow us on Instagram at wrongful conviction and on Facebook at Wrongful Conviction podcast. Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts in association with Signal Company No. One, Northparkes. For NPR ex.