Rosie Sanchez left her home in Mexico in search of the American dream more than 25 years ago.
But on Dec. 8, 1985, she was arrested for murder. She was convicted two years later and has remained in prison ever since. Sanchez has maintained her innocence.
Now, Jennifer Farrell, a second-year law student at the USC Gould School of Law, is working to restore her freedom.
“Five people provided an alibi for her that night,” Farrell said. “There’s no way she could have done it. It was a false conviction.”
Farrell was assigned Sanchez’s case through the Post-Conviction Justice Project, a clinical program at Gould that works to defend the legal rights of convicted prisoners. The project provides hands-on experience for its 16 enrolled students, who speak with inmates, prepare written submissions and defend their clients at parole hearings.
“It’s been a really eye-opening experience,” Farrell said. “I’ve learned the justice system isn’t perfect by any means.”
A single mother of four, Sanchez owned a store in the garment district in Downtown Los Angeles. When a nearby rival shop burned down and a person who was sleeping inside died as a result, Sanchez was accused of setting the fire intentionally.
Sanchez was convicted by the jury, which was convinced by the testimony of a teenage boy who said he saw her fleeing the scene of the crime that night. The witness, however, changed his testimony three times.
Farrell, however, believes Sanchez was poorly represented, leading to a wrongful conviction.
“She spoke no English,” Farrell said. “Her court-appointed defender didn’t even try to make a case. He didn’t bring out her tax records, which showed that she had no financial motivation, and he only used one witness, whose testimony was thrown out because she was Rosie’s sister.”
Sanchez was sent to the California Institution for Women, where she has since worked as a translator, counselor and clerk. She sells crafts to support her four children, and she saved her roommate’s life when she tried to commit suicide in 2008, Farrell said.
“She deserves to be released,” Farrell said. “Even in her situation, she’s been involved in raising her kids, and she’s done so much to help her community.”
Farrell began working with Sanchez in August 2009 and represented her in front of the California Board of Parole Hearings in October. The board found her suitable for parole for the first time at that October hearing — a major victory after years of failed appeal attempts.
Now, because all Californian parole hearings are subject to gubernatorial review, the case is in the hands of Governor Schwarzenegger.
“The last hurdle is to have him uphold the parole board’s decision, and he often reverses,” said Heidi Rummel, clinical associate professor of law at Gould and directing attorney for PCJP. “We’re trying to educate the public about her case and the system in general, so they can send in letters of support to the governor.”
Schwarzenegger’s decision will be announced either Friday, March 12 or Monday, March 15.
If the decision is upheld, Sanchez will return to Mexico as stipulated by the conditions of her release. Her children will join her there.
“If he reverses, then we head back to court,” Farrell said.
Historically, less than a quarter of all parole approvals have been confirmed.
Gus Sanchez, Rosie’s son, said the family is anxiously awaiting the governor’s decision.
“It’s been hard,” he said. “She’s not bitter about the situation. She always told us she was going to use her time in a positive way.”
According to her son, Sanchez is especially grateful for the help of the PCJP.
“She says she’s surprised how a student has done so much when she paid lawyers in the past,” he said of his mother. “All that money, and nothing was even close to what Jenny has done for us. Right now — this is the closest we’ve ever been to her release.”