Our Staff

Meet the team!

Justin Brooks
Justin Brooks

Director

Justin is the Director and Co-Founder of the California Innocence Project. Prior to coming to California, he practiced as a criminal defense attorney in Washington D.C., Michigan, and Illinois and over the course of his career he has served as counsel on several high profile criminal cases.

He has been recognized several times by the Los Angeles Daily Journal as one of the Top 100 Lawyers in California. In 2010 and 2012, California Lawyer Magazine recognized him with the “Lawyer of the Year” award. Justin began his teaching career as a Fellow at Georgetown Law Center in 1990. He continued to teach at Georgetown after his fellowship ended and served as Associate Director of Georgetown’s Corrections Clinic. In 1993, he began teaching at Thomas M. Cooley Law School where he taught criminal law, criminal procedure, death penalty law, and law and literature. He directed the moot court program, coached the law school’s first National Championship moot court team, and supervised a death penalty clinical program.

Justin has worked extensively in Latin America training lawyers for the past 20 years. Justin co-founded Red Inocente, an organization devoted to founding and supporting innocence organizations in Latin American, including: the Puerto Rico Innocence Project, Mexico Innocence Project, Chilean Innocence Project, Colombian Innocence Project, and Argentinian Innocence Project. Justin is a tenured professor at California Western School of Law. He is the author of the only legal casebook devoted to the topic of wrongful convictions.

Alex Simpson
Alex Simpson

Associate Director

Alex has been with the Project since 2001. He graduated from University of California Santa Barbara and received his Juris Doctorate and LL.M. from California Western School of Law. Before joining the Project, Alex briefly worked at Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc.

In his role as Associate Director, Alex oversees the day-to-day operations of the Project, litigating cases with his fellow staff attorneys, and working to effectuate policy changes in California.

He has authored a number of law review articles relating to wrongful convictions, covering topics such as compensation, post-conviction DNA testing, and the standards for bringing claims of new evidence before the courts. Over the course of his career, Alex has been successful in exonerating many wrongfully convicted clients, and has been recognized by the San Diego Daily Transcript as “Top Attorney” and by the Board of Directors of the Criminal Defense Bar Association of San Diego as “Post-conviction Lawyer of the Year.”

Alissa Bjerkhoel
Alissa Bjerkhoel

Litigation Coordinator

Alissa has been with the Project since 2006. She graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara and received her Juris Doctorate from California Western School of Law. Before joining the Project, Alissa worked as a judicial extern for The Honorable Jan Adler of the United States District Court, Southern District of California, she worked at the Defensoría Penal Pública in Santiago, Chile.

In her role as Litigation Coordinator, Alissa coordinates all active case litigation, manages the case intake process, serves as the in-house DNA expert, authors petitions filed on behalf of clients, speaks at conferences on topics relating to forensics, directs and supervises clinical student casework, and helps draft new laws. Alissa is a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and serves on the National Innocence Network’s Complex DNA Working Group.

Alissa has been featured on television shows and podcasts including 20/20, Snapped, Crime Watch Daily, and Flawed Justice. She is played by Tiffany DuPont in the feature film “Brian Banks.” Alissa has been recognized as “Young Attorney” of the Year, “Post-Conviction Lawyer of the Year,” and “Attorney of the Year.”

Michael Semanchik
Michael Semanchik

Managing Attorney

Mike has been an attorney with the Project since 2011. In his earlier years, Mike graduated cum laude from California Western School of Law where he was student in the California Innocence Project. After passing the California State Bar, Mike first worked as an investigator for the California Innocence Project and later became a staff attorney. Mike has spoken at a number of conferences related to investigations and innocence work including the Defense Investigators Association Conference, the Innocence Network Conference, and SDSU School of Public Affairs.

Over the course of his career, he has lent his investigatory skills to break open many cases which have led to exonerations. He currently authors petitions filed on behalf of the Project’s clients, as well as directs and supervises clinic student casework. In 2012, California Lawyer Magazine recognized Mike’s work with the California Lawyer of the Year award. In 2014, the San Diego Daily Transcript recognized Mike as a “Top Attorney.”

Raquel Cohen
Raquel Cohen

Staff Attorney and Volunteer Coordinator

Raquel has been with the Project since 2011. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and received her Juris Doctorate from California Western School of Law.

Before joining the Project, Raquel worked with private criminal defense and civil plaintiffs firms in Southern California. Raquel also found time to continue coaching gymnastics which was her first passion before helping the wrongfully convicted.

In her dual roles at the Project, Raquel is responsible for supervising pro bono law firms, lawyers, experts, and investigators who assist the Project in successfully investigating and litigating cases. Raquel has played an integral role in the exoneration of many wrongfully convicted clients and has assisted in helping those clients receive compensation after their exoneration. Raquel is the Project’s post-conviction arson expert and has lectured to lawyers, students, and investigators on the developments and issues within the fire investigation community. Raquel’s work relating to arson cases is documented in Pulitzer Prize-winner Ed Humes’s recent book Burned.

Katherine Bonaguidi
Katherine Bonaguidi

Staff Attorney

Katherine has been an attorney with the Project since 2016. She graduated from Georgetown University and earned her law degree from The University of Southern California Gould School of Law and a Master’s Degree in Communications Management from The University of Southern California Annenberg School.

After a few years as an associate at a boutique civil law firm, Katherine joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, where she worked for 13 years. There, she handled a variety of cases, from sexual assaults and homicides to the resentencing of juveniles sentenced to life without parole, served as a trainer of new attorneys, and was voted Felony Attorney of the Year.

Since coming to the Project, Katherine has worked as a professor in our Spanish language trial advocacy LLM, a coach in the Mexican Moot Court program, and trained hundreds of lawyers across Latin America through our Acceso Capacitacion Programs on campus and abroad.

Katherine brings her extensive trial experience to the supervision of law students in our clinical program and the litigation of habeas corpus cases. She is also the Project’s specialist in cases of science-dependent child abuse and lectures on the complex scientific and legal issues involved in them.

Audrey McGinn
Audrey McGinn

Staff Attorney

Audrey has been an attorney with the Project since 2011. She graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle and received her Juris Doctorate from California Western School of Law. Before joining the Project she worked on her father’s farm.

Audrey first served in the Project as a volunteer and clinic student while in law school. Upon passing the California Bar, she started work as an investigator for the Project, eventually becoming a staff attorney. Audrey directs and supervises the CIP clinic students in their case review.

Over the course of her career, she has played an integral role in preparing and arguing motions essential to the Project’s cause. Additionally, Audrey works as a trainer with ACCESO Capacitación and has trained hundreds of Spanish-speaking lawyers throughout Latin America on trial advocacy skills. She is also an LL.M. Professor at California Western School of Law and was named “Professor of the Year” in 2018.

Jasmin Harris
Jasmin Harris

Associate Director of Development and Policy

Jasmin has been with the Project since 2014. She began as a volunteer, but was quickly promoted to Policy and Development Coordinator after displaying considerable talent in reaching out to potential donors. Before joining the Project, Jasmin was the owner and manager of two of the Original Pancake House restaurants in San Diego and Temecula.

In her work now as External Relations Administrator, Jasmin oversees all development and policy work for the Project. She is responsible for shepherding proposed bills and policy measures through the legislature, vetting proposed language, meeting with legislators and staffers, and testifying on behalf of the Project.

Because of Jasmin’s work, several bills sponsored by the Project have now become law. Exonerees are now able to make requests for information regarding available evidence to prove their innocence; be given automatic compensation, and have their yearly compensatory amount increased; and ask for transitional services upon their release. Jasmin’s work in policy and legislation have also dramatically changed police practices and procedures regarding eyewitness identification.

Alexandra Butler
Alexandra Butler

Digital Marketing Strategist

Alexandra has been with the California Innocence Project since November of 2019. She attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where she studied Graphic Design and Advertising. Alexandra started her career in Digital Marketing working freelance for local restaurants and breweries developing unique marketing tools and social media strategies (similar to those listed here https://www.twesocial.com/twitter-lead-generation/) to enhance brand visibility and engagement. She became interested in the work being done at CIP after attending the annual XONR8 Gala fundraising event in 2016.

As Digital Marketing Strategist for the Project, Alexandra coordinates the Project’s digital marketing strategy, taking influence from law firm marketing strategies amongst others. She develops and oversees online content as it is made. She also works closely with the External Relations Administrator to organize the Project’s fundraising events.

Claudia Salinas
Claudia Salinas

Staff Fellow

Claudia has been with the Project since 2019. She graduated from California State University, Fresno and earned her Juris Doctorate from California Western School of Law. While in law school, Claudia was awarded the “Janeen Kerper Scholarship for Criminal Defense Advocacy” and was inducted into the Pro Bono Honors Society at the Gold Level for over 200 hours of service at the San Diego Public Defender’s Office and in our Project.

Before joining the Project, she worked as a 911 Communications Dispatcher and then went onto become a District Representative for California State Senator before starting law school.

In her role as Staff Fellow, Claudia supports and assists in supervising our current clinical students and volunteer legal interns. She is responsible for overseeing the Project’s initial review of innocence claims arising from convictions occurring within Southern California. In addition to overseeing the intake process, Claudia engages in legal writing, case preparation, and litigation alongside the Project’s Staff Attorneys as needed.

Sydnie Mitchell
Sydnie Mitchell

Staff Fellow

Sydnie joined the Project in 2021. She graduated from California State University, Sacramento and earned her Juris Doctorate from Santa Clara University. While in law school, Sydnie served as President for the Black Law Student Association and received the Justice John Paul Steven Public Interest Fellowship Grant.

Before joining the Project, Sydnie served as a Judicial Intern at San Mateo County Superior Court and as a clinical student with the Northern California Innocence Project.

As Staff Fellow, Sydnie supports and assists in supervising our current clinical students and volunteer legal interns. She is responsible for overseeing the Project’s initial review of innocence claims arising from convictions occurring within Southern California. In addition to overseeing the intake process, Sydnie engages in legal writing, case preparation, and litigation alongside the Project’s Staff Attorneys as needed.

Jan Stiglitz
Jan Stiglitz

Co-Founder Emeritus

Professor Jan Stiglitz is a 1975 graduate of Albany Law. He began his teaching career at California Western School of Law in 1980, after receiving his LL.M. from Harvard Law School.

While on the faculty at California Western, Professor Stiglitz also represented numerous individuals who were appealing their criminal convictions. In 1999, Professor Stiglitz, along with Professor Justin Brooks, founded the California Innocence Project.

In his work as Co-Director of the Project, Professor Stiglitz appeared in federal and state courts throughout California, including the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court. His work in the Project also earned him two California Lawyer of the Year Awards.