Adam Mortera was a 13-year-old boy in southeast San Diego when he first became a member of a street gang. By 17, he had been tried and convicted as an adult for murdering a rival gang member and then sentenced to prison for 15 years to life. While incarcerated, Mortera worked hard to rehabilitate and was ultimately released on parole in 2013, after 22 years.
Early this summer, Mortera, now 48, graduated from a first-of-its-kind innovative program at LMU Loyola Law School: the Independent Forensic Gang Expert College (IFGEC), which qualified him and nine other program graduates as forensic experts on gangs. The IFGEC prepared these individuals to provide court testimony explaining what drives young men and women to join gangs, thereby countering a narrative that has remained largely uncontested by expert witnesses who are overwhelmingly former law enforcement officers.
To challenge law enforcement’s chokehold on how courts interpret gang involvement, the LLS Center for Juvenile Law and Policy (CJLP) received a generous grant from the California Wellness Foundation to launch this first-of-a-kind program.
As Professor Sean Kennedy told the inaugural students at their graduation, they can “correct all those sensational tropes about gangs that we have absorbed in this culture … [and] tell the truth about why young people become involved in gangs.”
According to Marisa Harris '17, an attorney, and adjunct professor who managed and coordinated the program, the IFGEC is a project that’s been years in making by Kennedy. The former Deputy Federal Public Defender for the Central District of California and now the Kaplan & Feldman Executive Director of the CJLP at Loyola Law School, Kennedy believes that the reasons for a juvenile defendant’s involvement in a gang should be used as mitigating evidence on their behalf, rather than a justification for harsher liability and more punitive sentences. Likewise, Mortera’s experiences as a former gang member uniquely qualify him to understand and explain mitigation evidence as a defense gang expert. He grew up in a gang- and crime-infested neighborhood, he said, with an older brother who was a gang member and uncles who were regularly in and out of prison. “They were, sadly, my role models. I grew into that same gang culture and criminal lifestyle,” he explained.
“I was a young child who experienced trauma and abuse. I was a teenager who experienced trauma and abuse. I’ve experienced police brutality and violence in my community. I was a victim of crime. That’s the reason I became a gang member, to survive. At the time, it was my safest route.”
With stories like those, Kennedy told his graduates, IFGEC-trained gang experts can “contextualize gang membership to show it for what it is often — a mitigating factor at sentencing. There are so many applications for your lived experience that can be used by lawyers in court who are open to a different narrative.”
For instance, for many young men and women, gangs provide protection and safety. Hugo Gonzalez, another newly minted IFGEC graduate, had cerebral palsy as a child and had to ride a separate school bus. “Hugo was bullied, and his family was never around to pick him up from the bus, so the gang members would meet him and walk him home,” according to Harris. Gonzalez served 18 years in prison before Gov. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence about four years ago.
Like Mortera and Gonzalez, all 10 of the college’s initial cohort of students have extensive histories in gangs and have served long prison sentences, Harris said. J’Mel Carter, who now works with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, served 22 years for first-degree murder before being paroled. Mannie Thomas III, Co-Executive Director at Success Stories, served 15 years until Brown commuted his sentence in 2016. Thomas’s colleague at Success Stories, Graham Finochio, joined a white supremacist gang at 14 years old and spent another 14 years in prison.
But while in prison, they decided to turn their lives around and to help other prisoners do the same, becoming active in various rehabilitation and re-entry programs in prison and once back outside.
“Now, they do re-entry and gang intervention and gang prevention work,” Harris said, and all have experience mentoring juvenile and adult gang members. Even before the IFGEC, Mortera had occasionally been a gang expert in court for the San Diego public defender’s office. The goal of the IFGEC was to train them to be professional experts by teaching skills in testifying, writing reports and demonstrating their qualification to do this work.
This first time out, the college met virtually for six Saturday mornings. It culminated with a “final exam” during which the students presented their findings and were directly examined and cross-examined in a moot court setting by practicing criminal lawyers serving as the prosecution.
In many ways, however, the first session was especially important, Mortera said. “We were given an orientation by CJLP social worker Jeanette Lomeli to be aware of our own traumas and the vicarious trauma we may experience while visiting someone in custody or being in the courtroom.”
Next came sessions on the business of being an in-court expert: getting referrals, creating a CV or resume, retainer agreements, interviewing juveniles, writing reports and responding properly under grueling cross-examination.
Kennedy taught most of the sessions with the help of other Clinical Directors from the Loyola Social Justice Law Clinic: Chris Hawthorne ’00, Brooke Harris, Elie Miller and Marissa Montes ’12. Guest lecturers included Dr. Jorja Leap and Dr. Manuel Saint-Martin, mitigation specialists Angie Mason and Carley Martin, and attorneys Jessica Melikian ’10, and LLS professor Susan Poehls ’89.
“Sean Kennedy is such an excellent communicator,” Mortera said. “The theories and concepts and strategies he gave us in the classroom were great.”
Kennedy taught them how to interact with counsel in the courtroom, how to follow the lead of the defense attorney, and how to answer questions from the prosecution in an unprejudiced manner.
“Just speak the truth, be humble,” Mortera learned. “Answer the questions asked of you as honestly as possible.”
The defense gang expert cannot shy away from his or the defendant’s troubled past. “The reason you’re an expert is you’ve been an expert at really bad stuff, so the really bad stuff is going to get highlighted,” he said. “You want to say, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve done. This is what makes me the expert. This is what makes my voice in this room the most valuable because I’ve actually lived it.’”
The first class of the IFGEC was geographically and culturally diverse; however, future sessions will include even more diverse students, such as formerly gang-involved women. The California Wellness Foundation grant will allow the CJLP to replicate the program and create more opportunities for formerly gang-involved people to become experts.
Even though this first session of the college only wrapped up recently, its graduates are already finding work as defense experts. “One of the defense lawyers brought in to play a prosecutor for the final exam called Carter the next day and got him appointed to work on a juvenile case,” Harris said. Also, Harris asked Thomas to work on one of the JIFS clinic’s cases and Finochio is currently working on a policy initiative with UC Irvine. Mortera, who served as an expert in the past, has another assignment from the San Diego public defender’s office. And this time, as a result of his training from the IFGEC, he feels more confident that he will offer even more value to the attorneys he partners with.
Thanks to the California Wellness Foundation, the IFGEC plans to graduate another class of experts by the end of 2021, and seeks to continue expanding the narrative on gangs in California courtrooms.