JIFS Client and Exoneree Giovanni Hernandez Shares Story of Redemption

Mass & Breakfast Conversations with the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic

On Friday, April 19, 2024, Loyola Law School hosted Mass & Breakfast Conversations with Marisa Harris '17, Prof. Christopher Hawthorne '00 and exoneree Giovanni "Gio" Hernandez. The panel discussion was moderated by Professor and Kaplan & Feldman Executive Director of the Center for Juvenile Law & Policy Sean Kennedy '89.

"The Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing clinic was founded in 2012 to provide holistic representation to youth sentenced to unjustly lengthy adult prison sentences. Gio is an example of an innocence case, but most of our clients are post-conviction resentencing cases," said Hawthorne, the JIFS clinic director. "Our clients validate the central tenet of JIFS and the juvenile resentencing movement: You are more than the worst mistake you've ever made in your life."

Gio Hernandez was only 14 years old when he was arrested and charged in adult court for a crime he didn't commit. He spent 17 years in prison. "The detective even told me, off the record, that he knew I didn't do it. But I was a young, troubled teenager that was involved with gangs. He offered me a plea deal and expected me to confess," said Hernandez.

Gio met the students in the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic, including Marisa Harris, ’17, in 2016 when he was still incarcerated. It was students like Marisa Harris '17 who worked for years to develop sufficient information for a new presentation to the DA's Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in 2021. Harris, by then a Supervising Attorney with JIFS, advocated for Hernandez and persuaded the CIU to take another look. Thanks to new evidence, including analysis of cellphone records by the FBI, it was determined that Hernandez was not at or near the location of the fatal shooting as he had always claimed. 

After meeting the JIFS team in 2016, it took 7 long years until Gio was finally released from prison in June of 2023. He was exonerated December 2023. Hernandez credits the collaborative effort, persistence and fierce determination of his legal team for bringing him home. "One of the most amazing things about the JIFS clinic is that we don't give up on our clients when one remedy fails," says Harris '17. "If we lose in court, we turn to the parole board. If we lose in the parole board, we turn to the governor. We go back to court until our clients walk through those gates."

On December 13, 2024, District Attorney George Gascon issued a public apology to Gio at a press conference. When asked how he felt being publicly exonerated, he says it felt like "redemption."

"It was validation in front of everyone that I was speaking the truth the whole time. I accepted his apology because I've learned to forgive and move forward," says Hernandez.