LPI Uses Innovative Arguments to Secure Release of Two Clients

LPI Uses Innovative Arguments to Secure Release of Two Clients

Top: LPI client Janet Dixon shares a moment with Legal Director Paula Mitchell. Bottom: LPI client Jane Dorotik exits the California Institution for Women while awaiting her next hearing.

Last week, the Project for the Innocent (LPI) at LMU Loyola Law School secured the release of two clients who spent a collective six decades behind bars thanks to the innovative legal thinking of students and staff attorneys. 

LPI client Janet Dixon was released from the California Institution for Women (CIW) on Wednesday, April 22 after spending nearly 40 years in prison. Just one day later, LPI client Jane Dorotik was released on her own recognizance while she awaits the resolution of her claim that she is innocent. 

Dixon was arrested in 1980, when she was 18 years old. With no criminal record, she was convicted of an arson felony-murder and sentenced to die in prison. Her release came after the LPI demonstrated the sentence was unlawful and that she should have been eligible for parole 22 years ago. 

“You are one in a million, each and every one of you,” said Dixon to a crowd of LPI students and attorneys, who were joined by members of the media and other well-wishers in welcoming Dixon to freedom while observing social-distancing guidelines. “You continue to feed us hope, you continue to give us all the things that we need to make it when we have you on our side. We are just fortunate. So, thank you! It will never go in vain what you do, and you will receive a special blessing in heaven for it.” 

With the help of LPI, Dixon was not only able to overturn her sentence, but she is also challenging the legality of her conviction. “We will continue to fight for Janet to show that she did not receive a fair trial 40 years ago,” said LPI Legal Director Paula Mitchell. “This is a heartbreaking case for many reasons.”  

To secure Dorotik’s temporary release, LPI attorneys made original legal arguments regarding COVID-19 and the dangers it presents to inmate populations. Dorotik, now 73 years old, was convicted of killing her husband, who was found murdered by the roadside in Valley Center in February 2000. She has been fighting to prove her innocence since the time of her arrest. 

LPI spent three years investigating the case. In August 2019, LPI filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf Dorotik alleging she was convicted, among other reasons, because the prosecution presented false blood and DNA evidence to the jury. Just as Dorotik’s legal team was gearing up for an evidentiary hearing, the spread of COVID-19 prompted the presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court to issue a general order closing the courts to all but a few “emergency matters,” so that no habeas corpus proceedings could be brought. 

On April 10, 2020, after being turned away at the courthouse doors and denied an opportunity to file any pleadings in the case, LPI filed a petition for a writ of mandate in the Court of Appeal, asserting that the San Diego Superior Court’s general order unconstitutionally suspended the writ of habeas corpus and prevented Dorotik and other petitioners similarly situated from challenging the legality of their detention in court. The general order has now been amended such that habeas proceedings are no longer banned from being heard during the pandemic. 

At a telephonic hearing held on April 20, Judge Elias considered arguments by LPI and the San Diego District Attorney’s office about the need for Dorotik to be released. The court granted LPI’s request and ordered her to be released immediately on her own recognizance.

“A lot of people are in the same position as Jane Dorotik, which is why we felt it was important to bring the issue of the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus to the attention of the Court of Appeal,” said LPI staff attorney Michael Petersen, who helped write the writ bringing the suspension of the writ matter to the court’s attention. 

The Project for the Innocent (LPI) pursues claims of actual innocence on behalf of those wrongfully convicted of crimes. Students work under the supervision of founder Laurie Levenson, David W. Burcham Professor of Ethical Advocacy; Legal Director Paula Mitchell; Program Director Adam Grant and other supervising attorneys. Since 2011, the LPI has secured the release of 10 clients seeking justice after wrongful convictions. They include Michael Tirpak (2019 release after 25 years in prison); Maria Mendez (2018 release after 11 years in prison); Jaime Ponce (2017 release after 19 years in prison); Marco Contreras (2017 release after 20 years in prison); Andrew Leander Wilson (2017 release after 32 years in prison), Kash Delano Register (2013 release after 34 years in prison), and Obie Anthony (2011 release after 17 years in prison). Learn more at www.lls.edu/ProjectfortheInnocent.