Cases We Take

NCIP assists California prisoners who are seeking to advance claims of factual innocence and we also work on broader criminal justice reform.  Large numbers of inmates seek NCIP’s help.  A significant part of our work involves screening inmate or family requests and identifying cases with viable claims of innocence where there may be new evidence such as DNA or witness testimony to support such claims.   Our case criteria are clear and our intake and investigation processes are rigorous.



Intake and Investigations

NCIP has developed a four-stage process to screen and investigate the hundreds of inquiries we receive each year:  (1) screen the initial request, (2) conduct a preliminary investigation, (3) conduct a full case investigation, and (4) litigate to resolve the matter.

Stage 1 – Screening the initial request

When NCIP receives an inmate request for assistance, the request is logged in NCIP’s case management database and sent to NCIP’s case manager for initial screening and review. Depending on whether the claim meets NCIP’s case criteria, the case manager will either: (1) send the inmate a questionnaire requesting additional case information and copies of relevant documents, (2) refer the case to a more appropriate outside program/lawyer, or (3) reject the case.  NCIP rejects approximately 60% of the requests for assistance at this initial stage of review either because actual innocence cannot be demonstrated or the request fails to meet NCIP’s case criteria.

Stage 2 – Preliminary investigation by case management team

Once an inmate returns a questionnaire, a case file is created and an intensive secondary screening is conducted. The NCIP case manager, NCIP staff attorneys and a rotating group of law student research assistants and volunteers make up the Case Management Team (CMT).  They seek to locate case documents, meet with prior lawyers, investigators, law enforcement personnel, laboratories and witnesses. The team also identifies issues that have already been fully litigated, and which may affect judicial consideration of a new claim. When a substantial amount of case information has been gathered, the case manager presents the facts of the case and the gathered information to NCIP’s Case Screening Committee. The Case Screening Committee will either: (1) place the case in NCIP’s queue to await attorney assignment for full investigation, or (2) reject and close the case. If the CMT discovers new evidence of innocence that can be acted on immediately, the case is immediately assigned to an attorney for full investigation. NCIP rejects about 15% of the cases at this stage. 

Stage 3 – Full investigation by legal team

When a case is assigned for full investigation, the NCIP attorney works with law clinic students to create and implement an investigation plan. At any point in this process, the case may be rejected and closed. Otherwise, the team proceeds with the investigation to develop evidence necessary to support a claim of innocence.  When biological material is found and there is potential for DNA testing, NCIP seeks to have the evidence tested, by agreement or if necessary, through litigation.  Most of NCIP’s cases involve  eyewitness error, official misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, false confessions, faulty forensic evidence, or a combination of these factors. Even those cases with potential for DNA testing involve a complexity of other factors resulting in possible wrongful convictions.  NCIP investigates and litigates cases that involve a wide range of forensic issues including fire science, shaken baby syndrome, child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, hair and fingerprint analysis, as well as DNA.

Stage 4 – Litigation

Where NCIP is sure there is a wrongful conviction, we try to work with the DA’s office to secure agreement to release the innocent person.  Where discussion and negotiation fail, NCIP initiates litigation, typically beginning with a petition for writ of habeas corpus that asks the court to overturn the conviction and provides the factual and legal basis for the request.  These petitions are usually based on claims of newly discovered evidence such as DNA test results or other forensic analyses, new witnesses, confessions from the true perpetrators, or credible recantations from previous witnesses. In cases based on newly discovered evidence of DNA test results, litigation is often required to obtain DNA testing, before a writ can be filed.

When possible, NCIP collaborates with law firms on a pro bono basis to assist with investigation and litigation.



Exonerations and Case Work

NCIP’s individual case work is the core of our work.  Since its founding in 2001, NCIP has attained justice for 18 innocent people who had collectively spent more than 230 years in prison.  We currently have more than 60 open and pending cases and receive approximately 2500 letters a year about new or existing cases. To learn more about the types of cases we take and how to apply for help, click here.  To learn more about each of our exonerees, click on their name below.




How to Apply for Help

In order for a case to be considered by NCIP, a potential client must meet all of the following basic criteria:

  • The person must be actually innocent of the crimes for which he or she is convicted
  • There must be a significant chance that substantial new evidence may be found to support a claim of innocence
  • The person must have been convicted in a Central or Northern California state court of a serious felony
  • The person must currently be incarcerated

To be considered by NCIP for representation, the person seeking assistance must submit an Initial Screening Questionnaire  (Spanish Version here).  The document must be fully completed in order to be reviewed and evaluated by NCIP. Please send the completed document directly to NCIP at:

  • The Northern California Innocence Project
    900 Lafayette Street, #105
    Santa Clara, CA 95050

NCIP is not equipped to handle case applications or inquiries by email or over the phone. All case submissions and follow-up correspondence will be handled by mail.

Please be aware that NCIP’s initial investigation can take up to 36 months to complete.  Please do not call the NCIP office to inquire about the status of an application. NCIP does not have the staff to handle phone calls and they only slow down the review of applications.