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Featured Guests
Jason Strong

Jason Strong was 24 in Dec of 1999, when his world was torn apart through wrongful conviction. He spent...

David Elliot

After graduating from Stanford Law School, David Elliot moved to Los Angeles to begin a career in commercial litigation....

Michael Semanchik

Mike has been an attorney with the Project since 2011. In his earlier years, Mike graduated cum laude from...

Your Hosts
Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is the Managing Editor of Above the Law Redline and the Editor-At-Large of Breaking Media. He’s appeared...

Joe Patrice

Joe Patrice is an Editor at Above the Law. For over a decade, he practiced as a litigator at...

Episode Notes

As a special bonus, Joe and Elie are doing a series of podcasts about FOX’s new legal drama “Proven Innocent”. In this second installment, we speak with show creator and Stanford Law graduate David Elliot, California Innocence Project lawyer Michael Semanchik, and exoneree Jason Strong, who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. “Proven Innocent” airs Fridays at 9/8c on FOX.


Above the Law – Thinking Like a Lawyer

Bonus Podcast: Exploring The Tragedy Of Wrongful Convictions At The Heart Of FOX’s ‘Proven Innocent.’



Intro: Welcome to Thinking Like a Lawyer with your hosts Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice, talking about legal news and pop culture, all while thinking like a lawyer, here on Legal Talk Network.


Joe Patrice: Welcome to another edition of our special broadcasts. We have — as we discussed last week, we have a special project that we’re doing alongside FOX who’s bringing you this episode, dealing with their new show ‘Proven Innocent.’ ‘Proven Innocent’ on Fridays at 9/8 Central on FOX. It’s a new show that talks about wrongful convictions and FOX has decided to allow us to have a few episodes with some special programming talking about the show and issues around the show.

We’ve already had one episode and this is our second, but first, I’m going to introduce that I’m Joe Patrice from ‘Above the Law’, and this is Elie Mystal from ‘Above the Law.’

Elie Mystal: Bonus content.

Joe Patrice: Exactly. So how are you today, Elie?

Elie Mystal: I’m wearing my pink shirt, what could be wrong?

Joe Patrice: It’s true, no, you look sharp.

Elie Mystal: I do. I feel — I feel sharp, but that’s not what I’m angry about today.

Joe Patrice: I wouldn’t assume you were angry about feeling sharp.

Elie Mystal: No — yeah, the sharpness is good. Although I don’t generally want to call attention to myself when I’m out on the streets.

Joe Patrice: Fair enough.

Elie Mystal: Because I cannot stand the parking people.

Joe Patrice: You have a problem with parking people.

Elie Mystal: Yeah, so there’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ is when they accidentally kidnap a meter maid and then beat the living hell out of them because he’s a meter maid.

Joe Patrice: Hmm.

Elie Mystal: So my kids drop-off, is difficult, right? I have a working father, we have two working parents in my household, drop off is a difficult thing for us to do before one of us needs to go to work. So after five months at this new school, I finally gotten the kids drop off that my younger sons drop off in such a way they could drop him off at school, make it back to my car, make it back home, park my car, walk to the train, make my train. I have five months to actually get this completely down.

Joe Patrice: Hmm.

Elie Mystal: And that lasted for three weeks until they changed the parking rules because some parking Nazi at the school was like, hey, you can’t park there, why are parents always parking there? You have to park in the far lot that’s like five minutes away uphill both ways in 27 degree weather, and that really was eight minutes, that eight extra minutes, that cost me from dropping my kid off to making it back to my car, is the eight minutes I needed to make my stupid train.

Joe Patrice: Okay.

Elie Mystal: This doesn’t seem like a problem to you?

Joe Patrice: No.

Elie Mystal: There’s absolutely no problem we parking in the closer spot; yes, it is technically a fire lane. I’m dropping the kid —

Joe Patrice: Right, yeah, I mean, that seems like a concern.

Elie Mystal: I am — there’s no fire. There’s no fire and I’m dropping the kid off it takes five minutes, if there was a fire I’d move the car.

Joe Patrice: I mean you wouldn’t be in the car, right? You said you were dropping him off, so you’re not —

Elie Mystal: There’s not going be a five-minute, five-alarm blaze fire that I can’t run back out and move the car —

Joe Patrice: See it’s that attitude that causes disaster.

Elie Mystal: That what — that causes what the Chicago Fire? No, that’s all because of Chicago Fire.

Joe Patrice: Yeah, I mean that cow if somebody hadn’t been parked in the fire lane that cow wouldn’t have done that. All right, so — wow that was —

Elie Mystal: Meter maids were the devil.

Joe Patrice: — Elie complaining about something.

Elie Mystal: We need libertarian rules about parking. We should be able to park wherever you want.

Joe Patrice: We do not. So, let’s get back to talking about people who are wrongfully convicted and not just wrongfully convicted in the way that Elie was unfairly blamed for parking —

Elie Mystal: Wrongly booted by car —

Joe Patrice: — and obviously marked fire lane. So, we have three guests with us today and we’re going to talk about a bunch of issues surrounding the underlying tragedy really that is the basis of Proven Innocent.

So we have Michael Semanchik, he’s the Managing Attorney at a California Innocence Project. Good morning.

Michael Semanchik: Hey everyone.

Joe Patrice: Hey. We also have Jason Strong who’s a consultant to Proven Innocent, how are you out there?

Jason Strong: Good morning. Thanks for having me on the show.

Joe Patrice: And finally we have David Elliot, the show creator. Welcome to our show.

David Elliot: Thanks for having me. Thanks for having all of us.

Elie Mystal: David, let’s start with you, why create a show about this obviously very difficult and very painful and important topic, as opposed to I don’t know meter maids?

David Elliot: Well, yeah, I had a meter maid show, didn’t go as far as I wanted it to, so this was my next choice. Actually I have — I went to law school, I never practiced but I’ve been sort of aware of these stories of — not recent stories and wrongful conviction stories, it’s for my whole adult life.


And as I started writing and creating popular entertainment, I realized these are not only heroin and nail-biting and heartbreaking and terrible tragic stories, they are also incredibly compelling and hypnotic almost in terms of all the things we look for as a popular writer, incredibly high stakes, the highest stakes really, and heroic extraordinary protagonists and cruel and unfathomable antagonists and on and on.

And so I’ve kind of had my eye on this type of story and for a long time I spent my career — I was writing in feature films and particularly like big summer action movie type stuff and I was always trying to find the right one story that I thought would capture this issue and bring sort of shine a light on this issue, and I never was able to really settle on one, because the more I read the more varied they were and more of them I sort of became enamored with or fascinated with or sort of like I said infuriated by.

And then once I started working in television a few years ago and started talking to Danny Strong about creating a show, writing a show for a broadcast network, I thought, well, if we could maybe television show and try to tell as many of these stories we can instead of one per season, let’s try to at least shine a light on one per episode and there was a potential finally in my mind to capture what was so sort of varied and fascinating and compelling about all of these stories. So that was I think they sort of touched on from where I started was that idea.

Joe Patrice: I like that idea actually because one thing that strikes me about in the rare instance where we see wrongful conviction stories in drama, it tends to be a situation where it’s presented as this long thing that makes it feel to a viewer as though it’s an anomaly. That this is clearly out of left field this one poor person who felt that who went through this problem when in reality we have a spate of wrongful convictions out there. And so, the idea of having a bunch of them throughout the season actually helps drive home that this isn’t some kind of unicorn event within the criminal justice system.

David Elliot: Yeah, absolutely not, I mean, hardly unicorns, but I would add to that too, I mean, I think that’s exactly right. But I would add to it as well that even though post-conviction relief law is esoteric and very specific sort of vein of practice and lawyers are very specialized, we have to remember that they were convicted by the criminal justice system. It wasn’t like they were in a different legal system to begin with. So by looking at the ways that our criminal justice system went so tragically wrong, we actually learned a huge amount about how the criminal justice system works and as importantly if not more importantly how it could work better.

So, for me it’s innocence and also a terrific way just to talk about criminal justice system in general because the same — a lot of the same processes that systematically lead to wrongful convictions are also unfair and inefficient when it comes to the other ten-and-a-half million people that are arrested every year in this country.

Elie Mystal: Obviously you’re not — well, maybe you are, but you’re most likely not speaking from personal experience with this issue but one of our guests is. Jason, can you tell us a little bit about your story in the tragedy that allowed you to gain this particular expertise?

Jason Strong: Sure, of course, telling my story would probably take up an entire episode of its own but I can roughly tell you that I spent 15-and-a-half years in prison for a murder that I did not commit. It took a great amount of effort from a large legal team from people at Northwestern as well as two top law firms in Chicago to secure my release. And it all started because one cop had it in for me. I mean, he wanted me to be a snitch for him and I didn’t know anything, told him I didn’t know anything and he threatened to make my life a living hell. And a couple weeks later I was locked up for a murder I didn’t commit and he was the initiating officer. And —

Elie Mystal: Christ!

Jason Strong: — that went to prison, fought my case and got out.

Elie Mystal: Has there been any — I don’t know the word is justice for the officer? Like has there been any punishment for —

Jason Strong: No.

Elie Mystal: No, he’s just still on the force just —

Jason Strong: Well, I believe he’s — he’s not necessarily on the force anymore. I think he actually teaches other officers —

Elie Mystal: Oh.

Jason Strong: — if I am not mistaken, but I could be wrong on that, but nothing, nothing has ever happened to any of these police officers that were involved in my case or any of the other cases that they’ve tainted and ruined people’s lives on.

Elie Mystal: How did you get to the point where you were consulting for a TV show as opposed to traveling the country and looking for revenge, which is what I think I would do?

Jason Strong: Well, I think David will probably agree with me on this, but let me know if I’m wrong, David.


I’ve always been interested in film making and movies, and I want to get out there and raise awareness and work in film. So I’m trying to combine those and he was at Northwestern talking to Karen Daniel, who is a dear friend of mine and an attorney, and the subject of me came up and she made the comment that I’m in the film making and this and that and she made the connection for us, and David had already heard my podcast with Jason Flom and was already interested in me. So we made connections and started talking and the rest is history. We became friends and now we’re working together.

David Elliot: Yeah, I would say that, that’s right, the only thing I would add to it is that I had kind of made up, not necessarily made up but it’s based on a composite of other exoneree stories that I’ve read, I’d sort of become fascinated with the idea of it made to end up having this terrible realization that they’re kind of left alone and that their lawyers aren’t going to help and their family doesn’t have any way to help. 11:02 family still even engaged and so they take it upon themselves to begin learning the law and fighting their own case in that sense.

So I had this idea that that would make sort of perfect protagonist for the series, Danny’s I idea, I should say originally, but in building on that, that idea that somebody who learned this type of law because they had to and becoming somewhat of a jailhouse lawyer along the way et cetera, et cetera, and I was very interested in that idea and then I heard about Jason’s case. I think the first time I heard of him was on Jason Flom’s podcast but also then did lots of research and was really interested to learn how much of the legal work he did himself along with his track team of legal assistants, his mother and grandmother and so to me that that sort of epitomized what I was going for with the show.

So when I was in meeting Karen Daniel for the first time at Northwestern, I saw a picture of Jason and I had forgotten that he was — that he had been represented by the Center on Wrongful Conviction, but immediately a sort of light bulb went off and I told what I just told you guys to Karen, and then she said, well, he’s very interested in learning family television and he’s that’s what he wants to do, that he was working on. I said that was fantastic, can you put us in touch please as soon as possible. That was during that while I was in Chicago filming ‘The Pilot.’

And so in the interim between ‘The Pilot’ and starting episode two, which is a few months later Jason and I became really close friends, and he’s been a huge intricate part of the process since then.

Elie Mystal: Jason and David, once you guys hooked up and once you guys started talking can you name for me or think of maybe one or two changes that you made to the characterizations based on the kind of real-life experiences that you were learning about.

David Elliot: Well, there was a lot of things on my end. I mean, I could think of a lot of things. First of all, I was — I was really sort of heartened to realize to the extent I was kind of right that this would be a one-man band for a long time and really actually trying to understand like what legal documents did he have access to, how it was going to work, what was his relationship with the law library, when was he allowed to go to law library, things like that where it just filled in an enormous amount of what — up until that point with speculation and confirmed and changed a lot of that aspect.

But also in our show, our hero kind of represents folks that I would put Jason in the category of, people that were this heroin terrible experience actually made them stronger and built them into almost superhero in my opinion, but of course that’s not the norm, that’s not the — it’s not everybody and it’s probably not even most exonerees in fact, folks who come out of this on the other end of this roster and their life has been sort of blown apart and they are very traumatized.

And so to capture that element we had I decided on having my main character Madeline Scott convicted along with a codefendant her brother who have both wrongfully convicted of a murder of Madeline’s best friend, their mutual close friend when they were only 18 in high school.

So the aspect of the ongoing difficulties like even once you’re out and aspects of that part of the exoneree story, I didn’t — I wasn’t as familiar with and Jason really helped us so in that perspective both me and Danny and the other writers, but also with Riley Smith who plays Levi Scott who’s the brother who’s come out of prison and has not gotten his life back together, and is in still a bit of the shambles and a mess because of it.

Joe Patrice: Yeah. Actually let’s — that’s a good place to pivot. So when we talk about these cases and like you were saying about 15 years, that’s a long time to feel as though no one’s able to help you. So Michael, your work is in being kind of that group who is able to help people. So how is it that you at the Innocence Project, how do you go about finding cases and then what do you do to offer some help here?


Michael Semanchik: Yeah, so we get about 2000 requests for assistance a year at the California Innocence Project, which is a big number and we have to figure out which of those cases deserve additional resources, additional time. So every single case of the 2000 that come in, all of the letters that come in, get screened and then we sort of have this whittling down process and we use students, interns and clinical law students to go through all of the cases and figure out what are the ones that deserve additional attention.

For those that do that we think this one sounds like a case that could possibly have some legs, we’ll assign it to a clinical law student at California Western and we’ll send them on out to investigate the case and try to come up with evidence of innocence.

And really we’re asking two questions, are they innocent and can we prove it, and if we can prove that somebody is innocent we believe it, then we’ll file in court and try to get them out.

Elie Mystal: Michael, can you talk a little bit about as Joe said earlier, like this is not a one-off situation, this is not — it’s not a couple of accidents, right? This is a consistent problem throughout our criminal justice system. Can you explain a little bit why that is — I mean I don’t think a lot of people, even amongst lawyers, really have an understanding of why so many people end up being wrongly convicted and why there’s no post-conviction review, like what’s your sense for why this is such a huge problem?

Michael Semanchik: Yeah, so before I answer the why, I think it’s important to put some numbers to it. So, as of today in the United States since 1989 there’s been 2,383 exonerations in the U.S. alone, they have spent 20,945 five years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. So, I think that in and of itself shows this is a wide spread and a massive problem, and then as to the why, there’s a variety of reasons.

I think generally if you take a big look, a big picture look at the system you have to always remember that humans are involved and humans make mistakes. And then from that point if we look at it and we say, okay well, prosecutors are involved and sometimes you have bad prosecutors.

Most of the time I’d say they are average, sometimes you get a good one. Defense attorneys, same thing; sometimes you have a good one, sometimes you have a bad one, most or average.

So there’s going to be when you have humans involved just on the attorney side of things you’re going to have cases that fall through the cracks, and people get wrongfully convicted, but I think it’s more than that too. It’s what we’re relying on, what we’re presenting to juries that result in convictions, whether it’s microscopic hair comparison which was being done and the FBI was going around the country training hair comparison experts for years and they just recently a few years ago came back and said, oh actually, sorry, that’s a junk science. We should have never relied on that.

Same similar thing with lead bullet analysis, which again the FBI relied on for a number of years and they got it wrong, it was not something that we should have been convicting and putting people in prison and even putting them on death row for.

We know that of the DNA cases more than 70% of wrongful convictions had bad eyewitness identifications. So we know witnesses are not good at making identifications of people especially in these high stress environments like when crimes are committed.

So everything from forensic science that can use improvement to anywhere where those humans involved in the system we’re going to have issues and our system isn’t going to be perfect as long as humans are involved.

Elie Mystal: Again, one would think that that would suggest that we would have post-conviction review as a Federal mandate if not in all the states?

Michael Semanchik: Right. I definitely agree. I mean, there’s not currently a statute that you can request DNA testing federally, and that’s crazy to me. So your State fails you and there’s no way to request DNA testing in the federal courts, the way that the anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act is set up. It cuts defendants’ appeal rights off shortly after their State appeal ends. We know that the average time a person that’s wrongfully convicted spends in prison is over 16 years. So why are we limiting the rights of appeals in federal courts at a year, at one year? It doesn’t make any sense.

Elie Mystal: Again, if you’re running for president on a platform of Criminal Justice Reform might I suggest listening to this podcast as opposed to telling me that marijuana should be legal, right. I think we’re beyond the pot phase of Criminal Justice Reform.

Joe Patrice: Fair enough. Well, one of the questions I wanted to go back to was just the whole concept of the brother character and how that character doesn’t have their life together and one thing that, I guess, this is for everybody, this question because I think each of you have a kind of a different take to bring to it, but one thing that we’ve talked to other Innocence Project folks about another states before is that one of the true tragic loopholes of the way the law is set up is that there are post-sentence services for people who get out to transition back but when people are declared innocent those don’t apply.


And so, a lot of the re-transitioning to the world services that do exist out there while they’re not massive, but they do exist on some level, they don’t get to help and that complicates things. Is that true I guess for Michael, I guess the question is, is that true of California and for Jason, did you encounter any of this sort of problem when you got out?

Michael Semanchik: So, yeah, that’s definitely true for California. We actually passed the law I think two or three years ago, it’s called Obie’s Law, it was based on Obie Anthony’s wrongful conviction and him going to the California Congress and basically explaining, hey, when I got out because I was innocent, I didn’t get any of the parole services and why is that?

And so they passed a law called Obie’s Law and that actually took effect I think two years ago. We’ve since freed a number of people from prison and they still are not getting access to the same services that those that are on parole are getting. So you get out, it’s basically, woops, sorry, we made a mistake and best of luck, we hope you can make it.

It’s not job training. There’s no halfway house. Those services should be available to them under current California law and they’re just not getting them.

And then on top of that, we have a compensation law in California although many of the people that get out and get their conviction reversed are denied compensation and that’s been going on for almost two decades in California. So you’d think the least we could do is give these folks that have spent sometimes decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit is give them some money to get on their feet and give it to them quickly and that’s just not happening even with the laws on the books that you would think would help. So we definitely see that.

Joe Patrice: Yeah, Jason, does this track with your experience?

Jason Strong: Absolutely. Actually, my case was in Illinois and when I got out my attorneys didn’t want me to stay there for fear of retaliation from the police. So I moved to Tennessee and when I got to Tennessee, I tried to seek assistance through a reentry program to learn skills and seek job and all that stuff.

But they basically told me they didn’t have anything for me or any way to help me, and I couldn’t understand that, I’m like, well why, I was in prison too just like the rest of them just because I am no longer a felon, doesn’t mean I don’t have the same needs, but they were adamant that they didn’t have a way to help me.

And so that’s why I think it’s important that we’re doing the things like Obie Anthony does out in California or Juan Rivera and Kristine Bunch do with trying to create the organization that they have built, which is JustIS 4 JustUS to try to help our community ourselves and work within our community while we seek legislation to get it done on a bigger scale.

Another thing I’d like to add if I may just on the number thing that Mike was talking about earlier. I’d like to go with the bigger numbers of we have 2.3 million people in prisons and jails in this country, which is more per capita than any other country in the world, which is astounding, and if just 1% of that is wrong that’s 23,000 people’s lives, that’s a lot of people to sit in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

And some people estimate it could be as high as 8 to 10%. So you’re talking 180,000 to 230,000 people and that’s just the people in prison, that’s not counting the families that are destroyed. The fact that the real perpetrator that goes on to commit other crimes in a lot of cases and how the community is impacted, I mean, there’s a lot of aspects that people don’t realize.

Elie Mystal: Michael, what’s your sense on whether the Innocence Project ever gets it wrong, right? Because I think that one of the things that I deal with when I’m out kind of talking about this and I come — I don’t want to say, the party, but you can imagine which one is that, well, you’re just helping these people get out on technicalities.

Certainly it is a big part of the show that there are forces mainly played by Kelsey Grammer, who really believe that that these people really do these crimes and that these do-gooding Crusader lawyers are putting criminals back on the street.

Michael, do you have a sense that the Innocence Project gets these cases wrong?

Michael Semanchik: No, I would say definitely not. I mean, this is a situation like I said before where we are — we’re taking the cases and we’re not allowed as a member of the Innocence Network to work on a case if we think somebody actually did it.

So again, the two things that we’re looking for are, is the person innocent and can we prove it? If we don’t think they’re innocent, then we are not allowed to work on it to be a member in the Innocence Network. You cannot actually work in the network and represent guilty folks and try to get them out. So we have a system set up such that we won’t be working on guilty folks’ cases.

Elie Mystal: That’s a big difference that I think it’s important for people to understand. If you’re a federal defender, right, if you’re a federal appellate defender like you’re going to work with some guilty people and that is still noble and important legal work like you might think in your heart that they may be or guilty, you might think they’re guilty of a different crime.


But, if they didn’t get the proper defense, if there are holes in their prosecution, you as a federal defender still have kind of an obligation to zealously advocate on their behalf. That is not what the Innocence Project does. The Innocence Project deals with people that their lawyers at least really believe are actually innocent.

Michael Semanchik: Right and I should note that there are — there’s over 60 different innocence organizations in the Innocence Network, working all over the world, just in the United States that actually use the Innocence Project as part of their name. They’re all independent, I want to say there’s more than 30, and they’re scattered around but they all comply with that same thing, which is that if they discover evidence of guilt, that’s the end of the road.

So anytime we come up with evidence of guilt, which we have, I have, I’ve had cases where I’ve done DNA testing and it comes back and it implicates my defendant, that’s the end of the road, we’re done working on it. Even if I recognize that there might be constitutional claims that I could raise and potentially get a reversal, we can’t do that because of our Innocence Network mandate.

Joe Patrice: So one thing that keeps coming up. We’ve talked about a bunch of these kind of junk sciences, the hair size, the lead bullets, the problems with DNAs as it’s applied, so tragically, I suppose for David, you have a lot of options to explore throughout the course of a season of different — completely different and independent reasons why somebody might be exonerated.

That’s a thing that I find great about the way the show it can pivot to different stories every time and they have wholly different reasons why people can be gotten off.

David Elliot: Yeah, that was one of our touchdowns when Danny and I started. We started talking to the other writers was to introduce people and set up to a specific case because there’s — there are like I said, so many compelling cases. There’s more than 2,000 specifically exonerations obviously many more than that in total. But one of the interesting things to sort of capture was the types of cases. We could pick a case that represented not just one person but potentially dozens of others, if not more, and so that was a really good way for us to begin to organize what cases of the week, what episodes we wanted to focus on.

And so we began with an arson, a bad arson science case, we have a shaken baby case, we have some faulty eyewitness testimony cases and things like that. And that that helped both for like I said from our perspective for us to sort of understand the theme of the episode and what we’re trying to drive at, but also it’s — I think it draws attention to just how many it’s like at one point our showrunner Adam Armus said, you know, we should be the anti-CSI. We should remind people that even when there’s some scientific expert on the stand, claiming that he is 100% sure that like for example, K9 since science is 100% accurate, and you’re like, really? Is it? And so we actually look at it as an opportunity to tackle very similar issues including scientific junk science and overconfidence in science, things like that.

Joe Patrice: Yeah, that’s actually a thing that from our last podcast when we were talking with Danny, we got into the — this show operates as something of a reversal of the trend of the last decade or so of criminal procedurals, which are almost always prosecutor and cops, good science has always got to get the right person, like these sorts of — this trope that we’re all kind of used to, this show turns a lot of that on its head.

David Elliot: Yes, absolutely. And that was again one of the main motivations for me to want to create the show now, like why I push this one forward which I seem I could do because I think people are ready across and I don’t mean it’s in a political statement because I actually think justice shouldn’t be a political issue at all.

But people I think are very much aware of a sense of looming unfairness and that the system or the establishment or whatever you want to call it, is actually often the problem not the solution, and so, I saw he was very timely in that way.

Elie Mystal: I would love the episode where bones gets on the stand and says, oh, we can tell that he’s guilty because of a pelvic bone and says, no, you can’t tell that from pelvic bones. It’s not how bones work.

Guys, I have a Thinking like a Lawyer style question to get us out of here, one for each of you. David, you’re going to have the longest to think about it. Michael, you’re going to go first. I’m going to ask you how long will it take me to pay off my loans if I work for the Innocence Project?

Jason, I need you to tell me if you got Westlaw in prison, and if not, how did you use the law books, and then David, I need you to tell me how you go from Law School to writing GI Joe movies for summer blockbusters.

Michael, you first, how long till I pay off my loans if I work for Innocence Project?

Michael Semanchik: Well, if you work for the California Innocence Project, we’re based at California Western School of Law which is a 501(c)(3). So you make 120 payments and your loans will be forgiven assuming that the federal government actually holds true to that. And so, I’ve got a little over three years to go and we’ll see what happens, but 10 years, 120 payments and you’re out of there.


Elie Mystal: Boom. Betsy DeVos, do not screw this man. Jason, do you get Westlaw in prison?

Jason Strong: Well, so we have access to a law library. We have tons of books, but we don’t have access to any computers or anything like that to research anything current or search any sites that are available there. But I utilize my mother and my grandmother to do a lot of those searches for me.

Elie Mystal: Oh my God.

Joe Patrice: The concept from my perspective as somebody who was a lawyer and did some defense work, I just don’t even understand at this stage how I would function if I were forced of work only off a paper.

Elie Mystal: Like in society.

Joe Patrice: Yeah – no, I mean, it’s — well, because — it’s not just because like I don’t want to sound like newfangled like, oh no, I need a computer but it’s also that the laws themselves are now written, they write these opinions in a way where they assume they’re going to be searchable by computers. So it’s even the books themselves are harder to work with because everyone assumes everyone’s on a computer, yeah.

Elie Mystal: That’s just missing. David, GI Joe, you were in law school, you graduated from law school and then what?

David Elliot: Yeah, I didn’t leave my Stanford degree in order to write GI Joe I will say. That was a lot of people know there’s a long road to hell paved with good intentions in gold as they say, but no, I actually sincerely though I went to law school thinking that I wanted to work in, I guess what I would call retail politics. I was really interested in policy. I was really interested in tackling law schools from a perspective of justice and various issues like that political science almost.

And I was lucky enough to work on Barbara Boxer’s first Senate campaign here in California and I — it was kind of interesting because that was my first semester of law school, I worked for Boxer’s campaign and because President Clinton’s campaign was going so well and that we ended up essentially getting all of the resources from the DNC and sort of secondarily also working on the Presidential campaign.

And so after I helped the democrats sweep the White House and expose California Senate seats I thought my work in politics was done after three months. No — really I was like — I had actually just enough access and just enough taste of that that I wasn’t as convinced anymore that I actually really wanted to work in the political – the back side of politics, the sort of campaign politics, and so I was at a bit of a loss and started trying to think about what else I could do that sort of satisfied the same motivation and that type of feeling.

And so I learned more and more and more about policy and more about how to write about policy on in-depth level and I started a graduate program in Psychology, studying Judgment and Decision Making, and after all of that I had a feeling that what is sort of almost a light-bulb went off for me which is that what got me interested in politics and what I cared about why I care about all these issues in the first place was literature and movies and good television and then sort of entertainment. And so I started looking at storytelling in general as a way of kind of addressing the same issues that I both cared about and then I was motivated to focus on.

And so that sort of put me on a sort of a side. I got my first job, probably I shouldn’t say this on tape, but I’ll take a chance. In my first job as a lawyer I would simultaneously pitching my first screenplay and I managed to sell my first screenplay or at least sell the pitch of the screenplay right about four months into my job right around the time that I was going to get a paid break to study for the California Bar and so instead of selling for the California Bar I wrote my first screenplay and then I basically after that couldn’t hit the Down button fast enough on the elevator. And I went off to write what I was hoping would be important stories.

And it turns out they don’t really want to pay you a lot of money early on to write important stories, they want to pay you for to learn to write romantic comedies and action movies and things that are relatively soulless, but along the way I was aware that I was learning the craft, I was learning the business, I was learning how to survive and hopefully thrive in the system that was Hollywood with an eye towards one day writing a show exactly like Proven Innocent, and that sounds like apocryphal but it really was the case and I thought, well, even if I end up writing things that along the way aren’t satisfying the sort of motives that sent me to law school in the first place. It’s still a very powerful medium and potentially I could reach tens of millions of people, it’s not more with these ideas and so I’ve been very patiently sort of waiting for my chance to do a show kind of like this one. And so, I think it’s a long version of the short story.


Joe Patrice: Yeah.

Elie Mystal: That’s amazing. Congratulations.

David Elliot: Thank you.

Joe Patrice: Well, and that show of course is Proven Innocent which is Fridays at 9/8 Central on FOX. Social media tag is @innocentonfox, so if you are socialing that’s where to go.

Thanks everybody for joining us today. We had a full house here but I thought this was a great deep dive into some of these issues underlying this show.

And thank you all for listening too, if you aren’t subscribed to the show, you should be where you will get all the episodes you should review them, you should give them stars. Thanks for listening to this special edition, a part two of three about Proven Innocent. This episode is brought to you by FOX.

For those of you who are new to the show we also have non-special edition shows, regular edition shows going on every week as well, those brought to you by We will have another one of those coming up soon too. So keep on the lookout for that.

Read Above the Law, obviously follow at @ElieNYC, follow @JosephPatrice on Twitter, and with all of that I think we are done and we’ll talk to you all later.

Elie Mystal: Presidential candidates, get at our level.

Joe Patrice: Okay.

Elie Mystal: Cool.

Joe Patrice: Bye.


Outro: If you would like more information about what you heard today, please visit You can also find us at,, iTunes, RSS, Twitter, and Facebook.

The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.


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Episode Details
Published: February 22, 2019
Podcast: Thinking Like a Lawyer - Above the Law
Category: Legal Entertainment , Legal News
Thinking Like a Lawyer - Above the Law
Thinking Like a Lawyer - Above the Law

Above the Law's Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice examine everyday topics through the prism of a legal framework.

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