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As an overworked public defender in the 1980s, Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi struggled with ways to convince the public that there were innocent prisoners idling away in jail cells or awaiting execution. That was before she became intimately familiar with deoxyribonucleic acid. At first, the science was daunting. “It was like talking about ‘Star Trek,’” said the Santa Clara University School of Law professor and executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project. Now the onetime member of the antiwar group “The Camden 28″ is a national proponent of DNA testing to reverse wrongful convictions. Working with a budget well under $1 million, a handful of lawyers and some eager Santa Clara law students, the Northern California Innocence Project has secured the release of three prisoners in two years. In 2002, for instance, Ridolfi helped free Albert Johnson. Convicted of sexual assault, Johnson had served 10 years of a 39-year sentence. But the project reviews more than DNA. After Ridolfi questioned the shoddy evidence used to convict Three-Strikes inmate Ron Reno, he was freed six years into a 25-to-life sentence. Reno was found “factually innocent” of gun possession charges. The project’s most recent success was John Stoll, convicted of 17 counts of child molestation in 1984. Stoll always maintained his innocence in the well-publicized “Bakersfield child sex ring” case. Stoll was released earlier this summer after his lawyers proved that his alleged victims were coerced to lie during the trial. “For 20 years, I tried to get out, and if it weren’t for [the Innocence Project], I’d still be in jail,” said Stoll, 61. “No one seemed to take an interest — I couldn’t believe anyone was out there.” Sometimes Ridolfi’s work doesn’t end when a client is freed. Stoll was released with $200 in his pocket. Worse, he had only nine teeth remaining, thanks, he says, to “horrid” prison dental care. So Ridolfi invited him to live in her home until he gets adjusted. “They were kind enough to get me out of prison — what more could you expect?” Stoll said. “When she asked me to stay, I was absolutely floored.” PASSIONATE ADVOCATE Students and lawyers say Ridolfi’s relentless pursuit of social justice through the courts has raised Santa Clara University’s profile and encouraged many to pursue careers combining social work and justice. Second-year law student Jonathon Nicol became so engrossed with Stoll’s case that he assisted the Innocence Project for eight months — long after he’d stopped earning credit for his work. The former English teacher said he never knew there were such systemic problems with the justice system until he worked with Ridolfi. “She sees the Innocence Project on two levels — as a way to help individual clients, and as a way to look at big problems in the criminal justice system,” Nicol said. “Each one of these [cases] is a study in criminal law.” The project gets its work both from referrals and by its own internal review process. Inmates are invited to fill out questionnaires, which are screened by project members. “[Ridolfi] is definitely inspiring, going 100 miles an hour all the time,” Nicol says. “She’s all about the goal, and we come along and help her reach that goal.” In the Stoll case, Ridolfi and her students achieved their ultimate goal — an overturned conviction. Nicol called Stoll’s release “the most intense outpouring of emotion I’ve ever experienced.” “We always asked what was going to happen and prepared ourselves for the worst result,” he said. “We didn’t pay any attention to the best possible result.” “But then it happens, and you are totally incapacitated, because it’s so amazing things worked,” Nicol said. Ridolfi’s passion also produces results outside of the courts. She says she has, for example, secured a commitment from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to help exonerated prisoners find jobs. “She is very forceful,” said Lola Vollen, director of Berkeley’s Life After Exoneration Program. “I had a conversation with her and Newsom. I was being polite and meek, and she outed me. She told him what I wanted and needed. It wouldn’t have happened without Cookie. She is a crackerjack.” While Ridolfi may be forceful in court or at work, friends and clients say she is fiercely loyal and compassionate. Stoll is now treated like family. He helps with meals at least a few nights a week, and recently helped Ridolfi cook Chilean sea bass for a family dinner. “She’s not my attorney anymore — she’s my friend,” Stoll says. STUDENT RADICAL Ridolfi was born in 1949 and grew up in southern Philadelphia in a working-class Italian neighborhood. She describes her parents as conservative and says her father was horrified by her youthful political activities. Ridolfi enrolled in Rutgers University, intending to study art history. But like many in her generation, she became involved with the peace movement, in particular an organization called “The Catholic Left.” She was friends with brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, radical Catholic priests who topped the FBI’s most wanted list for civil disobedience during the Vietnam War. Ridolfi ratcheted up her antiwar activities in August 1971 when she joined a break-in at the Camden, N.J., draft board. The burglars planned to steal draft cards and send them to potential soldiers so they could avoid the Vietnam War. Ridolfi and seven other burglars were arrested in the act after a group member contacted the FBI. Twenty other co-conspirators were arrested after the raid. “I dropped out of school when the FBI was coming to class with me,” Ridolfi said, adding that she needed to brace herself for the prospect of 47 years in prison if she were convicted of the seven felony counts filed against her. The nationally publicized trial began in February 1973. Ridolfi and the other defendants never denied breaking into the draft board. Instead, they admitted to the crime. “Our defense was that we did it, and we were justified,” Ridolfi said. With the trial coming at the end of the Vietnam War — and after Watergate and the release of the Pentagon Papers — Ridolfi says there was an erosion in the public trust of government. The jury acquitted all 17 defendants. PROGRESSIVE LAWYER With the trial behind her, Ridolfi applied for reinstatement to Rutgers, saying she wanted to work for social change through the system. She was accepted and offered a full scholarship. After completing college in 1976, she worked as a consultant in Philadelphia for the National Jury Project. She then opened a private investigation firm called Nancy Drew Associates, but quickly decided to close the doors. “I got bit by too many dogs, and I quit.” Law school beckoned. Ridolfi said she made a simple decision. She had already been a criminal defendant, a prisoner, a jury consultant and an investigator — why not become a lawyer? So she returned to Rutgers and earned a law degree before accepting a job as a public defender in her home city of Philadelphia. She eventually rose to the special defense unit, where she handled high-profile felony cases. “I’ve always believed in the adversarial system,” Ridolfi said of her time as a public defender. “If we didn’t have the adversarial system, there would be no due process, so I found the work really important.” But Ridolfi was also troubled by her work. “I saw a lot of things I didn’t like … a lot of things that were really wrong.” She found an unusual place to try to fix those problems — the academy. PROMOTING SOCIAL CHANGE Ridolfi began teaching law in 1989 at the City University of New York’s law school. The job allowed her to combine her social convictions with her legal background. She also grew to love teaching. “It’s a fabulous platform to reach young people and teach them that if they work as lawyers, they should address social injustice,” she said. During her time in New York, Ridolfi became friendly with Barry Scheck, then one of the few aggressive advocates for using DNA testing to determine if certain inmates were innocent. Scheck, who later represented O.J. Simpson, had co-founded the first Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 1992. Ridolfi enjoyed teaching in New York but was lured out west by Santa Clara University. Soon, she was working with students to help battered women jailed for killing abusive husbands. The Innocence Project followed, thanks to a California grant and her connections to Scheck. Recently, the Innocence Project has faced layoffs and setbacks. The state gutted its $400,000 grant. As private donations keep the program afloat, Ridolfi continues to fight for official funding, arguing that it is a “bargain for the state.” Student lawyers save state employees from sorting through countless letters from inmates claiming they are innocent, Ridolfi said. Innocence Project representatives read as many as 50 letters a week. Inmates who pass the initial screening process receive a follow-up questionnaire to see if they qualify for representation. Ridolfi remains hopeful that the Innocence Project’s successes will encourage people to help improve the justice system. “I think people are basically good, and that if they know what’s going on, they’ll do the right thing,” she said. Meanwhile, Stoll is savoring his freedom. “I am lucky,” he said.

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