Mission, Vision, & History
The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) is a non-profit clinical program of Santa Clara University School of Law. NCIP’s mission is to promote a fair, effective, and compassionate criminal justice system and protect the rights of the innocent. We challenge wrongful convictions on every front by exonerating the innocent, educating future attorneys, and reforming criminal justice policy.
NCIP envisions a criminal justice system that makes us safer, is cost-effective, and is fair and equitable - one that accurately separates the innocent from the guilty and treats all with fairness and compassion. NCIP strives to partner with all stakeholders - from law enforcement to advocates - to ensure that this vision is realized.
NCIP was founded in 2001 by Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi and Linda Starr at a moment when new legislation had been adopted in California (CA Penal Code Section 1405) to permit convicted inmates to seek DNA testing that would prove their innocence. Both Ridolfi and Starr had worked for many years as trial and appellate attorneys and saw opportunities to rectify errors in the system and free innocent people. At first working with volunteer staff and law students, they immediately took on cases that led to NCIP’s first exoneration in 2002.
Today, NCIP has 10 staff members and many dedicated volunteers, students, and pro bono partners. To date, NCIP has won justice for 33 innocent individuals who collectively have spent more than 480 years in prison.
NCIP Advisory Board
Jim Anderson: Founding Partner, Foundation Capital and Legacy Venture
Obie Anthony: Exoneree and Advocate
Margalynne Armstrong: Professor of Law, Santa Clara University
Franky Carrillo: Exoneree and Advocate
Rhonda Donato JD ’89: Director of Recruiting, Solutus Legal Search
Jo Golub: Partner, Keker, Van Nest & Peters
Paul Grewal: Vice President & Deputy General Counsel, Facebook
Nancy Heinen: Former Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Apple Computer, Inc.,
Partner, SV2 Social Venture Fund
Ellen Kreitzberg: Professor of Law, Santa Clara University
Barmak Meftah: President & CEO, AlienVault
Elizabeth Zitrin: Former President, World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
Linda Starr received her J.D. from the University of Southern California Law Center and clerked for the California Court of Appeal upon graduation. She was an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, where she wrote and argued post-conviction matters before state and federal courts and was a supervisor in the Sex Crimes and Special Victims Unit. Starr worked as a staff attorney at the Sixth District Appellate Program in California and then privately represented indigent criminal defendants on appeal. In 2001, she co-founded NCIP with Cookie Ridolfi.
Todd Fries graduated cum laude from Santa Clara Law in 2009 with a certificate in Public Interest and Social Justice after completing his Bachelor of Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to working at NCIP, he worked at Paul Hastings LLP and the Santa Clara County Superior Court, Family Law Self-Help Office. Fries began working for the Northern California Innocence Project in 2007 as a clinical law student and returned to NCIP in 2010 as a research fellow as part of the law school’s post-graduate fellowship program. He currently serves as NCIP’s Associate Director.
External Relations Director
With over 20 years of human and civil rights advocacy experience in the nonprofit sector, Lori leads NCIP's external relations efforts and partners with NCIP's Policy Liaison to bring our policy reform efforts to the community at large. Her work often uses the lens of her early career as a community organizer - a perspective that allows her to pull from a unique set of skills that tell the stories of our clients and help balance the reality of surviving as a small nonprofit and achieving our goals. Lori holds an M.A. in Organizational Leadership. Read more about Lori's experience here.
Paige Kaneb has worked at NCIP since 2007. In that time, she has helped free 14 of NCIP's clients. Kaneb maintains her own caseload, supervises NCIP students, and has publications on actual innocence as a constitutional claim and wrongful convictions related to wrongful diagnoses of "shaken baby syndrome." Kaneb received her J.D. from the University of San Francisco's School of Law as a cum laude graduate.
Staff Attorney & Policy Liaison
Melissa Dague O’Connell
Melissa Dague O’Connell received her J.D. from Santa Clara Law in 2003, with a certificate in Public Interest. She served for several years a Deputy Public Defender in Solano County, and most recently was a criminal defense attorney with Cooper Law Offices. O’Connell supervises NCIP students and maintains a caseload of her own focusing on claims of innocence involving DNA evidence.
Kelley Fleming received her J.D. from Whittier Law School in 2007, after having been a teacher for several years. She was practicing in the field of special education prior to serving as a Deputy Public Defender in Humboldt County. Fleming maintains a caseload focusing on claims of innocence involving DNA evidence.
Aaron Aguas-Rao received her J.D. from George Washington University Law School in 1997. She served for several years as a Staff Attorney with the Superior Court Self-Service Center, and Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence. She served for two years as the Co-Chair of the Policy and Research Committee of the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence. Aguas-Rao handles case review and investigation focusing on claims of innocence.
Karyn Sinunu-Towery retired as an Assistant District Attorney at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office in December 2013, after thirty years of service, and joined NCIP as a Volunteer Attorney in January 2014. As an Assistant District Attorney, she prosecuted some of the most difficult and complex criminal cases including murder, sex offenses, and white collar crimes. Sinunu-Towery was the prosecutor who reinvestigated the case of an innocent man, Rick Walker, and worked for his freedom. She served on the Board of California District Attorneys Association.
Catherine Marken Boyle graduated cum laude from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law after obtaining her undergraduate degree in Human Biology from Stanford University. Prior to NCIP, she practiced civil municipal litigation for the City of San Jose and general litigation for Pillsbury Madison & Sutro. Catherine also has extensive fundraising and event planning experience gained through her years of volunteering on behalf of non-profits.
Office Manager & Paralegal
Cynthia received her B.A. in Psychology from Columbia University. She is a certified Paralegal and commissioned Notary Public. Prior to joining the NCIP team in 2019, she served in corporate and litigation paralegal roles at Infineon Technologies, Cooley LLP and Skjerven Morrill LLP. She also served as Assistant Director of the Santa Clara University High Tech Law program. Cynthia manages the NCIP office and provides paralegal support to the NCIP staff and clinic law students.
Michele Canny graduated Magna Cum Laude from Santa Clara University in 2019 with a BS in Sociology. Before joining NCIP, she worked for her on-campus LGBTQ+ center for two years. In the summer of 2018, she interned in Italy at an immigration center and for the international organization CARITAS. In her last quarter of college, Michele interned for NCIP and is currently serving as their Communications Associate.
Rhonda Dyer customizes, manages and troubleshoots the database programs NCIP uses. Her expertise with Microsoft programs such as Excel and Access and her ability to customize other programs to suit NCIP’s needs have been invaluable. Much of her time in this part-time position is spent managing NCIP’s largest program, Amicus Attorney, which houses information on the 7000+ people and 3000+ files related to the Project. Dyer is retired after a career at Hewlett Packard and, in her spare time, she and her search and rescue dogs seek lost people in remote locations for local law enforcement organizations.
Volunteer Research Associate
Anne-Marie obtained her law degree from Oxford University in the UK. She went on to practice civil commercial litigation in London and Hong Kong. After moving with her family to the USA, Anne-Marie helped set up a legal recruitment firm in the Bay Area and also devoted time to various fund raising activities, which, happily, has led her to NCIP.
Equal Justice Works Fellow
Lauryn received a B.A. in Intercultural Peace & Justice Studies and a minor in History from Holy Names University in 2016 prior to graduating from Santa Clara School of Law in 2020 with a certificate in public interest and social justice, with an emphasis in criminal justice. During her time in law school, she interned as a judicial clerk in Santa Clara County, interned at the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, and was a law clerk at the Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender. Lauryn was also a clinical student at NCIP for two years prior to joining the staff as an Equal Justice Works fellow in 2020.