Excerpt from Almost Innocent: From searching to saved in America’s criminal justice system by Shanti Brien (Amplify Publishing, 2021)

The author, a criminal appellate attorney, whose husband’s company became embroiled in a criminal investigation. Photo credit: Lindsay Barstow Photography

I knew the bleak path through the criminal justice system. In my work as a criminal appellate attorney, I witness hope and resilience; I see gratitude and self-awareness. But mostly, I lose, and my clients lose. When people hire me, they have lost at trial; they have been sentenced to prison or are already incarcerated. They write to me on scraps of paper with nubs of pencils, hoping I can create an argument strong enough to succeed where another attorney failed…


The graduation ceremony has never been more important than during these uncertain times.

Deveonte Joseph wore his high school graduation robe to protests in St. Paul because he wanted to spread positivity. Photo cred: CNN

“My dear terrified graduates, you are about to enter the most uncertain and most thrilling part of your lives.”

-Lin-Manuel Miranda

In 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, spoke at the graduation ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania, expressing the conflicting emotions the gowned graduates most likely felt. Only four years later, graduates are even more terrified. COVID-19, the econmic meltdown and riots in response to racist police violence, makes 2016 look as uncertain as taxes. Part of the paralyzing uncertainty for graduating high school seniors everywhere includes the on-again/off-again, hybrid-, virtual-, socially-distanced or non-existent graduation ceremony. Sure, these seniors…


My fifth grader having fun as a unicorn.

Last week, when I asked my fifth grader what he wanted to be for Halloween, he said “a unicorn” without hesitation.

Apart from the non-traditional gender thing which I so appreciate about that choice, I also loved the fact that I wouldn’t have to buy another costume; my son has been a unicorn for the past two years. He puts on the unicorn onesie, does a stone-faced parade lap around the school, and later runs around gathering a pillow-case full of candy that I will give away or throw away behind his back a few days later.

This is what…


Governor Northam’s blackface Michael Jackson in the 1980s was insensitive and ignorant (I have my own epic 80s fail) but I believe it’s what’s happening now that should matter.

I warn my teenager daughters that their snaps, texts and tweets — the modern-day equivalent of the handwritten notes I passed across high school physics class –are so much more dangerous than their predecessors because texts and social media posts last forever. In the last couple of weeks, the Governor of Virginia and I learned how wrong we adults are on this issue and how naïve we were to think our pasts would not haunt us as badly as a tenth grader’s late-night sexting pic.

You must be familiar with Governor Ralph Northam and the “blackface” picture on his medical…


Oshay Johnson and I meeting on the “outside”

Last year I represented Oshay Johnson — a 46-year-old man, convicted of attempted murder and serving a sentence of 15-years-to-life — in a parole suitability hearing at Folsom State Prison. He’s been in the California prison system for 26 years and this was his fourth trip to the parole board. It was my first. I used to represent people convicted of crimes appeal their convictions but I haven’t in years because I couldn’t bear to contribute to a system I found unfair and filled with racism. As Mr. …


This is a pencil drawing of me done by my father. He obviously has a highly romanticized, quasi-princess thing going on.

I sat in a community workshop last week — in a molded linoleum chair in the Veteran’s Hall — talking about race and identity and inclusion. The presenter brought up a slide on the demographics of my small Northern California town of 11,000 people. Nineteen Native Americans live here. Not 1,900. 19! In pre-colonial America, experts believe there were between ten and eighteen million. By the 1890’s the population had been decimated to 250,000. And now 19. A young woman — blonde and attending for extra credit for her Civics class — was the first in our small group discussion…


We hear a lot about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform in the media and many of us would like to do something. Yet it seems impossible to change such a complex, entrenched and dysfunctional system. I provide you with four easy strategies that you can do before the end of the year. Starting with the upcoming elections.

  1. Vote smart for District Attorney. Many people just check the one and only box on the ballot for the uncontested District Attorney election in their county. But increasingly we see more contested elections which has (finally!) given voters a choice. District Attorneys…


When Jimmy Kimmel joked that if we stop sexual harassment in the workplace, “women will only have to deal with harassment all the time at every other place they go,” I laughed out loud. I watched the Oscars — pajamas-on, wine-in-hand — as an escape from looming deadlines and kids sports games. And I enjoyed the Trump jabs and all the women-power stuff. But Kimmel’s comment lingered with me and for the past week I’ve been assembling a list of my all-the-time and every-other-place moments of sexual harassment and gender inequity. There are 67 items on the list. …


The night of the Christmas Ball

I had dated him — a senior, a popular football player and star of the debate team — for only a couple of months when he asked if I would have sex with him. I said no; I loved him and everything, but I wasn’t ready. I had just turned 15.

Then the night of the Christmas Ball arrived in all its magnificence. Maw-maw made my dress — black velvet top with puffy sleeves, a tea-length red and green taffeta skirt, and big bow at my lower back. The perm in my hair needed a refresher but I scrunched it…


With shaggy red hair and almost translucent skin, the young man in the white pressed shirt was introduced as David, a “graduate student in early medieval history.” Across from him sat Adam, a young Black man I had met before through criminal justice reform work. Adam is a recovering prosecutor and, as his black t-shirt announced, a “Feminist.” His dreadlocks normally hang down his back, but that day he twisted and tied them up into a large knot at the back of his neck.

The spotlight shined down on David and Adam, creating a dome of brightness on the small…

Shanti Bright Brien

Author of Almost Innocent. Lawyer to criminals, mother of mayhem, daughter of cowboys and Indians. Champion of equity and fairness.

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