A Southern California man exonerated after being accused of rape made a special trip to San Diego Friday to personally thank the group that helped him clear his name.
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Former high school football star Brian Banks visited the California Western School of Law's Innocence Project and spoke about the freedom that was taken away from him 10 years ago.
"I didn't know how long it was going to take. I didn't know when or if I was going to get my freedom back," Banks told those in attendance.
In 2002, Banks was a 16-year-old star linebacker for Long Beach Polytechnic High School with a full scholarship to USC waiting for him.
However, a girl Banks was dating accused him of rape on July 8, 2002. At 17, Banks pleaded no contest to forcible rape in exchange for a six-year sentence -- considerably shorter than the 41-year-to-life term he could have faced if he had gone to trial and been convicted.
He said he had only about 10 minutes to decide whether to take the deal and was not allowed to contact his parents for advice.
"My mom sold her house, her car and borrowed money from family for the lawyer who represented me in this case and all that got us was a plea bargain
and that plea bargain destroyed my life," Banks said.
With no money, Banks tried to appeal on his own with no luck. He then reached out to the California Innocence Project.
"This place saved my life and has given me another opportunity to live," said Banks.
It wasn't until last year, after five years in prison and three years on parole, that freedom came from the most unexpected place.
Banks' accuser, Wanetta Gibson, sent him a message on Facebook and asked to meet.
"I reached out to her and asked her to meet with me after receiving that Facebook friend request, and when we met, my sole purpose of meeting was to capture that recantation on tape," Banks said. "I just wanted to do the best thing possible and carry out this mission the best way possible in having her come forward."
"This case is heartbreaking. First, because of who Brian is, but second because there are other cases just like this. In Brian's case, it was just luck
luck that this woman felt guilty," said Prof. Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project.
Banks has not talked to his accuser and said he doesn't even give her a thought.
Now, he said he is refocused on his dream to star in the NFL.
"With this newfound freedom, I promise to you and I swear to you I'm going to do great things," Banks said.
Banks and the California Innocence Project are now tasked with scouring the Internet to clear his name online by erasing any reference to Banks as a sex offender.
Gibson sued the Long Beach Unified School District, alleging that lax security led to the attack, and received a $1.5 million settlement, according to the Innocence Project.
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