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How an Unconventional Legal Team Exonerated Two Men After 20 Years in Prison

Updated: Apr 19


Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto smiling

Jofama Coleman (right) and Abel Soto (left) at a press conference after their exoneration (Source: ABC7 News)

Before 2003, Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto were strangers. Even though they never knew each other, they were convicted of cooperating to kill Jose Robles in a drive-by shooting on May 15, 2003. Jofama drove the white van used in the shooting and Abel pulled the trigger. Jofama was 20 years old at the time of his conviction for first-degree murder, and Abel was only 15. Yet, they were completely innocent of the murder.

In the next 17 years, Jofama desperately fought for his own freedom. He studied law diligently in the prison law library and even filed his own writ of habeas corpus, which was denied. By 2020, he had reached out to Ellen Eggers, a professional public defender who has exonerated several people. Working on two other exoneration cases full-time, she couldn’t handle another case by herself. She needed volunteers, people who would be able to summarize and investigate the case under her guidance. 



Ellen Eggers sitting at a desk

Ellen Eggers has exonerated many wrongfully-convicted prisoners, including Franky Carillo, who is featured in The Innocence Files (Source: The Innocence Files)

When Jessica Jacobs, after watching The Innocence Files on Netflix, called Ellen asking to help with wrongful conviction cases, Ellen took her on as an intern. After some basic training, Jessica began work summarizing Jofama’s case files. Along the way, she took advantage of her other job: a counselor for students pursuing alternative education through dual enrollment. Reaching out to her students, she offered them the opportunity to gain law experience through rectifying injustices in the system. Bijan Taheri and Helena Palladino Piassi were two students that took up this challenge, later forming the backbone of Youth for Innocence.

In Jofama’s case, and later Abel Soto’s case, this unlikely four-person team worked to summarize and investigate the case. The first step of any wrongful conviction cases is summarization; reporter’s transcripts, which record verbatim the proceedings of the trial, can run for thousands of pages, filled with useless conversations and redundancies. Reporter’s transcript notes, or RT notes, attempt to condense the information in the trial to 1/50th the size. In between school and other extracurriculars, Bijan and Helena summarized hundreds of pages of transcripts over both cases. 



A picture of the reporter's transcript from Abel Soto's case

The reporter’s transcript contains key information illustrating the unreliability of witnesses. Here, Abel Soto's transcript shows the incentives given to a witness to testify favorably on behalf of the prosecutor. The witness would have received 120 days in prison if not for the letter from the prosecutor. 

Meanwhile, Jessica and Ellen investigated the case, tracking down and interviewing witnesses. Their investigation uncovered new depths of the case, not only towards Jofama’s and Abel’s innocence, but also towards another suspect’s guilt. Helena contributed to this effort through her own knowledge of the case gained from summarization. At one point, she connected a nickname told by one of the witnesses to her knowledge of the transcript to identify the actual shooter. 


After years of hard work, Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto were found factually innocent of the crime in late February of 2024. Jofama is now serving as an advisor to Youth for Innocence and is enrolled in the University of California Riverside, studying public policy before pursuing a law degree. He plans to use his law degree to exonerate other wrongfully-convicted prisoners.

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