“THIS CAN’T BE happening.”
For 10 years, this phrase regularly flashed in Brian Banks’ mind during his tortuous journey through the American legal system. It now flashes in the minds of readers who’ll learn in his autobiography, “What Set Me Free,” that this system doesn’t presume innocence.
In 2002, the Californian was a 16-year-old high school student and a nationally recruited football player. Banks had only recently accepted a scholarship to play college ball when he has an on-campus hook-up with a co-ed that he argues was innocuous. His flame contends it was otherwise, and he’s arrested on kidnapping and rape charges.
So began Banks’ nightmare inside juvenile hall, county jail and a prison. He protests his innocence but still must endure humiliating treatment, witness unspeakable violence and see his own humanity ebb away. As he describes it, he sleeps, cries, prays, rages, and prays some more, all the while hoping that some lawyer, psychologist, judge, reporter—anyone!—will listen to his side of the story.
The outcome has been well documented: Banks was exonerated in 2012 when his accuser’s claims were found to be bogus. But knowing that doesn’t dampen the reader’s experience of learning what it feels like to be the accused.
Ghost-written by Mark Dagostino, the autobiography—which is being released in conjunction with a major motion picture, “Brian Banks”—stays true to the here and now. Banks tells his tale as it’s happening, as he’s experiencing it. With every setback, Banks lets the reader know his immediate thoughts and reactions, and this is important in understanding his choice of book title.
The California Innocence Project helped him gain his legal freedom, but Banks obtained his personal liberation, his “true freedom,” in an epiphany during a dark moment. Inspired by a prison mentor, he looked inward to gain to regain his spiritual side; he’s in this world, but not of it.
Banks has his faults. He comes across as self-centered in failing to understand others’ job responsibilities. The same lust that put him in his predicament causes him problems during his parole days. And while his tone suggests forgiveness, he never relents his resentment over his accuser going unpunished.
He’s not perfect, but neither is the justice system, which he implores needs more resources and a better moral code to protect the innocent.
Jeff Schulze is a night sports content editor with The Free Lance–Star.