The 2023 Making an Exoneree class on stage.
Category: Student Experience

Title: Meet the Senior Working to Free a Wrongfully Imprisoned Man

When Justin Cassera (B’23) was in middle school, he watched a police officer pull up to his family’s home in small-town Colorado. The police officer handed his father official papers charging him with felony assault, a crime his father never committed. Cassera’s childhood was turned upside down.

Despite his father never being convicted of the felony, what followed was a drawn-out legal saga that pushed the Casseras out of their community. Both of his parents lost their jobs in the fallout, and Cassera’s family spent the next year and a half on the move, shifting from one hotel to the next and living out of the family minivan.

Justin Cassera with his three brothers and father in front of a garage door.
Justin Cassera (B’23), right, with his father and three brothers in 2015.

“Even though my father was innocent of what he was being tried for, and even though he hadn’t been convicted, the process of the trial wrecked our lives,” Cassera said. “And that’s something that I thought shouldn’t happen in a fair justice system.”

That experience has stayed with Cassera years later as he prepares to graduate from Georgetown. But what once traumatized Cassera’s coming-of-age has driven him to advocate for those who have been unfairly treated in the criminal justice system.

A Budding Interest in the Law

As with many college students around the world in 2020, Justin’s first year at Georgetown was cut short when the pandemic struck. But with all this extra time on his hands during the early months of the pandemic, he realized he could pursue whatever he wanted at Georgetown. Over the summer, Cassera began to think more deeply about his family’s experience with the criminal justice system and dedicated his extra time to learning all he could about the law.

“I was reading a bunch of books about the criminal legal system, and I realized this is way bigger than just my family’s experience,” Cassera said. “It provided me some solace to know that, but I also felt like I had a responsibility to learn more about it just because of the privilege that the Georgetown degree offers you.”

Though Cassera was learning plenty on his own, it wasn’t until his senior year that he was able to really dive into the law, enrolling in the Prisons and Punishment course taught by Marc Howard, director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI). The course connects a group of undergraduate students and incarcerated individuals as they explore topics of mass incarceration, the criminal justice system and more. For Cassera, the course helped him contextualize his family’s experience.

“I was really involved in the class, and I was bugging Marc constantly in office hours,” said Cassera. “It was just a good way for me to sort of formalize my education outside of just my personal experience.”

Fighting to Free John Kinsel From Prison

Moved by his experience in Prisons and Punishment, Cassera felt he needed to go further and directly help wrongfully incarcerated people. He applied for the Making an Exoneree course, co-taught by Howard and Martin Tankleff, an adjunct professor of law, for the spring semester of his senior year.

Cassera sits in a classroom in discussion with five others around a table.
Cassera (right) participates in a breakout session during the Making an Exoneree class with course instructor Marc Howard and other PJI staff.

“I felt the passion inside me thinking I need to do this. I want to do this more than anything else,” Cassera said. “I just felt this itch to get involved and do the work with my brain and my own two hands.”

In the class, Georgetown undergraduate and law students team up with film students from the University of California, Santa Cruz to support the cases of people believed to be wrongfully convicted, many of whom have spent decades behind bars. Each team supports one case by creating a digital campaign and a short documentary, culminating in the Making an Exoneree showcase at the end of the semester.

Cassera and his team supported the case of John Kinsel, a man who has spent more than 26 years in a Louisiana prison serving a life sentence for aggravated rape of a minor. For the past 17 years, his alleged victim Alyssa Medlin has maintained that she fabricated her testimony and has been fighting to clear Kinsel’s name alongside his friends and family.

When Cassera first heard Kinsel’s story, he was hesitant to accept the case due to the nature of the alleged crime. However, seeing Medlin be so vocal about Kinsel’s innocence for nearly two decades convinced him to take on the case.


A video thumbnail with a photo of John Kinsel with the words "Free John Kinsel" across the image.

After first meeting Kinsel over the phone, Cassera and his team worked tirelessly alongside Medlin and Kinsel’s family and friends to overturn his conviction. Cassera’s work varied from reviewing old transcripts and evidence to interviewing Medlin and other key actors in the case and developing a strategy for the digital campaign to draw as much attention as possible. Cassera also worked closely with Kinsel’s lawyer, who encouraged the team to keep asking questions and reminding the courts that Kinsel’s case hadn’t been forgotten.

In March, Cassera was able to meet Kinsel in person during a legal visit. The moment, he said, inspired him to work even harder for Kinsel’s release.

“Getting to meet with him in person when we visited Louisiana I think helped a lot because we were able to look him in the eye. We were able to shake his hand,” Cassera said. “I think that really helped to build the trust and reinvigorated us in that fight to keep going.”

The Making an Exoneree course also helped Cassera and his teammates become close and build trust with each of Kinsel’s family members and friends involved in the case.

John Kinsel Sitting next to a woman on a bench
Cassera and his team worked on the case of John Kinsel, a man who has been in prison for over 26 years. His alleged victim has maintained for over 17 years that she fabricated her testimony and has been working to free Kinsel ever since.

“You jump in with these families for one semester when they’ve been dealing with this for decades, and you just immediately feel the same things they’ve been carrying around with them,” Cassera said. “You feel these things intimately because you become a part of it.”

For Cassera, working on Kinsel’s case also brought back old memories from his own family’s experience with the legal system.

“That burden did feel familiar to me, but it’s also somewhat different,” Cassera said. “John’s situation is far worse than what my family experienced because, no matter what, my family always ended up together at the end of the day. John hasn’t been afforded that luxury.”

The Toll and Fulfillment of Overturning Wrongful Convictions

While many of Cassera’s friends have celebrated and enjoyed their final year in college, Cassera found himself carrying a heavy emotional toll from working on Kinsel’s case. 

Cassera speaks at the podium on stage surrounded by his teammates.
Cassera introduces Kinsel’s case at the Making an Exoneree showcase.

“Hanging out with my friends, we were going out to dinner and having a fun time, and you just think in the back of your mind, ‘I wonder what John’s doing right now,’” Cassera said. “Whatever John is doing, at the end of the day, he’s behind barbed wire fences that are 10 feet tall, and his movements are incredibly restricted. He’s not free.”

Supporting Kinsel’s case also required a significant time investment from Cassera’s whole team. In early February, the team worked overtime to kickstart Kinsel’s digital campaign and website in time for a feature on the Dr. Phil show. They knew this was an invaluable opportunity to tell Kinsel’s story to a national audience. On May 15, the show spotlighted Kinsel’s case again, and the team is hopeful that a judge will reconsider Kinsel’s case in the coming months based on recently uncovered evidence that may exonerate him.



“You find a little bit of comfort in knowing that you’re helping these families and these people tell their story and give them hope, which is a big part of why it’s so fulfilling, even if it’s challenging. It’s truly the coolest thing and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Justin Cassera

Despite the long hours and the uphill nature of the battle, Cassera felt fulfilled knowing that his team’s work was helping real people who have carried this burden for years.

“You find a little bit of comfort in knowing that you’re helping these families and these people tell their story and give them hope, which is a big part of why it’s so fulfilling, even if it’s challenging,” Cassera said. “It’s truly the coolest thing and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

And for Kinsel, the support from Cassera and the rest of PJI has meant the world to him.

“Now I can plan on getting my life back and dream of the future, get to know my kids once more, meet my grandkids — all 16 of them — walk in the woods and just listen to the quiet, something that is unheard of in prison,” Kinsel wrote in a statement presented at this year’s showcase. “Then, after all, I want to build a friendship with everyone involved, because if not for all of you, I would continue doing this death sentence by incarceration.”

Building a Future in the Law

Cassera says his experience in Making an Exoneree has profoundly shaped the trajectory of his future career. He plans to continue to support Kinsel’s case in whatever way he can until he is freed.

“I remember when I first got into Making an Exoneree. I was really excited, and I texted my family group chat,” Cassera said. “My dad gave me a call later that day and was like, ‘I’ve got a feeling you’re going to take this class, and you’re going to know at the end of it that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.’”

His dad was right.

A large group of people including Cassera stands on stage with a projector screen behind them.
The Making an Exoneree class culminates with a showcase that features all the short documentaries students have been working on for the entire semester.

Cassera plans to use his degree to help others while pursuing a legal career. This fall, he will begin work as a paralegal at a multinational legal firm in Washington, DC.

Cassera plans to enroll in law school in a few years with the hopes of becoming a civil rights lawyer. Owing to his time with PJI, he also hopes to one day provide pro bono legal services for wrongfully imprisoned individuals.

For Cassera, walking across the stage at commencement this year will carry an extra special significance for the first-generation college student and his family, who has been behind him every step of the way as his undergraduate career helped him make sense of his own history.

“Everything I’ve done to this point is trying to help my family in some way, and Georgetown has given me the ability to do that,” Cassera said. “The person I was and the life I lived before Georgetown, and the person I am now and the life I have ahead of me, it’s two completely different trajectories, and the university is the reason that’s the case.”