Brian Banks was on track to have it all.
At 16, the California native was already making a name for himself as a standout football player. Though he had one year left before he would graduate Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Banks had already committed to playing football at the University of Southern California.
“Biggest year of my life, for sports and education,” Banks, now 34, told InsideEdition.com.
And then he was arrested for a crime that not only he didn't commit, but that never occurred in the first place. Still, it would derail his life for a decade.
His is a story that he is quick to point out is not uncommon, but is one that was so rousing, it has inspired a movie.
“I never thought that I’d be in this position, but I am, and I’m thankful,” Banks said.
It’s the latest step the new father has taken to call attention to and advocate for changing what he said are systemic issues that led to his wrongful conviction, as well as reclaim his story as his own, a part of the new normal he has created for himself after the life he thought was ahead of him came crashing down.
The life Banks was creating for himself as a teenager ended in 2002, when he was charged with the rape and kidnapping of someone he had known since childhood.
“I went to a known makeout spot with a girl that I’ve known since middle school, and we kissed and we made out,” Banks said. “That was the extent of it, but by the end of the day, I was being arrested.”
Banks spent almost nine months fighting for his innocence before his attorney offered what he said was described as the best possible outcome.
“I was presented with this plea bargaining opportunity of if I pleaded no contest to one count of rape, that they would drop all the other charges and I would undergo what was called a 90-day observation at Chino State Prison,” Banks said.
There, a psychologist and a counselor would evaluate Banks and weigh in on what they believed would be a just punishment for the teen: felony probation, three years in prison or six years in prison.
“At this time, my lawyer looked me square in the eyes and told me, ‘Brian, I promise you and I guarantee you, they will give you the favorable report and you will get the probation period after 90 days.
"If you don’t take this deal, you’ll walk into this courtroom, they will see you as this big black teenager, and you’ll probably have this jury that is not of your peers, and they will find you guilty based off of your look alone,’” Banks said.
At 17 years old and with only 10 minutes to make a decision that would determine the rest of his life, Banks took his attorney’s advice and accepted the deal. He spent 90 days at Chino State Prison, received a favorable report from the authorities tasked with evaluating him and went back to court hopeful he would be leaving a free man.
“The judge still gave me the higher term of six years,” Banks said. “I was off to prison.”
Banks spent five years and two months in prison, more than 1,855 days behind bars for a crime he knew never took place.
“I always like to put it into perspective of, I spent my 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd birthday behind bars,” he said.
Banks was paroled when he was 22 in August 2007 under strict conditions that required him to register as a sex offender for life, live nowhere near any school or park and wear a GPS tracking device on his ankle for five years.
“I was very naive in thinking that things would be better once I got home,” he said. But his stint in prison sent ripples through his life afterward. “I had no social life. I couldn’t find work. No one wanted to be around me.”
In spite of, and in part because of, the dire conditions Banks was forced to live under, he dedicated himself to moving forward and proving to the court he was innocent.
“A lot of me fighting for my life and to clear my name was done on my own, and I did everything I could,” he said.
“From filing my own appeal, to reaching out to numerous different attorneys, to contacting the California Innocence Project numerous times, all the way to the point to where I was successful at capturing the person who was responsible for all of this on tape recanting everything that they said had happened.”
As Banks worked with the California Innocence Project’s founder, Justin Brooks, to explore his options for restoring his innocence, he received a social media notification in 2011 that would prove to be the start of another unexpected chapter in his life.
“I got on Facebook and I noticed I had a friend request,” Banks recalled. “I clicked the friend request, and the box drops down, and it was the woman who accused me [of rape and kidnapping].”
Banks arranged a meeting with the woman, Wanetta Gibson, and a private investigator, who confronted her about her accusations nine years earlier.
“Did he rape you?” the investigator asked Gibson, and Banks told the Los Angeles Times she replied: “Of course not. If he raped me, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Gibson has not publicly addressed the incident. The Long Beach Unified School District would go on to win a $2.6 million judgement against her for her suit against the district over the fabricated rape claim.
“Finally, May 24, 2012, I walked into a courtroom a convicted sex offender, and I walked out of that courtroom a completely free and cleared man,” Banks said. “I was found and deemed factually innocent, which is a big difference in a court of law. Innocent means, ‘We don’t have enough to come after you for,’ and factually innocent means, ‘We messed up, and you are, in fact, innocent, and this should’ve never happened.’”
Banks was exonerated, and like the many men and women found to have been innocent of the crimes they were convicted, he was met with a barrage of cameras and well-wishers curious to know what he would do now that he was given back his good name.
“I want to play football,” Banks said.
He went on to try out for several teams before signing with the Atlanta Falcons in 2013. He played four preseason games with the team before being released.
“That was a dream come true — you know what? Better than a dream come true, it was dreams restored,” Banks said. “I actually took back a dream that was taken away from me.”
The press Banks and his story garnered piqued Hollywood’s interest, but he wanted to be sure whoever handled morphing his journey into one for the silver screen would take care to honor the uphill battle he had been fighting since 2002. He eventually met with Gidden Media President Amy Baer, whose passion for the story made Banks’ decision for whom to sign over the rights to his story an easy one.
“We cried and we laughed and we were mad together and we were sad together, and I feel like she just understood and she got it,” Banks said. “So I signed on the dotted line with her and the race was on from there. She put all the amazing pieces together.”
The rest of the team included director Tom Shadyac, whose films include “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Liar, Liar,” “Patch Adams,” “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty,” Greg Kinnear, who portrayed Justin Brooks, Sherri Shepherd, who played Banks’ mother, Leomia, and Aldis Hodge, who made it his mission to honor Banks’ story.
“That was actually his exact words, ‘I don’t want to act this out, I want to become who you are,’” Banks said. “He had to bulk up to get that image of an NFL linebacker, and he had the option of getting this professional trainer and spending a bunch of money and working with somebody, and we both came up with the idea of, ‘How about you train with me?’”
Hodge put on 20 pounds of muscle for the role, spending nearly every day for over a month with Banks to look the part. In the process, the men became close.
“I can honestly say that, beyond this film, he’s one of my best friends,” Banks said. “He’s such a great guy … and I’m so impressed with the way he embodied my character, my life story, and put so much energy and emotion into making sure that the message is conveyed in the right way.”
Banks’ dedication to the film was also self-evident. As an executive producer for the film, he was on set every day to provide notes where necessary and guidance as needed. He was acutely aware of what was supposed to happen when — after all, he had lived it.
“Obviously there were certain scenes that I just did not want to be around for that they shot,” he said. “I would show up that morning and we’d go over the call sheet, and I would talk to the cast … and then I’d step out of the way and let them film it.”
Stepping away wasn’t an option when it came time for Banks to watch the finished product. In an empty theater with nothing but his memories to keep him company, Banks watched the film for the first time on his own.
“Very tough to watch,” he said. “I sat in the middle seat, they closed the doors, turned off the lights and I was left to myself to watch this film, and I think every emotion that I had been keeping inside of me, everything that I had gone through, just surfaced in that moment.”
It was raw and real and exactly what Banks hoped to have left the audience with.
“I was so proud at what [director] Tom [Shadyac] was able to do with this story,” Banks said. “There is really no lecture in this film. … You are with Brian as he’s trying to secure his freedom. You are learning about the system along the way.
“You’re angry, you’re excited, you’re happy, you’re sad, but you walk out of the theater with a newfound prospective on the flaws within our system and how we can make it better, and how we can come together to make sure that these changes are rectified and done,” he continued. “I think it’s important for people to know that this is not an isolated incident. That this happens all too often.
“I feel that this is a message for people that we can no longer allow innocent people to sit in cages like animals for things that they didn't do.”
Life lately for Banks has been good.
He co-hosted an Oxygen show “Final Appeal,” in which he and former prosecutor Loni Coombs examined cases where those convicted of crimes claimed to be innocent. His first book, a memoir entitled “What Set Me Free,” was published in July. And the movie with which he shares his name hit theaters nationwide Aug. 9.
Most notably, Banks and his girlfriend welcomed their first child, a boy named O’Rion King, in January.
“He’s already busy,” Banks proudly boasted of his son. “He's crawling, he's pulling up on things and standing up, he's saying ‘mama’ and ‘baba’ already, he's sitting up on his own. That's my life now.”
It would be understandable for anyone whose life was stolen by way of wrongful conviction to move forward and away from the past that for long defined them. But for Banks, that isn’t an option.
“I am a firm believer in what you put out is what you get back, and so I try to walk through life being a very positive person,” he said. “Being positive helped me get through very negative situations. If you meet negative with negative, you only create more negative, but if you meet negative with positive, you, in some ways, cancel out the negativity and you find ways to rise above it.”
He serves on the advisory boards for the California Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations, often can be found speaking out about the issue of wrongful convictions and has served as a life coach working with exonorees.
“I'm still marching, I'm still tweeting and talking about injustice, I'm still standing up for those who can't stand for themselves,” Banks said. “I'm … fighting for truth, fighting for justice and equality, and I'm using my hardship and traumatic experiences as fuel to propel me forward toward seeing that no one has to experience what I went through.”