The University of Minnesota Law School’s Clemency Project advocates for inmates serving disproportionately long prison sentences. Inaugurated in 2014 in response to President Obama’s clemency initiative for non-violent and low-level federal inmates, it has had unprecedented success. Prof. Murray, founder of the Law School’s Project, was a member of the Steering Committee of CP2014, the umbrella organization of defense organizations that recruited and trained lawyers to submit clemency applications under the President’s program.
Throughout President Obama’s initiative, 15 Law School students drafted clemency petitions on behalf of 35 inmates, by far the largest contribution in terms of number of student applications by any law school in the United States. These applications resulted in 14 commutations (a 15th was granted compassionate release in an application also supported by the Project). Then-acting U.S. Pardon Attorney, Robert Zauzmer, called in person on January 17, 2017, to advise the Law School of the final four successful applicants. See Drug inmate wins release, thanks to University of Minnesota program and State law school clemency projects help shorten drug sentences.
Under the Trump Administration, the Project continued to file federal clemency applications, focusing primarily on Minnesota-based prisoners, and in particular, female prisoners at Waseca FCI, where, through CP2014, the Project had created a relationship with staff and prisoners. This focus meant the students could meet their clients in person, which they all did (until the pandemic hit). In fact, when their clients were moved to Carswell, Texas, the students flew down to visit them. This work culminated in another unprecedented number of clemency grants: 14 low-level, non-violent clemency grantees (see 14 Clemency Project Clients Granted Commutations By President and Commutation from Trump clears way for Waseca inmate’s freedom 5 years early).
During this time, Murray’s students also filed eight state clemency petitions before Governor Cuomo under an initiative he had established in 2017. Governor Cuomo’s initiative prided itself in its openness to violent convictions, and based on this promise, the Program exclusively took on homicide cases with deeply mitigating circumstances. This effort yielded no grants. (Murray was on the steering committee of the NY State Clemency Project).
The Project’s clemency advocacy work is at the heart of an innovative and integrated program aimed at connecting law students in a hands-on way to the human realities of mass incarceration. In the spring of 2018, the Project assisted local Minnesota defense lawyers to gain durational or dispositional sentencing departures in four sentencing cases. In the summer of 2018 and in partnership with King & Spalding, it also secured the reduction to time-served of a life sentence following 18 months of litigation in DC’s federal and local courts on behalf of the Project’s first clemency client. See Prof. Murray, King & Spalding Score Major Victory in Pro Bono Clemency Work.
In 2020, the Project filed ten compassionate release petitions for clients it had identified in its clemency program, winning release for a female lifer in a non-violent drug case whose case deserved a “second look” on grounds beyond those traditionally recognized in compassionate release. The Project also filed a motion for retroactive sentencing relief for another clemency client, and when that motion was denied, pursued the petition before the Eighth Circuit. See Newly Minted Attorney Connor Shaull ’20 Argues Clemency Project Case before 8th Circuit.
The Project’s motto is one client at a time - but with a view to zeroing in and showcasing the kinds of advocacy that can make a difference for other similarly-situated inmates and offenders. The Project’s work includes:
- Clemency Applications on behalf of federal and state inmates
see e.g. Prof. Murray, Clemency Project Secure Compassionate Release for Grandmother Vulnerable to COVID-19 and 14 Clemency Project Clients Granted Commutations By President;
- Compassionate Release Applications for inmates who are elderly, of limited capacity or facing unexpected family obligations
see e.g. 14 Clemency Project Clients Granted Commutations By President;
- “Second Look” Litigation identifying and developing novel legal routes to a judicial “second look” at the integrity of the sentence an inmate is serving
see e.g. Newly Minted Attorney Connor Shaull ’20 Argues Clemency Project Case before 8th Circuit;
- Sentencing Advocacy Practicum exploring cutting-edge sentencing advocacy through hands-on representation of clients in a unique interdisciplinary law class
see syllabus Clemency Project Practicum;
- Clemency Advocacy for Defendants and Inmates promoting expanded use of clemency powers, development of “second look” procedures, and sophisticated mitigation advocacy
see e.g. Prof. Murray, King & Spalding Score Major Victory in Pro Bono Clemency Work and Newly Minted Attorney Connor Shaull ’20 Argues Clemency Project Case before 8th Circuit.