About the Clemency Project
Initially, its sole focus was federal clemency petitions, but it has since expanded its mission to include state clemency petitions, compassionate release applications, post-conviction litigation to secure a “second look” for inmates serving long sentences, an innovative practicum on sentencing advocacy, and public advocacy on behalf of inmates serving disproportionately long prison sentences.
Clemency Petitions form the Project’s core work. Throughout President Obama’s initiative, 15 students drafted petitions on behalf of 35 inmates, by far the biggest 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). The Project began by representing inmates from all over the country but by 2015, focused exclusively on federal inmates sentenced or housed in Minnesota. As a result, 11 of the 15 students who worked on clemency petitions to President Obama visited their clients in Minnesota’s federal prisons and six of the Project’s commutees were Minnesota inmates.
In 2017, the Project expanded to include the representation of state inmates. It took on the representation of eight inmates under Governor Cuomo’s clemency initiative for New York inmates (a state analogue to President Obama’s initiative). It is also exploring representing state inmates here in Minnesota and in neighboring states, so that students can visit their clients in person. The Project has also filed updated clemency petitions for four federal inmates, bringing to eight the number of clemency petitions the Project has currently pending before the Trump administration.
Clemency advocacy is immensely rewarding for the students. It also hones some of a lawyer’s most important skills: effective interview techniques, building a trusting client relationship, meticulous legal and factual research, pre-empting adverse arguments, and drafting persuasive narratives and legal arguments.
Compassionate Release Applications are a natural outgrowth of the Project’s clemency work. Over-crowded prisons and the increasing “graying” of their populations make it all the more pressing that the federal Bureau of Prisons and state correctional systems move to release inmates who are elderly, of limited capacity or facing unexpected family obligations. The Project has assisted several prisoners file and/or litigate compassionate release applications.
Complementing the Project’s clemency work is its “Second Look” Litigation, where it identifies and develops novel legal routes to a judicial “second look” at the integrity of the sentence an inmate is serving. In June 2018, after 18 months of litigation in federal and local courts in D.C., Prof. Murray, in collaboration with Pro Bono King & Spalding partner, Joshua Toll, finally secured release for Derrin Perkins, previously sentenced to life plus 18 years. Perkins had been the Project’s first clemency client.
The Sentencing Advocacy Practicum is a unique interdisciplinary course modeled like a traditional law clinic. Students meet once a week and explore the role of sentencing advocacy in state and federal sentencing systems, the factors that influence its quality, and the insights from social scientists that can critique and improve it. The class draws on the wealth of interdisciplinary expertise on the University of Minnesota campus as well as in our local professional community. Most importantly, the students learn by doing — through hands-on involvement in actual pending cases. Working either on clemency petitions or on actual pending sentencing cases, the students get to know a real human being and their family in the cross-hairs of the criminal justice system, and will strategize, research, and develop an effective sentencing/clemency petition. Using a “teaching hospital” format, students then brainstorm each other’s cases, critique the sentencing strategy, and learn from the courtroom experiences.
Finally, building on experience and relationships developed through its work, the Project engages in Advocacy for Criminal Defendants and Inmates, including promoting expanded use of clemency powers, development of “second look” procedures, and sophisticated mitigation advocacy.