Students Seek Clemency for Nonviolent Inmates
In April of last year, the Obama administration launched a clemency initiative aimed at reducing the sentences of long-term, nonviolent federal inmates. Deputy Attorney General James Cole described the program’s goal in terms of fundamental justice: to ameliorate the sentences of those who had been subject to “older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws.”
Under the supervision of Professor JaneAnne Murray, three Law School students—William Hamilton, Chad Pennington, and David Blevins, all members of the class of 2015—have taken up the challenge of representing inmates who are seeking clemency. Each student is working with an inmate who has served at least 15 years in prison for a nonviolent offense, and all are hopeful that by the end of this year, these men will be closer to being reunited with their families.
The inmates’ stories are representative of the inequity the program is intended to redress. Each man was at the low end of the drug distribution chain. Each was arrested, tried, and given the sort of lengthy prison sentence that was typical in the 1990s and early 2000s. And each, if convicted today, would receive a much shorter sentence. For example, William Hamilton’s client, arrested in 1993 at the age of 22, is serving life without the possibility of parole for his role as a “runner” in a street-level crack distribution conspiracy in Washington, D.C. He engaged in no violence, never carried a weapon, and has had an exemplary prison record. His sentence for the same offense today would likely be about 10 years. Chad Pennington’s client has served more than three quarters of his 262-month sentence. He was recently diagnosed with lung cancer—his second cancer diagnosis since his incarceration. David Blevins’s client, who would likely receive a sentence of 20 years today, is currently in the 24th year of a life sentence.
Professor Murray is on the steering committee of Clemency Project 2014, the group of defense organizations (the ABA, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the ACLU, and Federal Defenders) formed to screen the 35,000 inmates who have applied for relief and recruit and train volunteer lawyers for those with meritorious cases. “Mass incarceration is one of the key civil rights issues of our day,” Murray says. “I am so gratified that our students want to play a part in redressing it.”