Students’ Clemency Project Work Helps Secure Commutations for Two Nonviolent Inmates Serving Life Sentences

On Aug. 3, President Obama commuted the sentences of 214 federal inmates, most of them imprisoned for nonviolent drug-related offenses. Among them was Bernard Gibson, 66, who was represented in his clemency application by Professor JaneAnne Murray and David Blevins (’15). Blevins, now practicing law in Greenville, S.C., is one of more than a dozen Law School students who have done field work under the supervision of Murray to secure shortened sentences for such inmates. The effort is part of Clemency Project 2014, an Obama Administration initiative aimed at redressing differences between current sentencing practices and earlier, much more stringent ones.

“We are so excited that Bernard’s sentence was commuted,” Murray said. “He was one of the first clients in our clemency project at the Law School, so we’ve had a long relationship with him. Bernard got a life sentence because of felony enhancements filed just before he went to trial, so that his mandatory sentence upon conviction was life in prison. Today, under new prosecution policies, these enhancements would not be filed and his sentence would be 30 years—precisely his commuted sentence. This commutation is really about restoring him to a more just outcome. We hope that we get to communicate the same good news to the other clients whose petitions we have submitted.”

There are 18 such clients. Earlier this summer, Law School students’ efforts helped secure the release of a Florida inmate, Teresa Griffin, 51. Her sentence was commuted by President Obama on June 3. She had served 25 years of a life term she received for transporting drugs for her abusive boyfriend, a major cocaine dealer. In a letter to Griffin, Obama wrote, “The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance…. I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”

Reflecting on his Clemency Project work, Will Orlady (’16) said, “I learned a great deal about the criminal justice system and the role law students can play in improving it. Most importantly, however, I was able to augment my legal studies with real client contact. The case method used in law school may be effective, but it often dehumanizes the disputes that give rise to law we study. Meeting and, in turn, working with my Clemency Project client reminded me that behind each legal dispute lies a person with a life, a family, and a story. This lesson will stay with me going into practice.”

“Before my experience with the Clemency Project, I had only a vague idea about the problems within our criminal justice system,” said Molly Davy (’17). “I knew that mass incarceration is an issue, that our prison system is incredibly expensive, and that innocent people are being sent to jail. I had no idea about the extent of these problems. Putting a face to the problem via the Clemency Project really put things into perspective. I met a young woman who had served only 7 years of her 25-year drug sentence but had already made immense progress. By working on her case I have been exposed to issues that I would have otherwise remained blind to. I cannot express enough how much I appreciate the opportunity and experience I gained with the Clemency Project.”