Prof. Murray, Clemency Project Secure Compassionate Release for Grandmother Vulnerable to COVID-19

The parallels often drawn between a life sentence and the death penalty may be even more apt with COVID-19 sweeping through prisons.

That helps explain Minnesota Law Professor JaneAnne Murray’s relief when a federal judge last month reduced Deborah Jackson’s sentence from life without the possibility of parole to time served for a low-level, non-violent drug offense committed in 2009.

Jackson, 61, and suffering from several ailments that make her extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and serious illness if not death if actually infected, was released August 4, and will live with her daughter and two grandchildren in Kansas City.

“I was so happy for her,” Murray said. “Her family was ecstatic and sent an e-mail that said Deborah is just over-the-moon thrilled.”

Jackson had been serving her sentence at the low-security federal prison for women in Waseca, Minnesota, which had one confirmed COVID-19 infection and had locked down a 200-prisoner unit because several women became very ill, according to a brief Murray filed in mid-July.

COVID-19 has infected nearly 80,000 prisoners and killed close to 780 through late July, according to the Marshall Project, which with the Associated Press, is tracking how the coronavirus is spreading in prisons across the country.

A Long Odyssey
The sentence reduction culminates a long odyssey for Jackson, a client of Murray’s Clemency Project, and a five-year battle Murray waged to win Jackson’s freedom. Over that time Murray worked with Minnesota Law students to file two clemency petitions with two different administrations and, in June of this year, with the help of local counsel, Shazzie Naseem, at Berkowitz Oliver in Kansas City, Missouri, a motion for compassionate release under the First Step Act.

Initially, the government opposed the motion, but after outreach from Murray and Naseem, to the prosecutor (not the person who had originally prosecuted Jackson), the government conceded that Jackson met the threshold for eligibility for compassionate release: “extraordinary and compelling reasons” justifying a sentence reduction, which in Jackson’s case, consisted of her unique vulnerability to COVID-19.

Having passed the eligibility hurdle, the next step was to persuade the judge to resentence Jackson to time served. The government supported a reduction in sentence but not as much as Murray sought.

Murray and her students Thomas Huling ’20 and Alexandra Young ’22 argued that the factors supporting such a significant reduction included Jackson’s playing a supporting role in the crimes; her exemplary prison record, with no infractions, completion of her high school equivalency diploma, and assignment to roles of trust, along with her medical conditions that “place her at an elevated risk of serious harm from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.” Jackson presents no danger to the community, the brief states, and has satisfied the goals of deterrence and rehabilitation in her case.

To be able to win this sort of outcome and secure  Ms. Jackson’s release from an unjust and onerous sentence while still waiting for bar exam results to formally begin my career is extremely gratifying. —Thomas Huling ’20

Motivating Murray from the outset was what she saw as the “draconian” sentence Jackson received after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Jackson had played only a supporting role—essentially a relief worker who accepted deliveries and payments if her co-defendant son wasn’t present.

When the government initially prosecuted Jackson in 2008, prosecutors opted to submit an information listing two prior felony drug convictions, which Murray said involved minor possession charges for which Jackson initially was sentenced to probation. The prior convictions, though, meant Jackson received the mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole on the conspiracy charge and a consecutive five-year sentence on the firearm count.

If sentenced today, Jackson would face at most a 180-month statutory minimum and likely a lower guideline sentence, Murray said. Jackson already had served 124 months, equal to a 154-month sentence with good time credits. Her son, a more substantial figure in the offenses, got a sentence of 156 months.

“The moment I encountered Deborah back in 2015, her case struck a chord with me,” Murray said. “Her sentence, and the fact that she received it on a guilty plea, was incredibly unjust,” Murray said. “I knew there had to be a way to mitigate this. I’m surprised it had to take five years for it to happen but I’m very glad that finally we found a judge [also not the original sentencing judge] and a prosecutor who both recognized the necessity.”

‘Real-World Impact’
Huling ’20, one of the students working with Murray on Jackson’s case, registered for the clemency practicum in his final semester. He had gained experience in criminal defense while working for the Anoka County public defender’s office and was getting impatient “to do some meaningful work with actual real-world impact.”

“To be able to win this sort of outcome and secure Ms. Jackson’s release from an unjust and onerous sentence while still waiting for bar exam results to formally begin my career is extremely gratifying,” said Huling, who is doing contract criminal defense work while waiting for a COVID-related hiring freeze to end.

But for the coronavirus, Murray said, Jackson would still be subject to her life sentence. The judge expressly rejected the argument that Jackson deserved a sentencing reduction because her life sentence would not be imposed today under current law.

“Without compassionate release on COVID grounds, our only recourse was to appeal to the 10th Circuit and later even the Supreme Court,” Murray said, “or cross our fingers and hope that President Trump would grant her clemency.”

—By Todd Nelson, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

JaneAnne Murray
Associate Clinical Professor of Law