In Minnesota Law’s Newest Clinic, Students Seek Clemency for Clients with Excessive Sentences
Seven years ago, professor JaneAnne Murray was tapped for the steering committee of Clemency Project 2014 (CP2014), a national effort by lawyers and advocates to provide legal assistance for people given excessively harsh prison sentences seeking clemency from President Barack Obama. She thought that to make this work meaningful, she should take on a few clemency cases with her students.
Little did she expect that this small gesture would turn into the successful and longstanding program it has. Working through the Law School’s Clemency Project, Murray and her students submitted 35 petitions to the Obama administration, achieving 14 clemencies. They achieved another 14 petitions during the Trump administration, and are continuing to file petitions under the Biden administration. In addition, they filed 11 state petitions in New York and Minnesota
To date, the Clemency Project has pursued more than 65 cases for clemency at the state and federal levels. The project also filed 12 compassionate release motions in federal court due to COVID.
“Once you get into this work and you see the number of people languishing for these unconscionably long sentences that are outdated, disproportionate, or outright improper, it’s hard to stop doing it,” Murray says. “It was shocking to me. I had not witnessed in my practice cases like the ones I was encountering through my work with CP2014 and thereafter: very low-level players being hammered with decades-long sentences.”
This year, Murray’s clemency work was formalized into the school’s 26th law clinic, making it the newest addition to the clinical training programs that students participate in to hone their legal skills and gain real-world experience with clients in a supportive setting. Under Murray’s supervision and tutelage, half a dozen students each semester take cases with incarcerated clients whose sentences appear out of proportion with the crime they were convicted of—many of them serving sentences of 15 years or more for low-level, drug-related, nonviolent crimes, and some convicted with extenuating factors, including being juveniles at the time of their offense.
Mechanics of the Clinic
Finding cases is no problem. As one of only a handful of such clinics nationally, the Clemency Project is inundated with calls from prisoners, plenty of whom Murray believes deserve clemency. She selects a mixture of state and federal cases to pursue each semester and assigns them to students based on their interests. For those she cannot take on, she tries to find volunteer lawyers. The clinic runs much like a well-oiled law firm, managing cases and drawing from a litigation budget where needed.
Each weekly session of the clinic covers an aspect of law practice management, from sentencing procedures to managing client expectations. Murray brings in speakers every week who can share their expertise in subjects such as writing, mental health, and restorative justice. The clinic embraces a “teaching hospital” format, where students offer suggestions and critiques around each other’s case strategies.
“Different issues arise in different cases; it’s helpful for students to see how we navigate those issues with the client,” Murray says. “That process of brainstorming with each other gives students a more robust experience in the subject area.”
Learning & Making a Difference
Clemency cases broaden students’ perspective on the criminal justice system while giving them an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in peoples’ lives.
Ingrid Hofeldt, 3L, a student director of the clinic this fall, advises other students on researching and writing clemency petitions as well as building relationships with clients. Hofeldt is passionate about issues that people with trauma histories face in the legal system and ways to reshape the criminal justice system, so it doesn’t exploit ordinary people. She finds the clemency process interesting because it gives her an opportunity to show how systemic factors, such as a client’s past traumas and the shortcomings of societal systems, can set people up to commit crimes and become incarcerated.
“I’m able to be creative and incorporate psychiatric research on drugs, sociological research on gangs, or psychological research on childhood trauma into the petitions I write,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to pull disciplines that the law is frequently siloed from into legal practice.”
Cassandra Ann Kasowski was one of 14 Clemency Project clients who had their sentences commuted last January. She had served more than seven years of a 17-year sentence at a prison in Waseca for a nonviolent drug offense. Kasowski says she could never thank Murray and Bree Crye ’21, the student who worked on her petition, enough. They never quit fighting for her.
“They believed in me when I had given up all hope,” Kasowski says. “Clemency has given me a second chance at life. I get to be a mom and a grandma. I will be with them for birthdays, holidays, and milestones, instead of seeing pictures.”
—By Kevin Coss, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer