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The Minnesota Law Clinic That Convinced Obama To Spring Three Cons

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Law professor Mark Osler told a federal inmate serving a life sentence that he would be a free man by New Years.

The news came by the White House and the Department of Justice, which announced Tuesday President Barack Obama had commuted the sentences of 111 federal inmates.

Osler holds the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. Before joining the law faculty, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit, during which time he prosecuted innumerable drug cases, enforcing the draconian sentencing laws he now rails against from academia.

His road to Damascus moment came in 1997. At sentencing, a public defender named Andrew Denesmo, whom Osler frequently argued against, would urge leniency for his clients convicted of drug offenses by delivering a long polemic against the sentencing guidelines. To prevail in the hearing, Osler simply had to remind the judge of his legal obligation to proscribe a specific sentence — but Denesmo won the larger argument.

“We have Jesus walking up to a legal execution, saying, ‘You who are without sin cast the first stone,’ challenging the moral right of the crowd to stone the adulteress,” Osler told Andrea Jones of Rolling Stone in 2014. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m the guy with the rock.'”

Osler left the U.S. Attorney’s office and took up ethics-driven reform causes: clemency, sentencing and narcotics reform, and abolition of the death penalty.

On arriving at the law school, he founded a commutation clinic for law students, the first of its kind in the nation. In the course of that work, Osler and his students encountered Ronald Blount, Rudy Martinez and Richard Van Winrow. All three had life sentences commuted by Obama Tuesday.

Osler says he and his students took up their causes because they presented such a promising profile. Each man demonstrated meaningful commitments to rehabilitation, and they believed the sentences they received were wildly disproportionate to the severity of their crime. Such a fact posture makes an ideal candidate for a presidential commutation. (RELATED: Judge Overturns Conviction Of ‘Making A Murderer’ Subject)

“These men were serving life for crimes—non-violent narcotics offenses—that seemed way out of line,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “In addition, they had clean prison records and seemed devoted to their own rehabilitation despite the life sentence. In a very real way, they earned this chance.”

The petition process involves several steps, explains Natasha VanLieshout, one of the law students participating in Osler’s clinic. She and her peers prepared executive summaries, which were reviewed by the Clemency Project 2014, a working group of lawyers and advocates. After their candidates were approved by the Clemency Project, the students submitted petitions to the pardon attorney at the Justice Department. After several rounds of screening, the petitions they prepared were reviewed by the deputy attorney general, White House counsel, and Obama. (RELATED: The Justice Department Will No Longer Use Private Prisons)

All candidates must satisfy eight criteria. They must be low-level offenders without significant criminal histories or ties to large-scale criminal enterprises. They also must be at least 10 years into their sentences.

VanLieshout says the work was tense, sometimes pitting her role as an advocate against long distances and stringent prison guidelines.

“In our case, my partner and I traveled to California not even knowing if we would be allowed to see Mr. Winrow,” she told TheDCNF. “If you are allowed to interview the client, it’s with the knowledge that this is likely to be the only time you’ll be allowed to meet with them and gather all the information necessary to write the petition. So you have to get the client to trust you, and answer some tough questions, in a very short amount of time.”

Their effort was further bolstered by a sympathetic ear in the Oval Office. The president has issued 673 commutations since taking office, more than his 10 immediate predecessors combined. The commutations Osler and his clinic won Tuesday were three of over 200 announced by the administration just this month. White House Counsel Neil Eggleston says the president will continue using this power liberally until the end of his term.

But exactly that sort of enthusiasm from the White House can generate unease among petitioners. Many know future presidents are unlikely to be as magnanimous on this topic, setting their petitions against a narrowing time frame — Obama leaves office in less than six months.

“Watching President Obama’s term end has been like watching the clock on the bomb in a movie; you knew what the drop-dead date for this project was,” Osler said. “For some clients, there is a lot of stress– they see other people getting clemency in the previous rounds, and wonder why they were not included. Because there are no reasons given for grants or denials, there really is nothing you can tell those who are still waiting.”

Relief to their anxiety came with the White House’s announcement Tuesday.

“The happiest call you can make is to a man serving life in prison, and tell him that he will be free in 120 days,” Osler said. “One of the calls I made today was to Ronald Blount, who has been calling me every Friday for two years. Today, I got to call him.”

Blount was sentenced to a term of life for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine in 1999. Martinez and Van Winrow won life sentences for drug offenses in 1992 and 1989, respectively.

Osler and VanLieshout argue the key to an effective petition is a compelling narrative — a moving personal account rooted in the dignity of the prisoner, which emerges by its own power from the deluge of pleas that the Justice Department reviews.

“It’s our job to make them care, to see their humanity, and to make others see it too,” VanLieshout says. “That’s what we focused on when we wrote our petitions, and I think that’s why professor Osler, and his clinic, have been successful.”

“All of our lives are complicated, and part of a good clemency petition is telling the complete story of someone’s life,” Osler adds.

Blount, Martinez, and Van Winrow will return to their families within the next 12 months.

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