Publications & Events

Life after a life sentence

Our lawyers undertake successful representations for the Clemency Project.

Alex Miller, a project finance associate in the New York office, recently had the chance to call a pro bono client with some life-changing news: His sentence of life without parole had been commuted. "A sense of shock sets in with something of this magnitude—and not only for the client." The client's response captured, eloquently and plainly, the enormity of the occasion: "Thank you," he wrote to the White & Case team that day, "for my life."

Launched in 2014, the Clemency Project came about when the then US Attorney General asked lawyers to redouble their pro bono commitment to federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent, low-level offenses who would likely have received a significantly shorter sentence today. White & Case was among the first firms to enlist in the project.

For the clients whose lives we are able to transform through clemency petitions, having a lawyer can mean the difference between a life squandered in prison and a life remade.
John Reiss,
Partner, New York

"It's not just litigators who can achieve the unbelievable satisfaction of righting miscarriages of justice," says partner John Reiss, the global head of M&A, who has spearheaded the involvement of our corporate lawyers on these cases. "Many of the skills corporate lawyers bring to the table, such as doggedness, attention to detail and negotiating skills, are decisive in overturning convictions, reducing sentences and freeing prisoners. With courtroom help from litigators, we bring tremendous value to this kind of work."

Our lawyers submitted 30 cases to the Clemency Project in recent months; five of these were selected to be sent on to the US President's Office of the Pardon Attorney for official review. Of these, three resulted in victories. In addition to John and Alex, M&A associates Jordan Kobb and Zach Henick, capital markets associate Emily Donohoe and former associate Ashley Blakely contributed to the victories.

The three clients for whom the Firm achieved recent successes had turned to drugs in difficult circumstances. One had begun to use methamphetamine after a traumatic military career, and was convicted of intent to distribute. Another fell into drug addiction after being left to live on the streets of Los Angeles as a young child. Both had faced life sentences. The third, sentenced to more than 21 years in prison, began selling drugs at the age of 15 as a means of survival after escaping an abusive upbringing and drug-addicted mother.

All three clients had maintained exemplary prison records and demonstrated a desire to rejoin society in a productive capacity. One has contributed to a blog that aims to dissuade youth from gang activity. Another has enrolled in a voluntary drug resistance program. All were emotional to hear of their commutations. "When we called one client to tell him that he had been granted clemency," John says, "he was sitting in the warden's office. He could not stop crying."

"I think it is important to remember that receiving clemency is just the beginning of our role as advocates," Emily says. "There is still a lot of work to be done that ensures that these individuals can transition into successful members of society. My goal is to keep in touch with our client and his counselor every other week to support his progress. I remain dedicated to making sure that he and his family are given the tools for a hopeful future."

"For the clients whose lives we are able to transform through clemency petitions, having a lawyer can mean the difference between a life squandered in prison and a life remade," says John. "It would be hard to overstate just how extraordinary the chance to participate in this initiative was—for litigators and corporate lawyers alike."


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10 | Reduced Inequalities

16 | Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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