Obama commutes sentences of three WVU Law Clinic clients

By Derek Dowell | Apr 21, 2016

MORGANTOWN – The WVU College of Law Clinical Law Program can count three successes under President Obama’s initiative to commute the imprisonment of certain federal inmates given sentences that would be considered harsh by today’s lighter standards.

Though Obama’s clemency program has released 248 former federal inmates to date, of whom one-third were serving life sentences, expect more of the same in the President’s final year in office.

Current Justice Franklin D. Cleckley Fellow at the WVU College of Law, Italia Patti, hopes the Clinical Law Program can take further advantage of sentence commutations in the near future.

“The Clinical Law Program has additional petitions for deserving clients pending with the Office of the Pardon Attorney,” Patti told The West Virginia Record. “There are a lot of deserving people still waiting for commutations.”

The three commutations credited to the WVU program’s efforts were an intensely personal experience not only for the men released but law students Adriana Faycurry, Dustin Shreve, Owen Reynolds, Amanda Camplesi, and Laura Hoffman, all of whom worked hand-in-hand with law professors on the petitions.

“Members of the WVU College of Law Clinical Program are working on these clemency cases as volunteer lawyers with Clemency Project 2014,” Patti said.

The so-called War on Drugs had its roots in the late-1960s and President Nixon’s administration. By 1989, President George H.W. Bush was ready to create the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He appointed William Bennett as the nation’s first “drug czar,” a man who said his mission was to make drug use socially unacceptable.

Through most of the 1990s, mandatory drug sentencing resulted in a glut of nonviolent offenders languishing in prison for life. The thinking that a long stretch (or forever) in prison was the best way to deal with the drug issue received a re-thinking as America entered the 21st century. For one thing, federal prisons ran consistently 40 percent over capacity, a prohibitively expensive solution.

According to Obama’s initiative, established on April 23, 2014, inmates who meet the following criteria will receive clemency consideration:

* Currently serving a federal sentence for an offense that likely would have received a substantially shorter sentence today

* They are non-violent offenders with no ties to large scale criminal organizations

* Have served at least 10 years of their sentence

* No significant criminal history

* Good prison conduct

* No history of violence prior to current term of imprisonment

Two of the men released, Dwayne Walker and Marvin Bailey, were sentenced to life in prison for drug offenses in 1997. The third man, Byron McDade, was in his 27th year of incarceration.

“Students from both the General Practice Clinic and the Innocence Project have worked on clemency cases since the fall of 2014 as part of the Department of Justice initiative,” Marjorie McDiarmid, Director of the Clinical Law Program, told The Record.

Patti described the West Virginia Innocence Project’s primary focus as identifying and litigating cases of wrongful conviction. The project seeks to establish innocence when there is newly discovered evidence, a common scenario as technology like DNA testing can yield new clues even years after the fact.

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