One of 98 federal prisoners who President Obama granted clemency to on Oct. 28 owes some gratitude to UC Irvine law students and faculty who worked on his case pro bono.
(These prisoners are not to be confused with the 72 Obama granted clemency to on Friday.)
Robert Sedillo Gutierrez was originally sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for trying to sell methamphetamine and cocaine.
With the stroke of Obama's pen, the Roswell, New Mexico, man had
17.5 12.5 years shaved off his sentence. That's a huge difference when you consider Gutierrez was 64 at the time of his arrest a decade ago.
After a mistrial in 2005, he was convicted a year later of possession with intent to distribute 500 grams and more of meth. For that and a supervised release violation (attempt to possess with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of coke), Gutierrez was sentenced Aug. 7, 2006, in federal court in New Mexico to 360 months in prison and 10 years of supervised release.
His conviction withstood several petitions for a reversal or new trial to appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, with Obama's White House tenure coming to an end, he instructed Department of Justice lawyers to reexamine federal terms imposed years earlier that would be less stringent under current sentencing guidelines.
After Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono (free) assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received shorter sentences if they had been sentenced today, Clemency Project 2014 was born. It is a working group of lawyers and advocates from Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Last spring, UCI law students and faculty started assisting Clemency Project 2014 and discovered, “Many of the prisoners received harsh sentences under mandatory minimum drug laws that critics say target communities of color,” according to a release from UCI's School of Law.
Working with the project, UCI Law Professor L. Song Richardson and 2016 UCI Law grad Kevin Lerman filed a request for clemency for Gutierrez because the law has changed since his conviction and he would receive a much shorter sentence if sentenced today.
The petition spelled out the legal reasons Gutierrez should receive relief from the 30-year sentence, as well as compelling humanitarian reasons for mercy.
Obama commuted Gutierrez's sentence to 210 months, which will not see him released immediately but it does reduce his sentence to 17.5 years or 12.5 years less than he originally received.
“Without the hard work and dedication of Mr. Lerman and other UCI Law students,” Richardson says in the UCI release, “Mr. Gutierrez would likely have died in prison.”
“I'm very happy we could help Mr. Gutierrez, and I'm grateful for the UCI professors, staff and law students who made the project happen as well as the dedicated Clemency Project 2014 working group,” Lerman adds. “Mr. Gutierrez is looking forward to spending time with his children and grandchildren when he is released.”