Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

The Hillsborough County Bar Association, Tampa, FL, May – June 2017, Vol. 27, No. 5 – As a lawyer whose practice mainly focuses on securities and financial services litigation, my workday typically involves some form of a financial or securities-related dispute requiring certain perspective and knowledge. Armed with a business background and an MBA, I am prepared to handle these kinds of disputes. But several years ago, I stepped outside this “comfort zone” to handle a pro bono case that is now one of my most rewarding experiences as a lawyer — even though this particular endeavor was far removed from the familiar confines of the business world. As a result of these efforts, my client’s life sentence without parole was commuted, and he is now a free man.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a clemency initiative to address budgetary and overcrowding concerns by seeking to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders in prison — which had soared from 40,000 prisoners in 1980 to over 500,000 in 2009. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving a drug-related prison sentence. The DOJ’s Clemency Initiative introduced new and more expansive criteria it would consider when weighing clemency petitions from federal inmates. These criteria included the inmate’s criminal history, conduct in prison, and whether the inmate would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offenses today.

Through the Clemency Project 2014, an initiative backed by such organizations as the ACLU and ABA, I was trained to assist an inmate seeking clemency. I was then assigned the case of a potential clemency candidate — “John” — who was in the 25th year of a life sentence without the possibility of parole after being convicted at trial of a single drug offense back in 1980. While the typical sentence for that offense normally ranged from 10-20 years, the combination of several prior low-level drug offenses and the prosecution’s pre-trial filing of two “851 enhancements” meant that the sentencing judge was required to hand down a mandatory life sentence. Ironically, nearly all of the other 14 individuals charged in the indictment — many with significantly higher culpability in the alleged scheme — received much lower sentences and had long been out of prison. Given “John’s” age and the finality of a life sentence, this was literally a Hail Mary pass to prevent “John” from dying in prison.

For several years, I worked on gathering evidence, researching sentencing guidelines, and ultimately submitting a Petition for Clemency to the DOJ’s Office of Pardon Attorney. In October 2016, I received word that President Obama had commuted “John’s” sentence and ordered his release in February 2017. I felt truly fortunate to deliver the words that I had rehearsed over the previous two years. There are not many people outside the judiciary who will ever have the chance to tell an inmate that their sentence has been commuted. It is a powerful feeling to tell someone that their liberty, taken away from them over a quarter-century ago, will soon be restored. And while we may sometimes get wrapped up in our particular practice area, this journey has confirmed for me that some of our greatest experiences come from stepping outside of our “comfort zone.”

For more information, please contact Jordan Maglich at 813.347.5115 or