Our Pro Bono Commitment
Since 2011,the DC courts have published an annual Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll that recognizes lawyers who contributed 50 hours or more of pro bono service to those who cannot afford legal counsel. The 2020 Honor Roll includes 55 DC office lawyers. In a joint letter, DC Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and DC Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring thank all honorees, noting that 2020 presented unique pressures like the pandemic. “We salute you for using your talents and expertise to help those unable to afford an attorney, and rely on your continued dedication and compassion in the face of new challenges that threaten equal access to justice,” the judges write.
The Honor Roll is sponsored by the DC Bar Pro Bono Center and the DC Access to Justice Commission. To learn more about the initiative, read this press release.
In a victory for pro bono client Robert Rollins, United States District Court Judge Gary Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ “stupendously long” sentence of 106.5 years to 28 years and one day. The decision means that rather than serve the remainder of his life in prison, Mr. Rollins should be free in a couple of years.
When he was 25 years old, Mr. Rollins was convicted for a string of three robberies within a week’s time. No one was hurt during the offenses, and he stole less than $10,000. In 2001, he was convicted of these offenses under a mandatory sentencing scheme whereby the trial judge sentenced him to 106.5 years.
Jenner & Block joined with a team from New York-based Debevoise & Plimpton to file a motion to reduce his sentence under the First Step Act. Last year, Judge Feinerman initially determined that he did not have authority to grant Mr. Rollins’ motion for a reduction in sentence. The firm and Debevoise team appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which upon agreement of the parties, vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded for further consideration.
In the district court, the government continued to argue that Judge Feinerman was not empowered to reduce Mr. Rollins sentence under the statute, and that even if he was, the sentence should remain 106.5 years. On March 17, Judge Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ sentence. The court ruled that Mr. Rollin’s sentence was “exceedingly rare, resulting from the combination of the Government’s charging decision and Rollins’s decision to proceed to trial rather than cooperate and plead.” While acknowledging the seriousness of Mr. Rollins’ crimes, the judge wrote that “a de facto life sentence far exceeds appropriate punishment.”
Judge Feinerman expressly noted that Mr. Rollins has a clean prison disciplinary record, voluntarily participated in a course focused on helping inmates appreciate the severity of their crimes and the impact they had on their victims, and has worked as a cook in prison.
“In short,” the judge wrote, “he has demonstrated that he is committed to living a law-abiding life should he be given that chance.” Mr. Rollins, a veteran, very much looks forward to rejoining his family, the workforce, and contributing to society.
The firm team included Partners Andrew W. Vail and Monica R. Pinciak, Associate Joshua M. Levin, and Paralegal Katherine Mehaffie. Partners Michael T. Brody, Anton R. Valukas, Reid J. Schar, and Dean N. Panos assisted with the team with a Seventh Circuit moot court.
Recently, US District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman exercised her powers under the First Step Act and granted the petition for compassionate relief we filed on behalf of our client, Tracy Conley. By this ruling, Judge Coleman released Mr. Conley from prison more than five years before the end of his sentence.
Mr. Conley was convicted of participating in a conspiracy to rob a drug “stash house.” The stash house was entirely fictional, however, as were the drugs it supposedly contained and the armed men who supposedly guarded it. This case was one of many in which an undercover government agent presented a target with the opportunity to get rich. The scheme began in 2011, when a government agent presented Myreon Flowers with the opportunity to rob a fictional stash house. To trigger steep mandatory sentences, the agent stated the stash house contained a huge quantity of drugs and encouraged Mr. Flowers to recruit others and bring guns.
Mr. Conley became involved only because of what the Seventh Circuit described as two strokes of bad luck: On November 1, 2011, Mr. Conley went to work as usual, but was sent home because a piece of machinery had broken at the factory where he worked. On his way home, he stopped at a gas station where he ran into an old acquaintance. Unbeknownst to Mr. Conley, that acquaintance had joined Mr. Flowers’s group, which had planned the robbery for that very day. Mr. Conley agreed to go with his acquaintance, Mr. Flowers, and the others to what he thought was a job to clean a vacant apartment. On the way, government agents surprised the men and arrested everyone.
All of Mr. Conley’s co-defendants accepted plea deals for lesser charges. Mr. Conley maintained that he knew nothing of the plan to rob a (fake) stash house, but was convicted after a jury trial. Because his charges carried mandatory minimum sentences, Mr. Conley was sentenced to 15 years in prison – twice as long as any other co-defendant. In the years following Mr. Conley’s conviction, the fake stash house program received significant scrutiny. As more prosecutions emerged, so too did evidence suggesting that the government’s selection of targets for the scheme may have been racially motivated. Under increasing criticism, the government abandoned the program. One by one, Mr. Conley’s co-defendants served their lesser sentences and were released, but Mr. Conley remained in prison.
In 2018, Mr. Conley filed a pro se habeas petition, and Judge Coleman appointed Mike to represent Mr. Conley. Leigh joined the team at the start, as did Theo, who was part of the team for the habeas briefing. Eric joined the team last fall. Judge Coleman denied the habeas petition, but certified for appeal the argument that Mr. Conley’s conviction should be reversed on due process grounds, and because the fake stash house scheme targeted people of color. The team is continuing to prosecute that appeal.
With the habeas appeal being briefed, the team filed a motion for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, also known as compassionate release. Leigh and Eric argued the motion in January, under Mike’s supervision. On March 4, Judge Coleman granted the motion and ordered Mr. Conley’s sentence reduced to time served. Judge Coleman accepted the team’s arguments that the circumstances demonstrated extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release. She noted that Mr. Conley had never even met Mr. Flowers before the day of the planned “robbery,” and that Mr. Conley’s sentence was driven by the government’s decision of what charges to bring, not the Court’s decision of what sentence was warranted. That sentence was “grossly disproportionate,” “devoid of true fairness,” and served “no real purpose other than to destroy any vestiges of respect in our legal system and law enforcement that this defendant and his community may have had.” His disproportionate sentence was a “trial tax.” She concluded that “if there ever was a situation where compassionate release was warranted based on the injustice and unfairness of a prosecution and resulting sentence, this is it.”
Mr. Conley was released on March 17, after serving nearly 10 years in prison. He is now home.
Partner Michael T. Brody and Associates Leigh J. Jahnig, Eric S. Fleddermann, and Theo A. Lesczynski represented Mr. Conley in this important matter.
In Cordell Sanders v. Michael Melvin, et al., the district court dismissed a plaintiff’s entire case as a sanction based on imprecise allegations the plaintiff — who is mentally ill and had been housed in solitary confinement for years—had included in their years-old, pro se complaint, and did so despite that a pending summary judgment motion showed a factual dispute regarding those allegations. This dismissal is now on appeal.
Led by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, amici are five legal professors who are experts on civil rights litigation, civil procedure, federal procedure, and the application of pleading standards to pro se litigants. They urge the Seventh Circuit to reverse the lower court’s decision and remand for further proceedings. They argue that affirming such a dismissal would be contrary to the established principles of leniency afforded pro se and inmate litigants, would violate the well-known rule that sanctions be narrowly-tailored to misconduct, and would contravene the policy favoring resolving cases on their merits, among other things. The legal system, they note, is complex and challenging – “especially for those without legal training.” They argue that the Seventh Circuit has held “that courts have an affirmative obligation to ensure that a pro se litigant’s claims are not dismissed as a result of procedural unfairness.” In this case, they argue, the district court was “particularly harsh and unnecessarily punitive.” Regarding sanctions against the litigant, the brief notes that “less draconian” alternatives are available. And dismissal with prejudice, according to the brief, is the “most severe” sanction that should be meted out “only with extreme caution.” “Sanctions should be used as a scalpel to surgically address issues where appropriate, not as a sledgehammer to squash an entire case,” the brief reads.
The team writing the brief pro bono includes Partner Gabriel K. Gillett and Associates Grace C. Signorelli-Cassady, Jeremy M. Sawyer, and Elena M. Olivieri, with valuable assistance from Paralegal Mary Frances Patston.
Longtime client Patrick Pursley received a certificate of innocence on February 26, 27 years after he was convicted of murder in a Winnebago County jury trial. The state had relied heavily on the testimony of a state ballistics examiner that a firearm attributed to Mr. Pursley fired the bullets and cartridge cases found at the crime scene. New evidence, however, showed conclusively that this firearm was not the one used in the crime. For over a decade, a firm team worked on behalf of Mr. Pursley to win a new trial. In January 2019, at the end of that new trial, Judge Joseph G. McGraw acquitted Mr. Pursley.
Watch Mr. Pursley discuss the impact of the certificate.
Learn more about his case in The Heart of the Matter.