Our Pro Bono Commitment

Our Pro Bono Commitment

June 3, 2022 Lawsuit Challenges Unconstitutional Law Limiting Abortion Services

Working in partnership with abortion service providers and civil liberties groups, a Jenner & Block team filed a lawsuit in Florida to block the implementation of a new state law that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and could put doctors in jail for providing essential care beyond that point.

 

The lawsuit argues that the law, which is set to take effect on July 1, 2022, would limit an individual’s right to access abortion services in violation of the Florida state constitution.  It seeks an emergency injunction against the law taking effect.

 

The Jenner & Block team is led by Partner April Otterberg along with Partners Shoba Pillay and Tassity Johnson and includes Associates Reanne Zheng, Sara M. Crook, Meg Hlousek, Annie K. Schoenfeldt, Emily A. Merrifield, and Savannah E. Berger, and Paralegal Fallon McDowell. Associates Sara M. Stappert, Casey Jedele, and Karolina L. Bartosik provided additional assistance.

 

Read the ACLU press release here: Florida Health Centers Challenge 15-Week Abortion Ban in State Court | American Civil Liberties Union (aclu.org)

CATEGORIES: ACLU, Litigation, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: April A. Otterberg, Reanne Zheng, Sara M. Stappert, Sara M Crook, Margaret M. Hlousek "Meg", Emily A. Merrifield, Shoba Pillay, Karolina L. Bartosik, Casey L.M. Jedele, Annie K. Schoenfeldt, Savannah E. Berger

April 27, 2022 Children in Custody at South Carolina Juvenile Justice Centers Held in Nightmarish Conditions, New Lawsuit Alleges

A lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina alleges horrific living conditions for the more than 250 children detained by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, the agency tasked by law with providing South Carolina’s detained children with care and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Children held in DJJ facilities are routinely subjected to violence, months-long isolation in solitary confinement, and a lack of meaningful educational or mental health services, according to the lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights South Carolina, and Justice 360.

“These children are in danger every day and every night, and DJJ has consistently failed to contain the violence,” said Lindsey Vann, Executive Director of Justice 360. “These are systemic problems that need appropriate resources, authority, and support to enact real change.” 

According to the lawsuit, there is sewage water in the cells, feces on the walls, and cockroaches in the food of the facilities. The lawsuit alleges that youth-on-youth violence is rampant, with staff often turning a blind eye or even instigating assaults on children. The lawsuit further alleges that DJJ has resorted to 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement as a default management tool to house sick kids, “protect” children from violence, or address even the most minor of infractions. 

“South Carolina exposes the children in its juvenile justice system—most of whom are Black—to barbaric conditions,” said Brenda Murphy, President of the NAACP South Carolina State Conference of Branches. “Children in custody suffer from constant violence, are isolated for weeks and months, and are denied the basic rehabilitative services they need and are entitled to. Our most vulnerable children must receive support, not punishment.” 

Despite claims that it operates its own accredited school district, helps youth pursue workforce development opportunities, and provides rehabilitative services, most children receive no educational services, according to the lawsuit. The lack of educational resources at DJJ facilities is especially damaging for the children who suffer from learning impairments or physical disabilities, as no special education services are provided, the lawsuit says. One child, who struggles with verbal communication, reported receiving only a single day of education over a period of nine months.

“DJJ holds some of our State’s most traumatized and vulnerable children,” said Allen Chaney, Legal Director for the ACLU of South Carolina. “If conditions don’t immediately and dramatically improve, then the only adequate remedy will be to release children from these horrific conditions.”

The DJJ has a well-documented track record — dating back to the 1960s — of violating the constitutional and statutory rights of the children in its care. Even with decades’ worth of findings and interventions, DJJ has failed to make substantial progress in implementing lasting solutions, the lawsuit says. 

“DJJ has been aware of the ongoing violence and unconstitutional conditions at their facilities for years, and yet they still fail to protect the children entrusted to their care,” said Jenner & Block Partner Previn Warren. “Our hope is to create lasting and meaningful reform right away to end the trauma these children are experiencing.”

The lawsuit, filed jointly with the ACLU of South Carolina, the NAACP, and the law firms Wyche and Jenner & Block, asks the court to declare that the department is violating the constitutional rights of South Carolina children and seeks judicial intervention to facilitate immediate remedies such as clean water, dry beds, healthy food, safety from violence, freedom from unconstitutional uses of solitary confinement, meaningful access to education and mental health resources, and accommodations for children with disabilities.

Mr. Warren and Partner Jeremy M. Creelan led this effort and received support from Associates William R. Weaver, Mary E. Marshall, Jessica J. Sawadogo, Jacob D. Alderdice, Jeremy H. Ershow, and Amit B. Patel, and Paralegal Adam H. Weidman

CATEGORIES: children, Litigation, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Jeremy M. Creelan, Jacob D. Alderdice, Jeremy H. Ershow, Amit B. Patel, William R. Weaver (Will), Mary E. Marshall, Jessica J.W. Sawadogo

February 16, 2022 Access-A-Ride Paratransit Users Sue the New York MTA for Equal Fare Discounts

Jenner & Block is helping five individuals with disabilities who use New York City paratransit services file a class action lawsuit to end discrimination that excludes them from transit fare discounts.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Transit Authority (together, the MTA) offer substantial fare discounts, including half fares for people with disabilities and seniors, as well as 30-day and seven-day unlimited fares, for bus and subway riders, but not for users of the Access-A-Ride paratransit system, whose disabilities prevent them from riding buses and subways.

The lawsuit, filed on February 15, 2022, in New York Supreme Court seeks to compel the MTA to offer the same discounts to Access-A-Ride users as are available to subway and bus riders. The case also seeks to reimburse AAR riders for the financial harm they suffered due to the unavailability of these fare discounts.

“It’s not fair that the MTA offers these discounts to subway and bus riders and not to Access-A-Ride users. We rely on the MTA to get us around just the same as other mass transit riders, and we shouldn’t be paying more,” said plaintiff Sheila Murray. “The MTA needs to end this discrimination against Access-A-Ride users immediately.”

Access-A-Ride is the MTA’s paratransit service for people with disabilities who cannot use, or are substantially limited in their ability to use, subways or buses. The MTA is legally required to provide this public transit service, which must be comparable to what is available to subway and bus riders. But AAR has long been plagued by unreliable and inflexible service. Nevertheless, AAR riders must pay the full fare of $2.75 for every trip, no matter how many trips they take per month and no matter whether they would qualify for a reduced fare because of their disability or age.

Jenner & Block Partner Marc B. Hankin, Associates Corey E. Schoellkopf and Anna M. Windemuth, and Staff Attorney Ehsan M. Khah represent the plaintiffs as pro bono counsel, along with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Mobilization for Justice.

“We are delighted to work closely with the top-notch and committed lawyers at NYLPI’s Disability Justice Program and Mobilization for Justice’s Disability and Aging Rights Program to help vindicate the legal rights of New Yorkers with disabilities,” Mr. Hankin said.

For access to the complaint, click here. Read New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s press release here.

CATEGORIES: Litigation

PEOPLE: Marc B. Hankin, Ehsan M. Khah, Corey E. Schoellkopf

January 11, 2022 Jenner & Block Team Recognized for Pro Bono Service by Eastern District of California

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of California recently recognized Partner Kirsten Hicks Spira and Special Counsel Wesley M. Griffith as honorees for their commitment to pro bono during the District’s annual “Night to Honor Service.” 

Spira and Griffith were recognized for leading a team that included Associates Elizabeth Avunjian, and Effiong K. Dampha in a Section 1983 civil rights case.  The case arose from our client reporting several prison guards for misconduct.  In retaliation, the guards took our client to an isolated area of the prison that was closed for construction and beat him until he lost consciousness. The guards denied all wrong doing, claiming that the client had instead slipped and fell to the ground during escort. 

The client, who had limited education and financial means, was originally proceeding without counsel and having difficulty making his case in the face of the guards’ denial of any wrongdoing. The firm team, however, was able to secure evidence from the prison confirming that our client was taken to an outside hospital by ambulance for treatment for his injuries shortly after the attack, that the area where the attack occurred had no security cameras or other safeguards to prevent abuse of prisoners by staff, and that the guards involved had coordinated their incident reports before officially filing them.  Based on this evidence, the action was settled on the eve of trial on favorable terms for our client.

The Eastern District has one of the highest levels of pro se civil rights litigants in the country, and Jenner & Block lawyers have served on the District’s Civil Rights Pro Bono Panel for many years.

Associates Vivian L. BickfordKristen Green, and Julia K. Hirata and Paralegal Christal Oropeza also supported the matter. 

CATEGORIES: Awards, Litigation, Section 1983

PEOPLE: Kirsten Hicks Spira, Effiong K. Dampha, Vivian L. Bickford, Kristen Green, Elizabeth Avunjian

December 8, 2021 Jenner & Block Receives 2021 Impact in the Courts Award from National Immigration Project of the National Guild

On December 8, Jenner & Block will receive the 2021 Impact in the Courts Award from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIP) during its 50th anniversary event. The firm will be recognized for collaborative efforts on the Irwin Detention Center project, during which a firm team is co-counseling with NIP and a number of law school clinics and others in litigation against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other defendants for forced medical procedures on women detained there.

Partners Debbie L. Berman and Gabrielle Sigel and Associate Miriam J. Wayne continue to lead the effort. Others who have worked on the cross-office, multi-practice team include Partners Robert C. Harmala and Howard S. Suskin, Special Counsel Aaron R. Cooper, Associates Illyana A. Green, Michael R. Greubel, Matthew G. Lawson, Daniel S. McCord, Andrew J. Plague, Laurel A. Raymond, Corinne M. Smith, and Reanne Zheng, and Pro Bono Counsel Nura Maznavi, with valuable support from Debra Abelson, Rob Aponte, Amanda Ellis, Tricia Peavler, Sam Rosen, and Annette Young.

The virtual event will take place at 6:30 pm Eastern. To learn more and register to attend, please click here

 

CATEGORIES: Litigation

PEOPLE: Debbie L. Berman, Howard S. Suskin, Reanne Zheng, Miriam J. Wayne, Aaron R. Cooper, Daniel S. McCord, Andrew J. Plague, Illyana A. Green, Michael R. Greubel

November 24, 2021 Third Circuit Supports Pro Bono Client’s Request for Protection from Deportation

Yemeni client Adel Ghanem presented evidence that “overwhelmingly demonstrates” his prior persecution on account of his political opinion, and that if he were returned to Yemen he would likely be tortured, a Third Circuit panel said in September.

In the opinion, the court vacated a Board of Immigration Appeals' decision that denied Mr. Ghanem’s request for protection from deportation, saying the board “ignore[d] overwhelming evidence" that he had been persecuted and would likely be tortured for his political beliefs if returned to Yemen.

News of the decision was reported by Bloomberg and Law360.

Associate William R. Weaver represented Mr. Ghanem.  He was supervised by Partners Ian Heath Gershengorn and Matthew E. Price

CATEGORIES: Appellate, Asylum, Litigation

PEOPLE: William R. Weaver (Will)

November 23, 2021 Court Approves DPA for Pro Bono Client

Jenner & Block secured a deferred prosecution agreement for pro bono client Pheerayuth Burden, who had been convicted of violating the Arms Export Control Act by sending gun parts to Thailand without a license. At trial, the main testimony against Mr. Burden came in by deposition because the cooperating witness was unavailable to testify live. The firm took the case on appeal to the DC Circuit, arguing that the introduction of the deposition evidence violated Mr. Burden’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him; we argued that the witness’s unavailability could not excuse the violation because the government itself procured that unavailability by deporting the cooperating witness before trial without making any plans to bring him back. The DC Circuit agreed and vacated Mr. Burden’s conviction, remanding for a new trial. 

On remand, the firm team successfully negotiated a deferred prosecution agreement that will allow Mr. Burden to be free from burdensome pretrial release conditions and will ultimately allow for dismissal of the charges with prejudice. 

The team was led by Partner Lindsay C. Harrison, with critical support from Partner David Bitkower.

CATEGORIES: Appellate, Litigation

PEOPLE: Lindsay C. Harrison, David Bitkower

November 5, 2021 Jenner & Block Team Achieves Favorable Settlement in Civil Rights Case

Associates Wesley M. Griffith, Elizabeth Avunjian, and Effiong K. Dampha led a team that obtained a favorable settlement on the eve of trial in a Section 1983 civil rights case.  The civil rights action arose from our client reporting several prison guards for misconduct.  Our client alleged that in retaliation for his report, the guards took him to an isolated area of the prison that was closed for construction and beat him until he lost consciousness. 

The client, who had limited education and financial means, was originally proceeding without counsel and having difficulty making his case in the face of the guards’ denial of any wrongdoing. The Jenner team was able to secure evidence from the prison confirming that our client was taken to an outside hospital by ambulance for treatment shortly after the attack and that the area under construction had no security cameras or other safeguards to prevent abuse of prisoners by staff. Based on this evidence, the action was favorably settled.

The team was supervised by Partner Kirsten Hicks Spira and supported by Associates Vivian L. Bickford, Kristen Green, and Julia K. Hirata and Paralegal Christal Oropeza. 

CATEGORIES: Litigation, Section 1983

PEOPLE: Kirsten Hicks Spira, Effiong K. Dampha, Kristen Green, Elizabeth Avunjian

October 14, 2021 Article Highlights Team’s Pro Bono Efforts on Behalf of Debtor

An article in Rochelle’s Daily Wire features Jenner & Block’s pro bono efforts to assist a “hapless debtor” who endured a trial, two appeals and a remand proceeding to discharge $112,000 in student loans. Thanks to Partner Catherine L. Steege and Special Counsel Carl N. Wedoff, along with firm alum and retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff, the debtor is on the brink of discharging her loans. “Without pro bono counsel, this debtor never would have discharged her student loans... This writer submits that something is wrong with a system that requires a debtor to go through so much for so long and with no chance of success were it not for the generosity of distinguished lawyers from the top ranks of the bankruptcy bar,” reads the article.

CATEGORIES: Bankruptcy, Litigation

PEOPLE: Catherine L. Steege, Carl N. Wedoff

September 15, 2021 Jenner & Block Lawyers and Alumni Win Northern District of Illinois Pro Bono Award

The US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the Federal Bar Association awarded several of our lawyers with the 2021 Award for Excellence in Pro Bono Service for “providing outstanding pro bono and public interest representation in civil and criminal matters before the district court.” The award recipients were recognized for successfully completing three different cases:

  • In Conley v. US we represented Mr. Conley, who was convicted of conspiring to rob a fake drug stash house even though he was not a target of the prosecution, in a federal habeas challenge in the district court and on appeal.  The team also presented a petition for compassionate release, which the court granted, ordering his immediate release from prison. The award recipients included Jenner & Block Partner Mike Brody; Associates Eric Fleddermann and Theo Lesczynski; and former associate Leigh Jahnig.
  • In USA v. Rollins, we represented Mr. Rollins, who was convicted for a string of three robberies within a week’s time, in a reduction of a de facto life sentence. Partners Andrew Vail and Monica Pinciak, and Associate Josh Levin successfully argued for a reduction in sentence of 106.5 years to 28 years and one day. The judge wrote in his opinion that “a de facto life sentence far exceeds appropriate punishment.”
  • Paralegal Cheryl Kras, and former colleagues US Magistrate Judge Gabriel A. Fuentes, Christine Bowman, and Hon. Judge Brewer (ret.) also received the award for their work in Traharne, et al v. Illinois DCFS, et al., which was litigated and settled while Judge Fuentes and Ms. Bowman were with the firm. Judge Summers was the mediator on the matter.

CATEGORIES: Awards, Litigation

PEOPLE: Michael T. Brody, Andrew W. Vail, Monica R. Pinciak, Eric S. Fleddermann

August 6, 2021 Jenner & Block Secures Settlement Agreement with NYCHA to Prevent Wrongful Evictions

Along with Legal Service NYC as co-counsel, Jenner & Block secured a settlement with the New York City Housing Authority, requiring the public housing agency to reform its rent adjustment system to prevent wrongful evictions and benefiting more than 400,000 NYCHA residents.

The agreement ensures that thousands of NYCHA tenants will have their rents reduced if their incomes were to decline – a process required by federal law that has become more urgent during the pandemic. The settlement also enhances protections for low-income residents by requiring that NYCHA may not prosecute nonpayment or chronic rent delinquency cases until they first resolve interim rent reduction requests or rent grievances. The settlement comes after a group of twelve families, who have lived in public housing anywhere between five and 50 years, sued NYCHA in federal court alleging illegal rent overcharges above 30% of income and eviction proceedings for unlawful amounts of rent.

NYCHA has agreed to pay tenants close to $190,000 in damages, lawyers’ fees, and rent overcharge claims and has six months to implement changes to its system-wide operations concerning rent readjustments and eviction cases. NYCHA is also subject to monitoring by the federal court for three years.

To learn more about the plaintiffs and the settlement, click here.

The Jenner & Block team included Special Counsel David W. Sussman, Associates Susanna Evarts and Olivia Hoffman, Law Clerk Keturah James, and former partner Andrew Weissmann.

CATEGORIES: Litigation, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: David W. Sussman

July 15, 2021 Firm’s Amicus Brief Opposes Efforts to Block Construction of the Obama Presidential Center

On July 15, the firm submitted an amicus brief, pro bono, on behalf of 16 iconic Chicagoland museums and cultural institutions that oppose efforts to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

The plaintiffs inProtect Our Parks, Inc., et. al. v. Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of the US Department of Transportation, et. al., No. 21-cv-2006 (N.D. Ill.) sought a preliminary injunction to stop the center. The brief argues that the court should deny that request. On August 5, Judge John Robert Blakey issued a one-page opinion denying the request, writing that the plaintiffs “have not met the standard for injunctive relief on their federal claims.”

“The Chicagoland Museums believe the Obama Presidential Center will be a cultural and economic treasure for Chicago that will benefit the public by bringing new amenities and positive development to the surrounding community, boosting the local economy, and serving as a magnet for visitors to the City and the region. It will serve as an enduring and powerful symbol of the promise of America and the American Dream. In other words, the public interest strongly favors allowing construction to move forward without any further delays,” the brief reads.

The brief highlights the area’s long and rich history of featuring these world-class institutions: “Museums provide major educational and economic benefits and advance the public’s interest in knowledge and understanding. The Chicagoland Museums offer benefits to the public, the City, and the Chicago Park District—and offer benefits to each other when they are clustered together. Each museum is truly a treasure and Chicagoland, its residents, and visitors are fortunate to have them.”

The brief is signed by Co-Managing Partner Randy Mehrberg, joined by Partners Daniel J. Weiss and Gabriel K. Gillett and Associate Elena M. Olivieri.

The Chicagoland museums and cultural institutions that joined the brief include the following: Adler Planetarium, The Art Institute of Chicago, Bronzeville Children’s Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Architecture Center, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, Field Museum of Natural History, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Lincoln Park Zoo, Millennium Park Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Science and Industry, National Museum of Mexican Art, The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, and Shedd Aquarium.

This is the third brief the firm submitted in support of the Obama Presidential Center. In 2018, the firm submitted a brief in the district court on behalf of 11 museums in Protect Our Parks, Inc. v. Chicago Park District, and submitted a brief in the Seventh Circuit when the plaintiffs appealed their loss. WTTW reported on the latest brief.

CATEGORIES: Amicus Brief, Litigation

PEOPLE: Daniel J. Weiss, Randall E. Mehrberg, Gabriel K. Gillett, Elena Marie Olivieri

April 29, 2021 Court Hails “Just Result” for Veterans as an “Example of the Class Action Concept Working at its Best”

The US District Court for the District of Connecticut has granted final approval to a class action settlement in which the US Army agreed to reconsider the less-than-honorable discharges of thousands of veterans with service-related mental health conditions.

Jenner & Block, with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, represents Iraq war veteran Steve Kennedy and Afghanistan war veteran Alicia Carson, pro bono, in a nationwide class action against the Army. Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Carson alleged that after the Army discharged veterans with less-than-honorable status on account of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, and other mental health conditions developed during their service time,the Army Discharge Review Board failed to account for those symptoms when it denied them upgrades in their discharge status.

On Monday, the court granted final approval to a settlement reached by the parties in November. In its opinion, the court described the settlement as “an example of the class action concept working at its best” because it “achieves a just result for many veterans, and for the Army they served.”

Under terms of the settlement, the Army will automaticallyreconsider thousands of discharge status upgrade applications under a lenient standard of review. Additionally, the Army will adopt procedural reforms, such as a universal telephonic hearing program, that will make it easier for veterans to applyfor upgrades in their discharge status and participate in related hearings.

During the final fairness hearing on the settlement last month,Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. had high praise for our pro bono work, saying on the record: “It's a fine thing … to see one of the great firms like Jenner & Block devote considerable resources to the pro bono representation of groups like these army veterans…”

Partners Susan J. Kohlmann and Jeremy Creelan led this matter, along with Associate Jacob Tracer and former associates Ravi Ramanathan and William Goldstein.

Read more in this press release from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, in this Bloomberg article, and in this Stars and Stripes article.

 

CATEGORIES: Litigation, veterans

PEOPLE: Susan J. Kohlmann, Jacob Lincoln Tracer, Jeremy M. Creelan

March 19, 2021 Judge Reduces Pro Bono Client’s 106.5-Year Sentence to 28 Years

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.

CATEGORIES: Litigation, Seventh Circuit

PEOPLE: Andrew W. Vail, Monica R. Pinciak

March 17, 2021 Jenner & Block Secures Compassionate Release of Pro Bono Client under First Step Act

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.

CATEGORIES: First Step Act, Litigation, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Michael T. Brody, Eric S. Fleddermann

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