March 31, 2016

Jenner & Block pro bono client Jesse Webster has been granted executive clemency after serving 20 years of a life sentence on charges related to conspiracy to distribute cocaine.  Mr. Webster’s commutation is among 61 given to “individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws,” according to a White House blog post by White House counsel Neil Eggleston.  The commutation means that Jesse will be out of jail on September 26, 2016. 

Mr. Webster was arrested in 1994.  He was convicted of conspiracy, attempt to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and for filing false tax returns.  Even though he was a first-time offender, had no weapon, no drugs and no money when he was caught up in the aborted drug deal, he qualified for a life sentence under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in place at the time.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment on March 21, 1996.

In 2009, Partners Jessica Ring Amunson and Barry Levenstam began representing Mr. Webster in a Seventh Circuit appeal from the denial of a habeas petition.  When all appeals were exhausted, in 2013, Ms. Amunson and Associate Caroline M. DeCell prepared a petition for commutation of his sentence, secured supporters and submitted it to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Justice Department.  Since then, the team, including several individuals from the Marketing Department and with the support of Legal Secretary Sheree Anyiam, has worked relentlessly to secure the commutation.  The team’s efforts included petitioning Capitol Hill and sharing Mr. Webster’s story with major media outlets such as the New York Times, which wrote about Mr. Webster in a 2013 article called “A Dealer Serving Life Without Having Taken One.”  Also that year, the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board called on the Department of Justice and President Obama to commute the sentence.  In 2014, Rolling Stone Magazine profiled Mr. Webster in an article about the “shame” of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. 

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell has chronicled Mr. Webster’s story over the past year and a half, including publishing his open letter to youth. On March 31, 2016, Mr. Webster was again the subject of Ms. Mitchell’s column.  In it, Ms. Amunson is quoted saying that she was thrilled to call Mr. Webster with news of the commutation.  “He was excited but also stunned,” she says in the column.  Mr. Webster was “incredibly grateful” to President Obama and also had kind words for Ms. Amunson and for Jenner & Block.  On April 2, 2016, Mr. Webster was the subject of a New York Times article titled “Jesse Webster, an Inmate Serving Life, Turned to His Last Hope: President Obama.”