University of St. Thomas law students lead charge on clemencies

- President Barack Obama continued his record pace of granting clemencies by giving sentence commutations to 111 federal inmates on Tuesday. To date, he has commuted, or shortened, 673 sentences.

The push for clemency stems from old drug laws that led to excessive sentences for potentially thousands of inmates — many receiving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

While the Obama Administration established a clemency initiative in 2014, a strong push started coming from a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis long before the initiative started. Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, established the first law-school clinic in the country for students to seek commutations for inmates. Now, there are programs at more than two dozen law schools.

“What an incredible thing for law students to do,” Osler told Fox 9.

On Tuesday, the president granted commutations to three more St. Thomas clients. The school has likely received more commutations for clients than any other law school.

“As a teacher, the best thing you can do is watch your students succeed. When I got these names, I was seeing my students succeed,” Osler said.

Ronald Blount was one of the men whose sentence was commuted. Blount, serving a life sentence, for directing people to locations to buy drugs, was represented by two St. Thomas students, Allison Kadrmas and Nicole Swisher.

Osler called Blount to deliver the good news.

“You know there was a pause and it sunk in. And it sunk in and he said ‘God is good.’ And I couldn’t disagree on that day and at that moment,” Osler said.

Rudy Martinez also got the call.

“I told him and then there was no sound. And I thought ‘oh no,’ the line had gone dead because I was making the call from my cell phone. And I thought this was the worst timing ever for a phone to go dead,” Osler said.  “And he had just dropped the phone, was speechless.”

Richard Van Winrow got the call. And his student attorneys, Natasha VanLieshout and Brit Sandager, soon got e-mails from Osler.

“I had just taken a break at work, and I was feeling really tired, and all of a sudden I got an e-mail on my phone, it was Osler saying Richard was getting his sentence commuted that day by President Obama,” VanLieshout said. “And I, all of a sudden, had all the energy in the world. I was just shaking, couldn’t believe it.”

Osler believes President Obama is likely to continue the same pace of granting clemencies through the end of his term if he is to provide a consistent standard. Osler initially set a target of 1,500 clemencies. The Constitution gives the president pardon power, which includes the power to commute federal sentences.

Osler keeps a coin, nearly two-thousand years old, in his desk; the coin has “Clementia” written on it.

“The Romans had a god for clemency, Clementia,” Osler explained.

Osler gave one of the coins to a Harvard professor when he trained the school on setting up a commutations clinic. He told the school to give the coin to the first client commuted. The first commutation happened on Tuesday.  

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