Experience of a Lifetime: Second-Year Law Student Ariel Guggisberg Helps Secure Prisoner’s Release
Cincinnati, OH—President Barack Obama’s recent commutation of 61 federal prisoners has a Cincinnati Law connection: second-year student Ariel Guggisberg helped draft the clemency petition for one of the prisoners whose sentence was commuted. “It feels like we really changed a person’s life,” she said.
The clemency petition was made possible under the umbrella of Clemency Project 2014, a working group of attorneys and advocates who provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentence if sentenced today. Participants include federal defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, more than 70 of the nation’s largest and most prestigious law firms, 500 small firms and solo practitioners, and 30 law schools and clinics. The project was developed after former Deputy Attorney General James Cole appealed to the legal profession to provide free assistance to help identify eligible prisoners and assist them in preparation of clemency petitions.
The Clemency Project 2014 reviews a request from a prisoner who has served 10 years and does not have an obviously disqualifying feature (ex. a crime of violence). The prisoner is assigned an attorney, who requests permission to review documents in his/her case to determine if other criteria are met. If the prisoner is qualified, the individual is assisted by a lawyer to help fill out and file a clemency petition. That’s where Guggisberg came in.
As part of her summer internship at firm Pinales Stachler last year, Guggisberg—under the direction of her supervising attorney Candace Crouse—was charged with helping to draft the petition for her client Michael Morris. (The firm was assigned two cases.) “I thought it was so much fun over last summer,” she said, “finding ways to argue how our client would be sentenced differently today—such as ‘the old laws required mandatory outlandish sentences,’ ‘the sentencing laws differ today,’ and ‘our client has accepted responsibility and learned from his experience.’
“We had to show he’s been rehabilitated and that he can contribute to society.”
After the petition was written, it was submitted to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, where the US Pardon Attorney makes final recommendations to the President. Then they wait to hear.
President Obama’s commutations are part of a larger effort calling for changes to sentencing laws. Most of the recipients “are low-level drug offenders whose sentences would have been shorter if they were convicted under today’s laws,” wrote President Obama in a Facebook posting. He went on to describe pardons and communications as ways “to show people what a second chance can look like.”
Guggisberg and her colleagues at the firm had the pleasure and privilege of breaking the exciting news to their client. She described it as an “incredibly rewarding experience.” Mr. Morris, who is in Texas, will live with his family to reintegrate into society, beginning his new life in July when he and the others are officially released.
What did she learn from this experience? Guggisberg shared that she was impressed and encouraged by watching her colleagues, daily, do everything they can for clients. “It was beautiful to see. I learned that to be successful in criminal defense, you have to have thick skin and relentless hope in humanity.”
Upon graduation next year, Guggisberg plans to focus her career in healthcare law.