NACDL’s Trial Penalty Clemency Project

NACDL’s Trial Penalty Clemency Project seeks to recruit volunteers to assist federal prisoners seeking commutations.

As set forth in the 2018 report “The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It,” authored by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in conjunction with the Foundation for Criminal Justice, trial by jury has declined to the point that less than 3% of state and federal criminal cases are tried to a jury. And, as set forth in the Report, many of those individuals who exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial have been severely penalized for doing so.

While society is awakening to the number of wrongs embodied in the trial penalty, there are a number of individuals living the trial penalty as they serve excessively long prison sentences as a result of electing to go to trial and holding the government to its burden. The only remedy for these individuals is executive clemency. The Trial Penalty Clemency Project aims to assist those individuals by pairing Applicants with Volunteer Attorneys who will assist them in preparing a clemency petition.

Reform is needed to end the trial penalty. In the interim, this Project provides an opportunity for a second chance to those individuals who are living it.

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NACDL’s Federal Trial Penalty Clemency Project is made possible by generous support from the NACDL Foundation for Criminal Justice and the Howard S. and Deborah Jonas Foundation.

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Impacted Individuals

  • Corvain Cooper

    • Corvain Cooper has served over seven years of a life sentence for his non-violent participation in a conspiracy to distribute marijuana. He exercised his constitutional right and went to trial rather than cooperate with the prosecution, as some of his co-defendants did, and he was the only one sentenced to die in prison, even though some of his co-defendants were more culpable. And due to the First Step Act, if Mr. Cooper were sentenced today on the same charges, the court could have followed its stated desire for a sentence less than mandatory life.

      Also supported by Last Prisoner Project, Life for Pot, and CAN-DO

  • Robert Francis
    • Robert Francis is serving his 19th year of a life sentence, after being offered a sentence of 25 to 30 years pre-trial. He is incarcerated on non-violent drug conspiracy charges. Had he accepted the government’s plea offer, he would be free soon, given the good time credits from his spotless disciplinary record and active efforts toward learning and rehabilitation. Instead, Mr. Francis went to trial. The prosecution held him accountable for greater drug weights and two enhancements, and, unlike some of his co-defendants who have been freed or resentenced, Mr. Francis is now slated to die in prison.

  • Gordon Jackson
    • Gordon Jackson has served 23 years of a life sentence for a conspiracy drug charge. He would have been released over 15 years ago if he took his plea offer, like his co-defendants, instead of exercising his constitutional right to a trial. Mr. Jackson has been a model prisoner, helping his peers with their mental health, and has had only one minor disciplinary infraction in the last several years.

  • John Knock
    • John Knock, a first-time offender, has served 24 years of a life sentence for marijuana charges. Unlike some of his co-conspirators who pled guilty and were freed decades ago, Mr. Knock exercised his constitutional right to a trial. He has had zero incident reports during his incarceration and would have broad family support and steady employment upon release.

      Also supported by: Life for Pot, Last Prisoner Project, and CAN-DO

  • Michelle Yvette Lee
    • Michelle Yvette Lee is a 40-year-old woman and mother of three children who was been incarcerated for over a decade for a non-violent drug distribution offense that was driven by her own debilitating addiction at the time to methamphetamine. She went to trial with her co-defendant husband and was sentenced to over three times the sentence she would likely have received upon a guilty plea. She has had an exemplary prison history, during which she took college accounting classes and completed an office management apprenticeship. Sober and remorseful, she remains close with her children and immediate family and is eager to return to a productive live in society where she plans to find gainful employment using the skills she perfected while in custody and complete her college education.

  • Michael Montalvo
    • Michael Montalvo is serving his 32nd year of a life sentence, after being offered a sentence of 15 years pre-trial and 10 years mid-trial. Michael, a 74-year-old Vietnam War veteran, has been incarcerated for over 3 decades for a non-violent drug crime. Despite Mr. Montalvo’s leadership role in the conspiracy, he did not use violence or coercion, and the prosecution offered him 15-year and then 10-year plea deals. Mr. Montalvo is only incarcerated today because he went to trial. He has been a model prisoner, with numerous educational and rehabilitative accomplishments.

      Also supported by: CAN-DO

  • Marian Morgan
    • Marian Morgan is serving her 12th year of a 35 years and 9 months sentence, although her co-defendants, including her husband, were all offered sentences capped at 15 years prior to trial, and even mid-trial, Marian was offered a sentence capped at 18 years. Marian is a 66-year-old woman who has been incarcerated for over a decade for a non-violent white-collar crime. Unlike her co-defendants, she went to trial and was sentenced to nearly twice the maximum sentence than she was offered in a mid-trial plea, and three times the highest sentence imposed on her co-defendants. She is remorseful, has been sufficiently punished, and is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to her age and incarceration in a facility which has already seen one major outbreak that led to several deaths.

  • Lavonne Roach
    • Lavonne Roach has served 23 years of a 30-year sentence for non-violent drug charges. Instead of accepting the prosecution’s offer of 9 to 11 years, she exercised her constitutional right to a trial. Ms. Roach’s limited criminal history is entirely non-violent and she has been a model prisoner, using her education to tutor other prisoners. Due to her obesity, hypertension, and prescribed medication, she is at higher risk of contracting and suffering complications from COVID-19.

      Also supported by: CAN-DO

  • Blanca Virgen
    • Blanca Virgen, a mother of four imprisoned hundreds of miles from her family, has served 12 years of a 30-year sentence for drug charges. She exercised her constitutional right and went to trial rather than accepting the government’s plea offer of 10 years. Ms. Virgen is a model prisoner, having received countless achievement awards from her programming, and with only one minor infraction from seven years ago. Ms. Virgen wishes to go home and care for her children, two of whom recently lost their primary caregiver.

  • Sholem Weiss
    • Sholem Weiss, the son of Holocaust survivors, has served 20 years of an 835-year sentence for fraud and related charges. Mr. Weiss exercised his constitutional right to a trial rather than accepting the prosecution’s plea deal for either five or 10 years. As a 66-year-old cancer survivor with cardiovascular disease and other medical conditions, he is particularly at risk for complications from COVID-19, which is spreading rapidly in federal prisons.

      Also supported by: Tzedek Association

  • Cleotha Young
    • Cleotha Young is serving his 7th year of a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence, after being offered a plea with a mandatory 10-year minimum prior to trial. Cleotha is a 37-year-old African-American man who is incarcerated on non-violent drug conspiracy charges. He played a minor role in the conspiracy, even according to the prosecution. However, the court was forced to sentence Mr. Young more severely than most of his co-defendants because the prosecution doubled his mandatory minimum after he decided to go to trial. Mr. Young has used his six years of incarceration to better himself, complete programs on drugs and victim impact, and gain new skills.

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