Since 2008, Darryl Dewayne Edwards has been a guest of the federal prison system, serving a sentence of life without parole. Though he had a fairly minor criminal record at the time of his arrest on drug and weapons charges, he received a mandatory life sentence after rejecting a plea bargain, and exercising his right to go to trial.
Recently — as part of an application for clemency that landed on the desk of the president of the United States — Edwards had an opportunity to tell his story. He drifted into selling crack cocaine after losing his job in 2007, desperate and drawn by the lure of quick cash. In prison, Edwards said, he’d had a chance to reflect.
“Once I got to prison, I had to make a choice,” he wrote. “Either I could give up hope and surrender to the bad behavior that got me there, or I could do everything in my power to become the better man that my daughter and my family deserved to have in the first place.”
President Obama granted Edwards clemency in August, and he probably will be released by the end of the year.
Edwards’s release — and those of two other federal prisoners so far — was won by a group of young legal advocates. A group of Harvard Law School students, supervised by attorneys from the law firm of Goodwin Procter, has filed clemency petitions for more than a dozen federal prisoners who could qualify for release under guidelines set forth by the Justice Department.
The Obama Administration set the process in motion in 2014, when it announced that it would consider granting clemency to nonviolent offenders serving lengthy sentences. It was the administration’s response to the scourge of mass incarceration, which has filled prisons with offenders, especially drug offenders, serving excessive sentences. The White House issued a call for volunteer lawyers to help qualified inmates apply.
Among those answering the call was Larry Schwartztol, director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School. He had students who were eager to work on the applications. But the highly technical project would require lawyers and supervision. James Rehnquist of Goodwin Procter oversaw the finished products, on which three of the firm’s young associates served as the attorneys of record.
“We wanted to contribute to this work because clemency is playing this unusual role in addressing big-picture systemic problems but also just because of the compelling need,” Schwartztol said.
Two of his students, Lark Turner and Molly Bunke, have worked on successful petitions. Turner worked on the Edwards case, along with Eric Romeo of Goodwin. Bunke — working with Courtney Orazio — helped secure the release of Malik Abdunafi, who was serving a 20-year sentence for drug offenses.
Turner said she went to law school with the hope of eventually influencing policy on mass incarceration. “The idea that you can go to law school and in your first year you can start working on things that matter so much it’s pretty incredible,” she said. “And that we had this opportunity to participate in programs like this and work with clients like these to play a very small but incredibly meaningful role in trying to correct this injustice, that’s a life-changing thing.”
Successful petitions seem to combine technical scholarship with a flair for bringing a client’s narrative to life. Both Turner and Bunke were quick to credit the lawyers they worked with for doing much of the heavy lifting in crafting the petitions.
Obama has granted 673 commutations to date. Those who work on the cases say they have no idea if their efforts have been successful — until one day a phone call comes, with word that the president has decided to release their client. Bunke said she cried when she heard the news.
“I think this experience taught me a lot about being an effective advocate,” Bunke said. “That’s why I came here, and that’s what I want to do when I leave.”