President Bill Clinton used his presidential pardon power in July 2000 to commute the sentence of Serena Nunn, who was sentenced to 15 years for a first-time nonviolent drug offense when she was 19. The pardon shaved three years off Nunn’s sentence. Nunn told me over the phone, “I thought then that it was a great thing that a president used his power to help an average person.”
Nunn later graduated from college and then the University of Michigan Law School. Last month, having passed a character fitness test, Nunn passed the Georgia bar. On Monday, she will be sworn in as an attorney.
How can a convicted felon become an attorney? The answer is not that Nunn wasn’t guilty. She broke the law. She admits it. She knows she deserved some punishment.
But 15 years? That hard time was a function of a federal mandatory minimum system that overly punishes women who foolishly refuse to testify against their drug dealer boyfriends. “If mandatory minimum sentencing did not exist, no judge in America, including me, would have ever sentenced Ms. Nunn to 15 years in prison based on her role in the conspiracy, her age and the fact that she had no prior criminal convictions before the instant offense,” sentencing Judge David Doty later wrote to Clinton.
Nunn’s luck changed when Families Against Mandatory Minimums publicized her plight. In 1997, right-leaning lawyer Sam Sheldon read about Nunn in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and was outraged. He took on her case pro bono and then proceeded to hector prosecutors and local politicians in his bid to win Nunn a presidential commutation.
Sheldon, who works for the Justice Department, later became a federal prosecutor. He and his family will be there to watch Nunn take the oath.
Nunn knows that she is blessed. She has seen others leave prison only to face a “permanent punishment,” of doors slammed when ex-convicts looked for work or social acceptance.
But she had the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Sheldon, a pass from prominent politicians and a great-grandmother who told her, “You outlive it.”
“She meant,” Nunn said, “that when you let your good outdo your bad, then you’ve outlived it. You can be remembered for something better than your mistake.”
Nunn has applied for a presidential pardon, which would erase her conviction. “I’ll never be able to wipe away what I did and the fact that I went to prison,” said Nunn, “but I can do the best that I can when I go forward.”
During our talk, Nunn never brought up the subject of race. She is black, like so many other victims of the federal system’s oversize boot.
Despite his erstwhile criticism of federal mandatory minimums, America’s first black president may be of little to no help to her. I thought President George W. Bush was stingy with the pardon power, but Bush did issue two commutations in his first term, 11 total, as well as a total of 189 pardons. The Bush record beats Barack Obama’s one commutation and 22 pardons.
Maybe Obama will be better after the election, some hope, when, win or lose, he could commute sentences without fear of alienating voters.
Political science professor P.S. Ruckman expects only “the usual tinkling of December pardons.” If, however, Obama does issue a spate of commutations, expect some crony clemency, like Clinton’s out-the-door pardon of well-connected rich fugitive Marc Rich.
Mitt Romney is “no big ball of hope,” either, Ruckman said of the other guy. As Massachusetts governor, Romney granted none of the 15 pardon or three commutation recommendations sent from his parole board.
Conventional wisdom holds that there is no political upside to granting pardons and commutations. In the end, however, presidents often find some mercy for their pals. The question is whether they can spare a shot at a second chance for the average unconnected offender.
Email Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com.