Federal Criminal Justice Project Wins Sentence Reduction for Client

Clinic Law Students help reduce client’s long sentence by half
Sarah Galer
University of Chicago News Office
November 16, 2009

This past July, recent Law School graduates Brynn Lyerly and Stephanie Holmes sat in a Chicago courtroom as their client listened to a federal judge reduce a 22–year drug crime sentence to 10 years, a huge victory for the legal team.

During the preceding school year, the then– third–year law students, along with classmates Emma Mittelstaedt and Christopher Stanton, had done valuable hands–on legal work on the client’s behalf through the Law School’s Federal Criminal Justice Project in the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

“If the students hadn’t done the amazing work that they did, our client would have still had 12 more years inside,” said Alison Siegler, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law, who started the Federal Criminal Justice Project in the fall of 2008. “It was an incredible experience and not something that happens very often in our line of work, and it is a credit to the students. They litigated every single little issue, and the judge just kept agreeing with our positions.”

Student legal team crafts strategy

The Federal Criminal Justice Project is the first legal clinic in the country that exclusively represents clients charged with federal felonies, and it is one of only a few legal clinics that enable third–year law students to appear in federal district court on behalf of criminal defendants.

“It was thrilling to be involved in crafting legal strategy while still in law school,” said Mittelstaedt. “I'd never been a part of something with such important and direct consequences.”

Their client had been convicted in 2003 of conspiracy and related drug–trafficking crimes, after more than 40 kilograms of cocaine were found stored in her house on the South Side of Chicago. Inadequate legal representation at her trial and arcane drug sentencing rules resulted in a 22–year sentence.

Siegler brought the case with her from the Federal Defender Program when she joined the faculty, at which point the judge already had granted a habeas petition and agreed to revisit the sentence based on Siegler’s argument that the client had received ineffective counsel. The student legal team then had to convince the judge to reduce the sentence to better reflect first–time offender status and the client’s relatively minor role in a much larger drug conspiracy.

First, the team successfully argued that the client qualified for the “safety valve” exception to the federal drug sentencing guidelines. That exception allows first–time offenders to receive sentences below the mandatory minimum, if they come clean about their role and the roles of others in the drug conspiracy, which the defendant was willing to do.

“That work was absolutely crucial to this case because it lowered the guidelines range by almost seven years,” said Siegler. “It also required the students to make all sorts of judgment calls in deciding what issues we should emphasize, what arguments we should raise, what arguments we should not raise.”

Next, they worked to apply an important recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the case. The 2005 case, United States v. Booker, found that the previously mandatory sentencing guidelines should only be “advisory,” and that sentences should be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to achieve the purposes of punishment.

Arguing for sufficient punishment

Under Siegler’s supervision, the students filed a persuasive legal memorandum arguing in part that the sentencing guidelines focused too much on the quantity of drugs found and not enough on personal culpability. So, for example, while their client had played a comparatively minor role in the drug conspiracy, she had received the same sentence as her husband, a top lieutenant in the drug trafficking organization.

“Although the client was guilty, there was the question not just of justice at the guilt/innocence stage, but justice at the sentencing stage,” said Siegler. “And the students had to figure out for themselves what they thought the just sentence was here, given certainly that she was guilty, but also given the presence of a lot of mitigating factors.”

“The night that the sentencing memo was due, Professor Siegler plus three of us students were working on it until about 3 a.m. because we wanted it to be absolutely perfect,” said Holmes, now a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University. “I have never worked on a project where I felt that kind of import and significance.”

The sentence reduction meant that given the time the client already had served, she would return to her children and family in three years, and would see her youngest son graduate from high school.

“This kind of experience will serve the students really well in whatever they do,” said Siegler. “Even though here, we were operating in the context of a criminal case, every last student who leaves law school to go work for a judge, at a law firm, at the U.S. Attorney’s office or as a defense attorney, will need these skills.”

Said Mittelstaedt, now an associate at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles: “The biggest lesson I learned was the importance of patience, perseverance and diligence. Everything we did involved lots of meticulous planning, research, writing and rewriting. I'm sure that for all of us, it was incredibly gratifying to see that work pay off.”


Alison Siegler