On Oct. 27, President Barack Obama approved a clemency petition issued by the Yale Law School’s Samuel Jacobs Criminal Justice Clinic on behalf of Alberto Lopez.
The CJC filed Lopez’s petition in 2014, when the Obama administration announced Clemency Project 2014, which reviews clemency petitions for prisoners who have served 10 years in jail and meet certain criteria. According to the Justice Department’s criteria, prisoners must be nonviolent offenders who do not have “significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations” and who have demonstrated good conduct in prison. Most pertinent to Lopez’s case, the Department considers if the prisoner “would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today” when deciding whether to commute a sentence.
Law School professor Fiona Doherty LAW ’99, who spearheads the CJC, said the initiative asked members of the legal profession to provide free representation to prisoners.
Lopez was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison for the distribution of heroin and crack cocaine. According to Doherty, the life sentence “was a product of outdated laws.” Theodore Torres LAW ’18, a law student who worked on Lopez’s case, said that Lopez was a heroin addict who had gotten into trouble with the law for nonviolent drug offenses before his incarceration. Eventually, Lopez’s supplier mandated that Lopez begin to sell and distribute drugs.
“However, Lopez was always at the bottom of the totem pole,” Torres said. “He was never part of a large cartel or drug organization, and he never committed any acts of violence.”
Torres added that since Lopez’s incarceration, he “turned his life around and became the prototypical model inmate.” Lopez did not receive any disciplinary infractions while in prison, which, according to Torres, is almost unheard of in the prison system. During his sentence, Lopez became a pastor and organized Sunday prayer sessions for other inmates and also composed original gospel music.
“Lopez worked in a variety of fields and received many technical certifications,” Torres said. “Even though he never had any hope of being released.”
The officials in the prison system who worked with Lopez recognized his progress and supported his clemency petition.
During the case, Lopez received an outpouring of support from his family, his friends and the officials at the prison where he was held, Doherty said. His prison counselor called him a “model inmate,” and his chaplain in prison called him an “inspiration to other inmates,” she added.
The CJC, in filing the petition, proved that Lopez met all of Clemency Project 2014’s criteria and worked to show that had Lopez been charged under the current federal law, his sentence would not have been the same.
When Lopez was arrested in the early 1990s, federal sentencing guidelines followed what Torres referred to as the “crack powder disparity.” Those arrested and charged for distributing one ounce of crack cocaine would receive a sentence 100 times as long as those charged for distributing the same amount of powder cocaine. The laws were “outdated and overly harsh,” Doherty said, adding that they also “disproportionately affected minority communities.”
According to Torres, the disparity was motivated by racial animus and by national fear of a “crack epidemic,” even though crack and powder cocaine are chemically identical. But because Lopez was charged with distributing a crack cocaine, despite its relatively small amount, he was still sentenced under the more severe law.
The Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress in 2010 reduced the disparity in these laws from a ratio of 100:1 to 18:1. Had he been charged after 2010, Lopez would not have received a life sentence in prison, Torres said.
The CJC also showed how Lopez had worked through his addiction and behavioral issues while imprisoned.
“That was easy for us because Mr. Lopez has been the platonic ideal of a rehabilitated inmate,” Torres said. “Lopez demonstrated excellent behavior and also had a plan for reentry into society after his release.”
Lopez has not yet been released from prison, as his sentence will officially expire on Feb. 24. However, in the interim, he will be at a halfway house.
The CJC has represented three clients on federal clemency petitions since 2014, including Jamal Hanson, who received clemency in May, and Sherman Foye, who is still awaiting a response to his petition.