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Students Help Free Life-term Prisoner

Students Help Free Life-term Prisoner

The Post-Conviction Justice Project at USC Law recently prevailed in a defining case for the California parole system for longtime client Sandra Davis-Lawrence.

USC Law students argued – and the California Supreme Court agreed – that a life-term prisoner is entitled to be granted parole once the prisoner no longer poses a danger to the community.

The court rejected the governor’s reversal of the parole commission’s grant of parole based solely on the circumstances of Sandra Davis-Lawrence’s 1971 commitment offense (first-degree murder), holding that the reversal violated her rights to due process.

The 4 to 3 ruling provides meaningful judicial review of parole decisions by the Board of Parole Hearings and the governor, and could affect nearly 1,000 parole cases now on appeal. Lawyers on both sides said it was the first time in recent history that the state’s highest court has ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case.

Students in the Post-Conviction Justice Project, under the direction of professors Michael Brennan, Carrie Hempel and Heidi Rummel, have represented Davis-Lawrence at parole hearings and in the state courts since 2000.

USC Law student Lisa Shinar ’07 wrote the petition challenging the governor’s reversal of Davis-Lawrence’s fourth grant of parole. Christopher Mock ’08 argued the case in the California Court of Appeal. The court granted the petition and ordered her release on parole. The California Supreme Court took the case under review, and Patrick Hagan ’09 and Erin McLendon ’09 took the lead in briefing the case for the Supreme Court.

On Aug. 21, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lawrence, allowing her to remain free after nearly 24 years in prison.

“This case is significant on so many levels – for Sandra, who has paid for her crime and earned her freedom through exemplary efforts to educate and reinvent herself in prison, for so many clients of the clinic and other life-term prisoners who now see that their hard work toward rehabilitation in prison can lead to their freedom, and for all the students of the clinic who work so hard for their clients in every other case,” said Rummel, who worked on the original petition as a visiting professor.

In the ruling, the justices said there was “overwhelming” evidence of Lawrence’s rehabilitation while in prison, demonstrating her suitability for parole.

She earned two degrees in prison, including her MBA; mastered numerous marketable skills; served as a leader in many prison programs, including president of the inmates’ Toastmasters Club; acted as a mentor for other women at the prison through a variety of programs; co-founded a tutoring program; and remained discipline-free.

She also repeatedly expressed her extreme remorse for her crime and had tremendous support from the community for her release, including a job and a place to live.

Since 1981, more than 600 USC Law students have worked with more than 4,300 clients in the Post-Conviction Justice Project on matters ranging from consultation to representation at parole hearings as well as state and federal lawsuits challenging denials of constitutional rights.

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