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An Important Lesson in the Power of Redemption: Letter From FAMM President Julie Stewart

06 November 2012

By El-Hajj Mauri' Saalakhan

Assalaamu Alaikum (Greetings of Peace): 

Years ago I did some volunteer work with FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums); I guess you could say it was one of the organizations that I cut my human rights teeth on. Since then, I've tried to follow the work of FAMM as much as possible, and I've continued to be impressed by that organizations good work.  

What follows below is a very illuminating example of the regenerative power of mercy and redemption! It is a lesson that carries enormous import for our society as a whole (a nation that imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation on earth) - but it has particular relevance for the African-American and  Muslim communities (in my humble opinion).   

During America's so-called "War on Drugs," the highly selective class and racially driven prosecutions (and punishments) resulted in the type of miscarriages of justice that Serena Nunn's case  (below) exemplifies. With the mandatory sentencing laws that were passed throughout the 80s & 90s, prosecutors were given enormous power to determine the length of sentences based upon the charges they decided to bring in their opportunistic indictments; and whether those charges would be brought in state court or federal court. 

If you were white (the majority of drug offenders in America) and well to do, the odds were in your favor. If you were a "minority" (i.e. Afro-American, Latino, etc.), and not well to do - and of little value to the prosecution in a drug "conspiracy" case, you were more likely to end up like Ms. Nunn. And then after you did your time, the punishment would continue at another level - as exemplified by Michele Alexander in her thought-provoking book, "The New Jim Crow." 

The release below underscores the FACT that, despite oppressive societal odds, all hope is not dead! As Malcolm X once said, "If a man [or woman] is properly motivated [and given another chance] in prison he can change his life." 

As Julie noted below, there are "lots" of people in American prisons deserving of pardons and sentence commutations! Many are folk who received excessive sentences (punishments that didn't fit the crime) to begin with; others are political prisoners who have been locked down for decades!  

(The excessive sentencing regime accorded preemptively prosecuted young Muslims - a new category of political imprisonment in America - are also deserving of remedial attention.)  

I've highlighted what I consider to be some of the most important passages of FAMM's release below. Please review and pass along. Serena Nunn's story is truly inspiring. May ALLAH bless her, bless the work of organizations like FAMM...and bless this country to one day become a "nation of liberty and justice for all" .... before it's too late! 

"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.  A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of convicted criminals against the state; a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment; a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment; tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes; and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man; these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it."

- Winston Churchill [House of Commons speech, given while Home Secretary, July 20, 1910]

Letter From FAMM President Julie Stewart

Dear Mauri --

I feel like a proud mama, even though it's not my child I'm proud of. Former federal prisoner, Serena Nunn, who spent 11 years in prison for a drug offense, was sworn into the Georgia State Bar yesterday as a full-fledged attorney. Serena has come full circle.

I first met Serena in 1997 when a reporter named Joe Rigert said he wanted to tell the stories of women in prison. We put out a call to our members in prison and Serena responded. She explained how at merely 19 years old, she had been convicted of being involved in a drug conspiracy. Even though Serena played a minor role, she was serving a 15-year federal prison sentence. Joe interviewed Serena and featured her story in a front page article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, complete with a powerful photo of Serena.

The day the article appeared, a young lawyer named Sam Sheldon was changing planes in Minneapolis and happened to pick up a copy of the paper. He read Serena's story and couldn't believe it. He became a man with a mission: to free Serena Nunn. Remarkably, he succeeded. In July 2000, then-President Bill Clinton commuted Serena's sentence and she walked out, a free woman.

Serena wasted no time in proving she was worthy of the second chance given to her by President Clinton. She finished college in Arizona, and then graduated from law school at the University of Michigan. For the past several years Serena has worked at the public defender's office in Atlanta. She passed the bar exam last month and was sworn in yesterday. Now she can finally fulfill her childhood dream of being a lawyer. I couldn't be prouder of Serena or happier for her. Against the odds, she proved that she is so much more than her worst mistake, which she has put well behind her.

I want President Obama to know about Serena. I understand that he's otherwise occupied right now... but he and Mitt Romney both need to know that the awesome power of presidential clemency is not taken lightly by those who receive it. FAMM was involved in nearly two dozen of the commutations granted by President Clinton before he left office and a handful of others since then. None of those individuals who were given a second chance have returned to prison. None have committed other crimes. None have been a burden or a threat to society. Instead, like Serena, they have bettered themselves, finished college, found jobs, gotten married, had kids, and become taxpaying citizens who contribute to their communities, churches and families. They have moved beyond their pasts.

As noted in this recent ProPublica article, President Obama has the worst clemency record of any president in recent history. Why is he so stingy? Is it the fault of the dysfunctional Office of the Pardon Attorney, or the President himself? We at FAMM know there are people in prison deserving sentence commutations. Lots of them. I'm in touch with a number of people serving life without parole sentences for drug-only offenses. That's right. These individuals will live and die in our prisons for nonviolent crimes unless the laws change -- retroactively -- or a President grants them clemency. Another word for clemency is mercy.

This Thanksgiving I guarantee that President Obama will grant mercy to two birds. It's a Thanksgiving ritual to spare the lives of two turkeys that might have ended up on the White House dining table. The story, complete with photos, will be featured in the national press. Call me cynical but when we celebrate sparing the life of two stupid birds, yet let thousands of living human beings languish in prisons until they die... something is terribly wrong with our priorities.

President Obama should heed the wisdom of another president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who said, "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice." That has certainly been true for Serena Nunn whose smile was a mile wide as she pledged to uphold the trust and responsibilities invested in attorneys in the state of Georgia. I can only imagine how ferociously she will fight for her clients' right to justice, fairness, and, yes, even mercy.

Undoubtedly, Shakespeare said it best:

"The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed- It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes."

Best --

Julie Stewart



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