President Barack Obama on Monday commuted the sentences of 153 prisoners and offered pardons to 78 more, but buried in the news release is an phenomenal story of one Atlanta woman’s attempt to rebuild her life.
Among the four Georgians the president granted clemency on Monday is Serena Denise Nunn. Nunn was convicted in 1990 in Minneapolis of being a minor part of a major drug conspiracy and was sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison.
Caught up in the mandatory-minimum sentencing requirements of the time, Nunn became a prime example of how the War on Drugs’ did not always mete out justice commensurate with the crime. ProPublica detailed the first two-thirds of Nunn’s journey back in 2011:
Nunn, who is African American, first was imprisoned in Kentucky and eventually was moved to a women’s prison in Arizona. Eight years after her sentencing, a newspaper featured her in a story about mandatory minimums.
The article caught the attention of a young lawyer, Sam Sheldon, who wrote to her in prison and offered to work for free on her behalf. Sheldon file a petition for a presidential commutation, which when granted, ends a prison sentence.
The governor of Minnesota, where Nunn had been raised, and the sentencing judge, supported her petition.
Then-President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence and Nunn regained her freedom. In 2001, Nunn told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Rosalind Bentley, now a reporter at the AJC, that she never claimed innocence.
“I never feigned I was innocent,” she said at the time. “I’m not saying I shouldn’t have been punished. All I’m saying is, should I have received the sentence I did if other things could have been considered?”
Nunn graduated from college and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. In 2012 she passed the Georgia Bar exam and works in the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office, but she couldn’t actually practice law because of her past conviction.
Now, with Obama’s pardon, she has a chance at becoming a full-fledged attorney.
Also pardoned Monday was Juleen Nicole Henry of Duluth, who was convicted in Michigan in 2001 for conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
The president also commuted the sentence of Orasama Andrews of Jackson and Ralph McIver of Crescent.
Andrews, who is serving a life sentence for distribution of cocaine, will serve a total of 15 years and six months. McIver was convicted in 1998 to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, three counts of distribution of cocaine and attempt to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. McIver will go free in April.