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Sam Sheldon had never heard of mandatory minimums when he picked up a copy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune at a Super-America store, on his way to the airport to catch the red-eye to San Diego. He’d been admitted to practice only that month, December 1997, and he’d skipped the unit on drug sentencing at law school. All he knew from the paper was that a woman named Serena Nunn had been sentenced to 14 years for a relatively minor role in a drug conspiracy. He thought that it was unjust and that a law degree gave him the power to right injustice. Unburdened by the knowledge that Nunn’s case was similar to thousands of others, and unaware that Bill Clinton was as stingy with clemency as any modern president, Sheldon sat down and wrote a letter. Why not? It had worked for him before. Sheldon’s uncanny good luck with letters to prisoners started way back in freshman year of high school in Palas Verdes, Calif. By chance, he attended the same high school as Christopher Boyce, the spy-fugitive-bank robber made famous as the Falcon in the 1985 movie “The Falcon and the Snowman. “After seeing the movie, Sheldon dashed off a letter to Boyce and promised that when he grew up, he’d go to law school and help him. “It was one of those things you do as a kid and don’t think about,” Sheldon says. Ten years later, as a first-year law student at Minnesota’s Hamline Law School, Sheldon learned that the Falcon, still in prison, was also studying at Hamline. After transferring to the University of Southern California, Sheldon saw a rerun of the movie on cable TV and wrote again. This time, the Falcon wrote back. In March 1997, Sheldon appeared at Boyce’s parole hearing and helped him win a 17-year sentence reduction. “I don’t sit around going, ‘What inmate can I write next?’ ” insists Sheldon. “ I work a ton of hours at my real job.” To be precise, Sheldon put in 2,400 billable hours last year as an insurance subrogation lawyer in the San Diego, Calif., office of Philadelphia, Penn.’s Cozen and O’Connor P.C. He put in another 1,000 hours’ pro bono work on the Nunn case. THE NUNN CASE Nunn had been a cheerleader and homecoming queen in high school and had begun studies at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. But at 19, she became romantically involved for a few months with a drug dealer known as Monte, who was the son of Ralph Duke, the leader of the biggest cocaine ring in the state for 20 years. In May 1989, Nunn drove Monte to buy 20 kilos of cocaine from a man who proved to be an undercover government agent, and the ring was busted. Monte received a sentence of more than 20 years. The ring’s No. 2 leader, Marvin McCaleb, cooperated and got seven years from a court in California. Nunn decided not to cooperate. Indeed, she was caught on tape telling a colleague, “In Minnesota, you know, people don’t never kill the snitches here … but you let some of these motherf*****s come up dead, they’ll be thinking … twice.” A prosecutor calls the tape “chilling.” Sheldon says, “She was a 19-year-old talking street talk. The transcript’s not flattering, but it’s not a threat.” The tape helped seal her conviction, and it became the bone of contention in her sentence. Judge David Doty had ruled at a bail hearing that Nunn’s statement did not constitute a threat, but at sentencing, in April 1990, he used it as a basis for a two-point enhancement under federal guidelines for obstruction of justice. That bumped her up from 11 years, the mandatory minimum sentence for 20-plus kilos of cocaine, to 14. Nunn lost an appeal and a pro se motion on this issue. But Sheldon, with his naievet�, idealism, and youthful energy, was able to gain Doty’s attention. Doty, a Reagan appointee, wrote to the U.S. pardon attorney, in the Justice Department, in support of Sheldon’s petition for commutation. The judge endorsed clemency on two grounds: that enhancing Nunn’s sentence was in error and that mandatory minimums are unjust. “If mandatory minimum sentencing did not exist,” he wrote, “no judge in America, including me, would have ever sentenced Ms. Nunn to 15 years in prison.” President Clinton commuted Nunn’s sentence to time served on July 7, and she left a teary voice-mail message for Sheldon. He hopped the next flight from San Diego to Phoenix, where she was incarcerated. After landing, he picked up Nunn’s mother and sister in a limo and caught up with Nunn as she was leaving the facility by prison car. A scene of comic joy ensued as the limo made a U-turn to pull onto the side of the road. Sheldon recalls, “Serena’s trying to jump out the window of the prison car, her sister is caught in the sun roof of the limo, and the driver’s having a nervous breakdown.” Reunited with her family, Nunn paid a visit two weeks later to Doty, with Sheldon. “Don’t thank me,” Doty recalls telling her. “Thank the young man standing to your right. He’s the hero.” Nunn, who finished a community college degree in prison with high honors and is now studying at Arizona State University, told the judge that she plans to be a lawyer, assuming a state bar will admit her. “You’re smart enough to do it,” he told her. “If you ever appear in my courtroom I’ll be pleased to have you.” Three years knocked off her sentence. Three years of law school. Nunn sees an opportunity for poetic justice on a grand scale. “I don’t know what area of law I want to concentrate in,” she says, “but the one thing I do know is, I plan to give back to someone the way Sam Sheldon gave back to me.” She may be assured there will be no shortage of prisoner cases crying out for clemency representation. Says Doty, “Every judge that’s been involved in sentencing drug defendants over the last 13 years has got somebody or a number of people who has received a sentence that’s greater than deserved.”

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