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Thanks to Bill Clinton, pardons and clemency will be dirty words for a while. But then there’s California commercial litigator Sam Sheldon, a useful reminder that not all clemency advocates are backroom operators with shady political motives. Over the past year, the associate in the San Diego office of Philadelphia’s Cozen and O’Connor has won commutations for three prisoners serving mandatory-minimum sentences — and, in the process, has successfully penetrated a pro bono niche seldom mined by big-firm lawyers, particularly 31-year-olds with scant experience. “He’s emerged as this one-man mercy squad,” says Margaret Love, the pardon attorney for the Department of Justice from 1990 to 1997, who now does clemency full time at Washington, D.C.’s Brand & Frulla. “Clemency just hasn’t been an area where people thought there was anything fruitful” for big firms, adds Love. These cases are generally long shots — only about 50 federal commutations were granted during the Clinton administration — and often require heavy hours that many attorneys already billing 2,000-plus hours a year would find difficult to handle. Sheldon squeezes the 500 pro bono hours a year that these cases demand into late nights and weekends without, he says, sidetracking his nascent commercial litigation practice. Cozen and O’Connor supports Sheldon’s passion with firm resources. Sheldon’s introduction to this line of work has a plot twist worthy of Hollywood. He attended the same California high school as Christopher Boyce, the spy whose story was told as “Falcon” in the movie “Falcon and the Snowman.” After seeing the movie while in law school, Sheldon contacted Boyce and ultimately helped him win a 16-year reduction on his espionage sentence. As if destined to trod this clemency trail, Sheldon then stumbled onto the case that stands as his most publicized win — for Serena Nunn — while reading a local newspaper in a Minnesota airport during a visit to Boyce. Nunn was a promising young college student whose minor involvement in a drug ring landed her a 14-year-minimum sentence on charges of conspiracy. In December 1997, Sheldon contacted her. “Here I was, a nobody, 28, sitting in a federal prison,” says Nunn of Sheldon’s intervention, “and all of a sudden I get this letter — it just really blew my wig back.” The first hurdle for the young attorney to clear was finding a strategy. “There is no guide to doing clemencies,” Sheldon points out. He began by marshalling support for Nunn, requesting letters from everyone in the original case, including such unlikely suspects as the prosecutor. “When people hear that you’re working pro bono,” says Sheldon, “they see your belief in the client, and that you have nothing to gain, which aids in their reconsideration of the case.” At least it did in Nunn’s case. All the key players, including the judge who had originally lamented that he lacked the discretion to reduce Nunn’s sentence, joined in Sheldon’s effort. In July 2000, three years before Nunn’s slated release date, President Clinton commuted her sentence — sans all the Marc Rich-like hullabaloo. Nunn is currently finishing up her degree at Arizona State University and plans to attend law school. The publicity made him the last, best hope for many a frustrated prisoner. After spending the remainder of 2000 helping Nunn’s codefendant Kim Allen Willis and another first-time drug offender, De-Ann Coffman — both of whom won commutations in January — Sheldon was ready for a temporary break. “I put everything I have into these cases,” he says, “and don’t want to take on a case if I’m not going to have the time to devote to it.” But the clemency itch may soon need further scratching. “When I think about Kim Willis grabbing me and crying uncontrollably,” says Sheldon, “it makes me want to jump back into the process all over again.” With inmate pleas steadily streaming in, he won’t have to look too far for his next client.

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