News

An Historic Effort and Righteous Results

February 20, 2017   |   Sonya Pfeiffer

When a post comes across the [email] listserv announcing a case-related win of any kind, it feels good to every criminal defense lawyer who is swinging the battle ax day in and day out.  We celebrate with congratulatory replies and if we see that winning attorney in court we high five her.  A win for one is a win for all, and the shared revelry helps each of us keep up the fight.

Over the past several years, many criminal defense section members have quietly secured big wins for federal inmates who were sent to prison during the War of Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s.  That War, as we all now know, is uniquely responsible for our current reality of mass incarceration.  Former President Obama announced an unprecedented clemency initiative in 2014, focusing on those convicted of drug-related crimes who received crushing mandatory-minimum sentences.

In response to Obama’s initiative, several national bar associations organized and created the nationwide Clemency Project in 2014.  The American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Federal and Community Public Defenders and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) all took part in the project.  NCAJ is an affiliate of NACDL.

Calling America a “nation of second chances,” Obama commuted a total of 1,715 sentences by the time he left office.  NCAJ Criminal Defense section members Raymond Tarlton and Elliot Abrams, with the help of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the Eastern District, successfully reduced the sentences of 6 people.

In one of Abrams’ cases, his client, Tony Taylor, had been sentenced to life in prison for a crack cocaine possession conviction.  Obama’s commutation reduced the sentence to 293 months.  While still an oppressive sentence, Taylor will see freedom in another 10 years.  “I never thought I’d get to see my daughter as a free man; now I will,” Taylor told Abrams.

Section member Jamie Lau, the supervising attorney at Duke’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic, took on several cases so that law students could assist in the clemency initiative.  One heart-swelling success was the case of James Burns, who in 2005 was sentenced to 235 months in prison for selling small amounts of crack cocaine.  Burns headed to federal prison with a release date of 2024.  He was a model prisoner, well-liked by fellow inmates and prison staff.  When his clemency petition was granted, Burns’ prison case manager told Lau that “Mr. Obama has picked himself a deserving one.”  Burns new release date is March 4, 2017.

Dozens of section members worked on petitions for clemency, many of which were not granted.  Even in the cases not granted, however, our members connected with federal inmates and established a relationship that showed, quite simply, that those behind bars are not forgotten.  While not a “win” in the traditional sense, a much-needed extension of compassion still provided hope and emotional sustenance for both the inmate and the attorney who reviewed the case.

The Clemency Project is now closed, but represented the best of what we can be as lawyers:  a diverse group of volunteers from the nation’s bar who together screened the cases of more than 36,000 federal prisoners who asked for assistance.  In total, the Project submitted 2,600 petitions, 705 which were granted.  Obama reinvigorated clemency, and our section members were a part of an extraordinary coalition who embraced Obama’s initiative that yielded results worth celebrating.

 Sonya Pfeiffer, VP of Membership and Chair of the NCAJ Criminal Defense Section, is a partner at Rudolf Widenhouse www.RudolfWidenhouse.com.  

About the Author

Sonya Pfeiffer

Sonya Pfeiffer

Sonya Pfeiffer is a former award-winning television journalist who is now a practicing civil rights and criminal defense attorney.  As a journalist, she worked internationally in Paris and Tel Aviv and covered major international stories including the Yitzhak Rabin assassination and the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords.  She worked nationally in Omaha, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, Boston and New York.  Pfeiffer has also directed and produced documentary films including the award-winning short “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Social Justice.”  


Pfeiffer later attended law school at UNC-Chapel Hill and is now practices criminal defense and civil rights in Charlotte, NC, at Rudolf Widenhouse.  A skilled communicator, Pfeiffer has successfully counseled numerous clients through both jury trials and complicated plea negotiations.  Sonya sits on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and the Mecklenburg County Bar Foundation.  In addition to her trial work, Pfeiffer regularly moderates discussions and panels on a variety of topics; through her background in journalism, filmmaking and law, Pfeiffer brings a unique perspective to conversations related to the legal system and the public perception of the system.  She is also the owner and director of Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte, NC, where she leads the gallery’s strategic planning and programming.   Pfeiffer represents artists who create challenging, thought-driven work that addresses relevant issues in our global society, and creates programs designed to stimulate dialogue through art.