Serena Nunn at her swearing in ceremony on Nov. 5, 2012
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."