Editor’s note: This article was published originally on July 11, 2000.
If a San Diego lawyer hadn’t read a newspaper to pass the time on a flight from Minneapolis to California 2½ years ago, odds are that Serena Nunn still would be sitting in an Arizona prison today.
The lawyer, Sam Sheldon, said Monday that luck led to Friday’s commutation of the Minneapolis woman’s federal drug sentence. Nunn, now 30 with dreams of becoming a lawyer, left the Federal Prison Camp in Phoenix a free woman Friday after serving nearly 11 years of a 14-year federal sentence for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.
Nunn was one of four women whose federal drug sentences were commuted by President Clinton on Friday — a fairly rare occurrence.
Clinton also granted clemency to a man in prison on federal drug crimes. Commuting a sentence means prisoners are immediately set free; it doesn’t erase their criminal records.
“I was so excited, I was just overwhelmed,” Nunn said Monday from Arizona. “My mind was spinning … I couldn’t really do much other than to cry.”
When Sheldon got the news — via a teary voice mail from Nunn — he did much the same and then hopped a plane to Phoenix.
The 1998 meeting of Sheldon — then a lawyer for one week — and Nunn — a one-time homecoming queen turned federal drug convict — is the stuff of novels.
The story began on Dec. 14, 1997, inside a convenience store near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Sheldon bought a copy of the Star Tribune to read on the flight to San Diego.
Staring up at him was a photograph of Nunn, one of several women featured in a report about how women who played minor roles in illegal drug operations — but refuse to cooperate with authorities when under investigation — received harsher federal sentences than their male counterparts.
“I was reading, thinking: `How does this make sense? If ever there was a case of inequity this is the one,’ “ he recalled.
He just happened to be heading to Phoenix the next week to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
“So I decided to write a letter to see if I could meet her,” he said Monday from his cellular phone as he drove Nunn around Phoenix to lease an apartment, buy furniture, arrange financial aid to continue undergraduate courses at Arizona State University and to get state identification. “She was very articulate, had no self pity and took full responsibility. There was no bitterness.”
So he took her case. He said it was clear from the beginning that they would have to seek a commutation from Clinton.
On his own time — away from his civil litigation job at Cozen and O’Connor’s San Diego office — and at no cost to Nunn, he researched her case, her background growing up the daughter of a single mother in north Minneapolis and her activities while in prison.
He found a legal error in her prison sentence that added three years. He also thought — and later argued in his petition for clemency — that the federal mandatory minimum sentence she received was unfair.
“Our petition did not have anything to do with her asserting she was wrongly convicted,” he said.
Sheldon called U.S. District Judge David Doty, who had sentenced Nunn, and asked him to review the case again and support the request for commuting her sentence. Doty not only did that, but he reviewed several audiotapes of wiretaps and concurred that he erred in a portion of the sentencing.
Doty wrote an eight-page letter to Clinton supporting the petition. It also railed against the mandatory-minimum sentencing.
“If mandatory-minimum sentencing did not exist, no judge in America, including me, would have ever sentenced Ms. Nunn to 15 years in prison based on her role in the conspiracy, her age, and the fact that she had no prior criminal convictions before the offense,” he wrote.
Sheldon called that letter the linchpin to Nunn’s clemency. But Doty said the real hero is Sheldon.
Jon Hopeman, who prosecuted Nunn, also sent a letter to Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, saying he did not object to the commutation. Gov. Jesse Ventura, state Attorney General Mike Hatch and Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., all wrote similar letters.
Sheldon said he thinks it was that support — most notably from the judge and prosecutor — that swayed Clinton.
Jason Schechter, a White House spokesman, declined to discuss the case. “We don’t discuss the decision-making process in executive clemency cases, nor the kind of recommendations the president received.”
But he said that Clinton commuted the sentences in general because he thought the women had received more severe prison terms than their boyfriends or husbands.
Sheldon said he had given up hope before hearing of Friday’s clemency. Nunn said that she too, doubted the outcome.
“You hope for the best but expect the worst,” she said. “When you are incarcerated, you can’t get on that high… . You can’t live outside on the inside.”
That’s why, at first, she didn’t believe a prison staff member who told her Friday morning that she was free. She called her mother, who now lives in Arizona, and her sister, who lives in Georgia. And she called Sheldon.
“It made me cry. You can’t help it,” he said.
So, Sheldon went to Phoenix, rented a limousine and picked up Nunn’s family members, who also had flown in.
On the drive to the Phoenix prison, though, he got a call that she was going to be released from nearby Tempe.
“So we did a U-turn right there on Interstate 10, and we looked over and there she was in the car next to us,” Sheldon said. “We got off at the next exit, and that’s where we were, all of us crying our eyes out. It was pretty amazing.”