'Kim has been my war angel': The unlikely story of how Kim Kardashian West is trying to get Trump to free a 63-year-old grandmother from prison

Courtesy of Amy Povah and Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders (CAN-DO).Alice Marie Johnson is serving a life sentence in prison for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses.
  • Kim Kardashian West visited the White House on Wednesday to ask President Donald Trump to grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson.
  • Johnson, 63, is serving a life sentence without parole for nonviolent drug offenses. Kardashian West took an interest in her case late last year.
  • Johnson told Business Insider that her 63rd birthday was Wednesday, and that she hoped Trump would grant her clemency – “the biggest present I’ve ever received in my life.”
  • She also said she has been “walking around in a daze” in recent weeks, praying that Trump will make an announcement soon.

After weeks of negotiations with senior White House officials, Kim Kardashian West visited President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Wednesday with a simple request: Free a 63-year-old grandmother from prison.

The visit came after the reality TV star and mogul brought her plea to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, in April. Their hope is that Trump will grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, possibly by commuting her sentence.

Johnson is serving a life sentence without parole for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses she committed in the early 1990s. Her case has for years received nationwide media attention, and it happened to capture the interest of Kardashian West in October.

Johnson told Business Insider on Wednesday that it was her birthday – and she was hoping Trump would grant her the ultimate gift.

“Today is my birthday and if my clemency was granted today that would be the biggest present I’ve ever received in my life,” she said in an email from the Aliceville correctional facility in Alabama. “All boots are on the ground in prayer!”

Johnson told Business Insider previously that she had been “walking around in a daze” ever since she first got word that Kardashian West was speaking with Kushner about her case. She said she remains “very optimistic” she will be granted clemency.

“I don’t even know myself what emotions I will really feel when this happens,” she said. “My faith in God is still very strong. I have already experienced the miraculous when Kim Kardashian West saw my story and came to my rescue by hiring attorneys to help me gain my freedom.”

Johnson said she and her family had already endured the devastation of being denied clemency by President Barack Obama three times in a yearslong cycle of raised hopes followed by crushing blows.

“My family has been broken beyond what anyone can imagine,” she said. “A commutation would mean wholeness for me and my family again.”

For years, Johnson believed Obama was her last hope of leaving prison alive.

Now, she’s hoping Trump will do what Obama wouldn’t.

‘Kim has been my war angel’

Johnson said it took a miracle for her case to grab the attention of the Trump administration – and that miracle came in the form of Kardashian West.

“She has embraced my cause and taken to heart my plight,” Johnson said. “Kim has been my war angel, and I’ll never forget what she is doing for me.”

Though Johnson never seemed to spark enough interest from the Obama administration, she has long been featured in news stories about overzealous drug sentencing.

In the waning days of Obama’s signature clemency initiative, a parade of legal experts, lawmakers, prison staff members, and advocates of criminal-justice reform touted Johnson as the perfect candidate for clemency.

She has been described not only as an extreme example of the type of harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s, but as the embodiment of a reformed and repentant prisoner with the skills and support to live a productive life.

“We often say that people were given clemency, but the truth is that they earned it – and that’s very much true of Alice,” Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who has closely followed Johnson’s case, told Business Insider. “She obviously saw herself as a work in progress while she was in prison and sought to be a positive influence on other people, which is the most we can hope for for anyone in or out of prison.”

Johnson is an ordained minister, a playwright, a mentor, a counselor, a tutor, and a companion for inmates who are suicidal, and she didn’t commit a single disciplinary infraction in two decades in prison, staff members at Aliceville who have supported her clemency said in letters in 2016.

“She’s just one of those people that there’s something remarkable about her; it’s unforgettable,” said Amy Povah, who has worked on Johnson’s case since 2014 for CAN-DO (Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders), a nonprofit that advocates clemency and assists prisoners with their petitions. “She’s like this ray of sunshine.”

Povah herself received a commutation, from President Bill Clinton in 2000, and upon learning of Johnson’s case, she immediately placed her at the top of the foundation’s list of 25 women who most deserve clemency.

“She has expressed incredible remorse, that this was the worst thing she ever did,” Povah said of Johnson. “And we shouldn’t be defined by the worst decision that we made.”

Povah added: “She has 21 years of evidence that she deserves a second chance and she deserves mercy. Enough is enough.”

Trump has given no indication that he’s actively considering Johnson’s case, and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. But Trump tweeted about his meeting with Kardashian West on Wednesday, sharing a photo that showed them behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

“Great meeting with @KimKardashian today, talked about prison reform and sentencing,” Trump tweeted.

How a viral video put Johnson in position to be free

Donald Trump Kim KardashianThe White HouseDonald Trump Kim Kardashian

Johnson’s case finally gained momentum in October when her story went viral.

A four-minute video published by Mic featured an interview with Johnson via Skype video call, a privilege rarely granted to federal prisoners.

Unlike with previous news coverage, more than 7 million people viewed Johnson’s story on Facebook and Twitter this time.

And it caught Kardashian West’s eye.

“This is so unfair,” Kardashian West tweeted on October 25.

Weeks later, she asked Shawn Holley, a criminal defence lawyer, to work on Johnson’s case and that of another woman serving a life sentence, Cyntoia Brown.

Holley told Business Insider last month she often speaks with Kardashian West up to several times a day to discuss their strategy for Johnson’s case, and the celebrity has been intricately involved throughout the process.

“Alice’s case appeals to Kim (and most people who hear about it) because her sentence was so disproportionate to her crime,” Holley said. “Alice was a first-time offender, convicted of a non-violent crime and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. She had served 21 years at the time we first learned about her case.”

But it wasn’t until mid-April that Kardashian West achieved major momentum in Johnson’s case. When her husband, Kanye West,reemerged on Twitter and sparked a massive uproar, it did more than enrage some fans and delight conservatives – it grabbed the attention of Trump.

“You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him,” West tweeted, to which Trump replied, “Thank you Kanye, very cool!”

Though it’s unclear what role West’s resurfacing had in Johnson’s case, the controversy may have presented Kardashian West with the opportune moment to push it.

Johnson’s supporters, including Povah and Osler, have speculated that her case may have appealed to Kushner, who has advocated criminal-justice reform despite the tough-on-crime, lock-’em-up rhetoric from much of the Trump administration.

Kushner published an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal in April, urging Congress to make it easier for released inmates to integrate back into society.

“President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country – and that includes those in prison,” he wrote.

Kardashian West later tweeted her gratitude for Trump’s willingness to meet with her.

“It is our hope that the President will grant clemency to Ms. Alice Marie Johnson who is serving a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offence,” she said. “We are optimistic about Ms. Johnson’s future and hopeful that she -and so many like her-will get a second chance at life.”

‘I had to pick myself back up’

Kim kardashian instagram storyInstagram/@kimkardashianKim Kardashian West posted two photos on her Instagram story after Wednesday’s meeting — one of the presidential seal on the Oval Office carpet and one of a letter Johnson had written her when she first learned of Kardashian West’s involvement in her case.

Johnson’s life began to unravel around 1990.

Within the span of a few years, Johnson had faced not only a gambling addiction and the loss of her job while she struggled to raise five children, but a divorce, a bankruptcy, a home foreclosure, and the death of her youngest son in a motorcycle accident.

She turned to a drug-dealing and money-laundering operation. It was the worst decision she ever made, she said.

Johnson said her role in the conspiracy was as a telephone mule, an intermediary passing along messages by phone so that the people who were selling and distributing the cocaine weren’t contacting one another directly. She said she never touched or sold the drugs.

When authorities dismantled the operation and brought drug-conspiracy charges against its participants, prosecutors labelled Johnson one of the leaders, though Johnson viewed herself as a relatively low-ranking member of the scheme.

“Conspiracy meant that I became responsible for the acts of everyone involved in my case and paid the lion’s share of the debt to society … a life sentence,” she said.

Johnson says that while she is deeply sorry for the crimes she committed, she believes her sentence was fundamentally unjust.

The next blow to Johnson came early last year, two weeks before Obama left office. She had been certain that Obama’s 2014 Clemency Initiative – which prioritised people convicted of nonviolent offenses who demonstrated exemplary conduct in prison – would view her as the perfect candidate for a commutation.

But she was denied clemency on January 6, 2017, and never told why. According to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, presidents rarely explain their denials, and documents related to presidential decision-making are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Several former Obama administration officials who led the clemency program – including Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general, Neil Eggleston, the former White House counsel, and Robert Zauzmer, the former pardon attorney – did not respond to Business Insider’s questions about why Johnson was denied.

“It’s hard to find closure for the death of a dream when you don’t have answers for the cause of death,” Johnson said. “I did grieve, but knew that giving up was not an option, so I had to pick myself back up and get back in the ring and fight for my life.”

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