- President Donald Trump has granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old grandmother serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug offenses.
- Trump granted the clemency one week after meeting with Kim Kardashian West, who has publicly championed Johnson’s case.
- Johnson told Business Insider on Tuesday that she was still waiting with bated breath for news of Trump’s decision: “I’m hanging in here and won’t let go until I walk out of these doors!”
Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old grandmother serving a life sentence in prison for nonviolent drug offenses she committed in the 1990s, will finally be free.
President Donald Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence on Wednesday, the White House said in a statement. The move came one week after Trump met with the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West, who has for months been championing Johnson’s release.
“Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behaviour and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades. Despite receiving a life sentence, Alice worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates,” the White House statement said. “While this Administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
Kardashian West and her attorney Shawn Holley won a highly sought-after meeting with Trump after weeks of negotiations with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, Business Insider previously reported. The talks came shortly after Kardashian West’s husband, the rapper Kanye West, made waves in the media for declaring his fervent support for Trump.
Kardashian West delivered the news to Johnson in a phone call on Wednesday, Holley told Business Insider in a statement.
“I just got off the most wonderful, emotional, and amazing phone call with Alice, Kim, and Alice’s lawyers,” Holley said. “It was a moment I will never forget. Once Alice’s family joined the call, the tears never stopped flowing.”
Johnson’s daughter Catina Scales told Business Insider she was en route to pick up her mother from the Aliceville correctional facility in Alabama, where Johnson is expected to be released on Wednesday.
“I have been literally shaking ever since I heard this news – this is the best present anyone could have gave me in my life,” Scales said. “Nothing will ever trump this feeling.”
Johnson told Business Insider on Tuesday that she had been waiting with bated breath for news about her case since Trump and Kardashian West’s meeting.
“I’m still waiting to exhale!” she said in an email from prison. “I’m hanging in here and won’t let go until I walk out of these doors!”
Kardashian West celebrated the news on Wednesday on Twitter.
Johnson, who has corresponded with Business Insider regularly in recent months about the developments in her case, said Kardashian West’s involvement was nothing short of miraculous.
“I don’t even know myself what emotions I will really feel when this happens,” Johnson said in April. “She has embraced my cause and taken to heart my plight. Kim has been my war angel, and I’ll never forget what she is doing for me.”
In a follow-up tweet on Wednesday, Kardashian West thanked Trump and Kushner for their efforts on Johnson’s case.
“So grateful to @realDonaldTrump, Jared Kushner & to everyone who has showed compassion & contributed countless hours to this important moment for Ms. Alice Marie Johnson,” she tweeted. “Her commutation is inspirational & gives hope to so many others who are also deserving of a second chance.”
Another of Johnson’s daughters, Tretessa Johnson, told Business Insider that her family would never forget Trump’s mercy.
“It just hit her: She’s finally walking out of that place, and it’s not going to be in a casket,” Tretessa said. “This is literally saving her life. There was no parole; it was a life sentence. She was slated to die in prison. The mercy Trump has extended toward my mum, and the advocacy of Kim Kardashian, my family will never forget that. Never.”
Alice has said she wants to advocate sentencing reform upon her release, Tretessa said, because there are thousands of other people serving similarly lengthy sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses – and they shouldn’t be forgotten.
“There are many other Alice Johnsons out there,” Tretessa said. “Please keep praying.”
‘Wholeness for me and my family again’
Johnson’s case has long been held up as an overwhelmingly worthy candidate for clemency by legal experts, lawyers, prison staff members, and advocates of criminal-justice reform.
Though Johnson petitioned President Barack Obama for clemency three times, she was always denied.
“My family has been broken beyond what anyone can imagine,” Johnson said last month. “A commutation would mean wholeness for me and my family again.”
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 to punish drug crimes, but as the embodiment of a reformed and repentant prisoner with the skills and support to successfully reenter society.
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 2016 in several letters viewed by Business Insider.
Kardashian West first took an interest in Johnson’s case last October, when she saw a viral video published by Mic in which Johnson gave an interview via Skype. Kardashian West shared the video with her 60 million Twitter followers and retained Holley to work on Johnson’s case.
“Alice’s case appeals to Kim (and most people who hear about it) because her sentence was so disproportionate to her crime,” Holley told Business Insider last month. “Alice was a first-time offender, convicted of a nonviolent 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.”
Holley added that Kardashian West was intricately involved throughout the efforts to secure Johnson’s freedom and would often discuss strategy with Holley several times a day.
The path to win clemency from Trump
Johnson’s clemency is a striking move for Trump, who had until Wednesday granted just five pardons and one commutation in the first year and a half of his presidency.
All seven of Trump’s clemencies so far have been granted to defendants whose cases have drummed up significant support from conservatives or celebrities.
While pardons essentially forgive people who have been convicted of crimes and restore some of their rights, a commutation reduces prisoners’ sentences, usually freeing them immediately.
Last week, the president unexpectedly pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, the far-right political pundit and vehement Trump supporter who pleaded guilty in 2014 to campaign-finance violations. Trump also made waves by telling reporters he was considering pardoning Martha Stewart and commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor.
In late May, Trump also granted a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the American heavyweight boxing champion who was convicted of taking his white girlfriend across state lines in 1913; he died in 1946. His case was recommended to Trump by the actor Sylvester Stallone, who was in the Oval Office when Trump signed the pardon.
Jeffrey Crouch, an assistant professor at American University who studies presidential clemencies, said it was too early to discern a rhyme or reason to the pardons and commutations Trump has granted. But he added he was struck by how few “average Americans” Trump had pardoned before Alice Johnson, especially given the populist groundswell that lifted Trump to his election victory in 2016.
Last August, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the bombastic former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who vocally supported Trump throughout his 2016 presidential campaign and who often parroted Trump’s hardline stance on immigration.
In March, Trump pardoned Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor who took photos of classified areas inside a nuclear submarine. Saucier’s case was widely cited among conservative media to compare it with that of Hillary Clinton, who used a private email server while she was secretary of state but wasn’t prosecuted.
Trump also pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former Bush administration official convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and commuted the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, a former meatpacking-company executive convicted of bank fraud in an illegal labour scheme. Both cases received support from congressional Republicans, and some Democrats also supported Rubashkin’s case.
Crouch said that while there were still too few cases to thoroughly analyse Trump’s use of executive clemency, the public may already have deduced a pattern.
“The president can exercise clemency whenever he wants, as little or as much as he wants,” Crouch told Business Insider. “He should be aware that using clemency in the manner that he has so far can leave the impression that it’s basically his political allies that show up on his radar.”
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