Quinn Emanuel recently achieved a significant victory for one of its pro bono clients, Mr. William Underwood, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. On January 15, 2021, Judge Stein granted Mr. Underwood’s motion for compassionate release, and reduced Mr. Underwood’s life sentence to time served.
Mr. Underwood served over three decades in federal prison. He was convicted in 1988 for drug trafficking violations, at the height of the New York City crack epidemic. Since his conviction, and despite having no realistic expectation of ever being released, Mr. Underwood was dedicated to helping others in prison and had an unblemished institutional record. In May 2020, Quinn Emanuel submitted a motion for compassionate release, pursuant to The First Step Act of 2018 (“FSA”), 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). As part of that motion, the firm submitted ample evidence of Mr. Underwood’s substantial rehabilitation, including the fact that he maintained a perfect disciplinary record over the past 30-plus years in prison. Quinn Emanuel also argued that, given his age, Mr. Underwood was also at a severe risk for complications if he contracted COVID-19, which rapidly spread through the federal prison system.
Despite an aggressive opposition by the Government, the Court adopted nearly all of Quinn Emanuel’s arguments and granted Mr. Underwood’s motion for compassionate release. The Court found that Mr. Underwood had an “exceptional record of rehabilitation and service over his past three decades in federal custody.” The Court observed that Mr. Underwood “has by all accounts been a manifestly model inmate, a mentor to countless young men in custody, and an active and devoted father and grandfather, all while under the specter of a life-without-parole sentence.” The Court recognized that Mr. Underwood’s motion attached “more than three dozen detailed letters in support of his release” and agreed that Mr. Underwood had “transformed himself into a model prisoner, father, and American father.” The Court emphasized that the fact that Mr. Underwood had a perfect disciplinary record was “extraordinary.” The Court also found that Mr. Underwood faced “particularized dangers posed to him by contracting the coronavirus.” The Court therefore concluded that Mr. Underwood had shown “extraordinary and compelling reasons” meriting his release. The Court then reduced Mr. Underwood’s sentence to time served, and ordered that Mr. Underwood be immediately released.
The Court’s opinion represents not only a significant win for Mr. Underwood, but also for advocates of criminal justice reform and for federal prisoners serving life sentences for drug offenses. The First Step Act of 2018 provides an opportunity to courts to reduce sentences that no longer serve the penal objections of the federal criminal justice system, including for prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment. As the Second Circuit recently recognized, the First Step Act “freed district courts to consider the full slate of extraordinary and compelling reasons that an imprisoned person might bring before them in motions for compassionate release.” United States v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228, 237 (2d Cir. 2020).