On August 30, 2016, President Obama commuted the life sentence of the firm’s pro bono client Danielle Metz. After serving almost 24 years (half her life) in federal prison, Ms. Metz will soon be going home. Quinn Emanuel is co- counsel with Los Angeles attorney Jerry Mooney of Weston, Garrou & Mooney.
In 1993, Ms. Metz was convicted by a jury in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana of four counts related to a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, she received three concurrent sentences of “life” without the possibility of parole, despite her age at the time of arrest (25 years old), her subordinate role in the offense vis-à-vis her husband, who was the unquestioned leader of the conspiracy, and her status as a first-time, non-violent offender.
Ms. Metz does not dispute that she participated in her husband’s drug conspiracy and she accepts full responsibility for her criminal activities. Her prosecution, however, was a case study in ineffective assistance of counsel. Her trial and appellate counsel repeatedly failed to raise meritorious issues both to the district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. For example, the Fifth Circuit expressly stated, “Danielle Metz was also improperly sentenced on the count one conspiracy for the same reason, however, she did not raise the issue on appeal and we are therefore without appellate jurisdiction to address the issue.” Worse yet, none of Ms. Metz’s defense attorneys objected to either the probation office, the district court or the Fifth Circuit that she had been erroneously sentenced under the so-called “Super Kingpin” provision. This provision is the primary reason that Ms. Metz received a “life” sentence.
Quinn Emanuel and co-counsel were able to convince the current United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Kenneth Polite, and Ambassador Clint Williamson, who served in 1993 as one of the trial attorneys who prosecuted Ms. Metz, to take a fresh look at her case. In April 2015, U.S. Attorney Polite wrote a letter in support of Ms. Metz’s petition, in which he also cited Ambassador Williamson’s support of President Obama’s granting Ms. Metz’s commutation of sentence. Without their strong support, President Obama would never have commuted her sentence.
The commutation of Ms. Metz’s sentence illustrates the growing recognition that many individuals have received unduly harsh sentences under outdated mandatory sentencing laws for committing largely nonviolent drug crimes. In fact, to date, President Obama has commuted 673 sentences. It is likely he will commute more before the end of his presidency, especially in cases similar to Ms. Metz’s, where the original sentence imposed by the court was disproportionately severe.