Woman Released After Trump Commutes Her Life Sentence For Nonviolent Drug Offense

Jun 6, 2018
Originally published on June 6, 2018 4:54 pm

Updated at 7: 40 p.m. ET

President Trump commuted the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who had been in federal prison for more than 20 years for a first-time drug conviction. Johnson was released hours later

Trump granted Johnson clemency after reality TV star Kim Kardashian West lobbied for her release during a visit to the White House.

In a tweet Wednesday, Kardashian West wrote "BEST NEWS EVER!!!!" with a link to an article about the commutation.

This is the latest celebrity-backed act of clemency from Trump, who has embraced his constitutional authority to pardon and shorten prison sentences for people convicted of federal crimes.

Johnson's supporters argued she should not have to spend the rest of her life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense.

They say she was a model prisoner. During her incarceration, she wrote plays and became an ordained minister.

Johnson was convicted of cocaine conspiracy and money laundering charges. At the time of sentencing, The Associated Press reported that U.S. federal Judge Julia Gibbons said Johnson was "the quintessential entrepreneur" of a drug ring that dealt in tons of cocaine.

The White House said in a statement that Johnson "has accepted responsibility for her past behavior."

"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," the White House said.

Brittany Barnett, a member of Johnson's legal team, said Johnson learned of her commutation on a call with Kardashian and her lawyers. Kardashian delivered the news.

Johnson told her legal team and Kardashian that she feels like she has been "resurrected from the dead," Barnett said.

Prior to Johnson's, Trump issued five pardons and one commutation.

All of these cases have involved public figures or have been the subject of national media attention.

Trump has also proved to be receptive to appeals from celebrities. He granted a rare posthumous pardon for legendary boxer Jack Johnson in response to a request from actor Sylvester Stallone.

Trump is moving more quickly to exercise his pardon power than recent presidents. His last three predecessors in the White House had not issued any pardons or commutations at this point in their presidencies.

Unlike other presidential actions, which require legislative support or can be challenged legally, the president's power to pardon is almost unchecked.

There is a Justice Department review process, but presidents are not bound to follow it and Trump has not adhered to department guidelines in many of these cases.

Trump says he is also weighing clemency for Martha Stewart and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Trump is facing a special counsel investigation into his campaign's possible ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which he calls a "witch hunt." There has been speculation that Trump may be trying to send a signal with these pardons that he would be willing to act in the cases of those who might be indicted because of the probe.

He even raised the possibility of pardoning himself in a recent tweet, saying he has the "absolute right" to do so, but he has not done anything wrong.

Asked Wednesday whether the president has the power to pardon himself, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he didn't know the legal specifics, but added, "He shouldn't, and no one is above the law."

Legal experts are divided on whether a president can pardon himself.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump is once again using his power to grant clemency. Today, he commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman serving life in federal prison for drug conspiracy and money laundering. Her case came to his attention via reality TV star Kim Kardashian West. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe joins us now from the White House to talk about this. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: What more can you tell us about this specific case, Alice Marie Johnson?

RASCOE: Johnson was convicted in a case involving a cocaine trafficking ring. She admits she made a mistake, but it was a first-time offense. Advocates say that she's been a model prisoner, and she really doesn't deserve to spend the rest of her life in prison. She's already served more than 20 years behind bars without any option for parole.

SHAPIRO: Many people saw the photo of Kim Kardashian in the Oval Office with President Trump. How did she get involved in this?

RASCOE: Kim Kardashian became aware of Johnson's story after seeing an interview that Johnson did with the news website mic.com. She came across the article and decided to become Johnson's advocate. She set up a legal team for her, and she lobbied for a meeting with the White House, which she got last week. Here's Kardashian in an interview with mic.com talking about Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM KARDASHIAN WEST: I'm just in a different place in my life, so I thought, well, if I could put the money into a shopping spree, which sounds ridiculous, to save someone's life and do that once a year, then that would make me - just - my heart fuller.

RASCOE: And today, she was successful.

SHAPIRO: Put this one grant of clemency into context. President Trump has been doing this a lot lately and often with public figures, right?

RASCOE: Yes, and it's unusual. Recent presidents have not used their clemency power at all in the beginning of their terms. They waited until closer to the end or the second half of their terms to issue a lot of pardons and commutations. But Trump has already granted five pardons and now two commutations. Last week, he pardoned Dinesh D'Souza and his first pardon went to former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Almost all of these have involved a public figure or have been lobbied for by a celebrity, like this case with Kardashian. And so - or have been a national news story. President Trump is also saying he's not done. He wants to do more - possibly former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and even maybe a pardon for Martha Stewart.

SHAPIRO: Do you see a larger strategy here or a message that the president is trying to send?

RASCOE: We can't say for sure. There has been speculation that with the Trump - with the Russia investigation, which President Trump calls a witch hunt, that he may be trying to let anyone who might be indicted or maybe even could testify against him in this probe that he would be - let them know that he would be willing to use his pardon power for them. President Trump did say this week on Twitter that he has absolute power to pardon himself, although he went on to say he doesn't need to do that because he hasn't done anything wrong. But setting aside that question, the pardon power for the president is really one of those things that he can do that's really unchecked. And so he can almost basically pardon almost anyone for any reason he wants.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe speaking with us from the White House. Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.