Emlera Quince is a changed man. And as of October 1, he will be a free man, thanks to students and faculty at the University of Tennessee College of Law.
Currently serving time in federal prison, Quince has overcome the debilitating cocaine addiction that led to his arrest and conviction in 1997. During his nineteen years of incarceration, the 55-year-old Quince has completed more than 150 classes and has dutifully worked in a factory position for ten years, now serving as head office clerk.
Quince’s personal transformation made him an ideal candidate for a commuted sentence under a federal clemency initiative that seeks to reduce the long sentences previously required by mandatory federal drug sentencing laws. Over the past two decades, Congress has reduced the disparity in crack cocaine sentences, and Supreme Court decisions have increased a federal judge’s ability to sentence a defendant below the range of previously binding federal sentencing guidelines. For example, in 1997 Quince was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, set for release in 2022. However, if he had been sentenced according to today’s laws for the same cocaine charges, his prison term probably would have been no more than ten years, meaning he would have been released nine years ago, in 2007.
“It’s the best news I’ve gotten,” Quince said upon learning of his commutation, one of 348 commutations made by President Barack Obama since 2014 as part of the federal clemency initiative. “I really can’t even put it into words. I am very excited.”
Quince’s victory is also a victory for the UT Law students and faculty who represented him through the college’s Federal Clemency Clinic, launched by professors Joy Radice and Wendy Bach in cooperation with the national Clemency Project and federal defenders, who are not authorized to file clemency petitions for clients.
“We immediately thought of the UT Legal Clinic as the perfect partner,” said Beth Ford, the federal community defender for the Eastern District of Tennessee and a UT Law alumna. “We knew what outstanding work the students do—and we and our clients were certainly not disappointed.”
Quince’s case is the first of the clinic’s twelve federal clemency cases to receive a decision.
“Our clinic engaged students in challenging legal analysis and writing that is critical to their development as lawyers who are ready to practice,” said Radice, who supervised Quince’s case. “And at the same time, these students filled a gap in legal representation for individuals like Mr. Quince who were eligible for clemency but unable to afford a lawyer.”
CJ Lewis and Thomas Smith represented Quince during their time as UT Law students. Lewis began the case in 2014, conducting legal research and sentencing analysis, as well as interviewing and counseling Quince at his prison in Atlanta. Following Lewis’s graduation in 2015, Smith took over the case. He fully examined how federal sentencing changes would qualify his client for clemency and gathered evidence about Quince’s positive changes in prison. Support from the prison’s correctional staff for Quince’s release, as well as letters of post-release support from friends and family bolstered the case. The clinic ultimately submitted a 147-page clemency petition on Quince’s behalf.
Following the president’s decision to commute Quince’s sentence on June 3, Smith was the first to share the good news with his client.
“It has been a tremendous experience working on these cases for people like Mr. Quince,” said Smith, who graduated in May. “This case has prepared me to be a better lawyer…but it has also made a real difference, giving Mr. Quince a second chance.”
Quince is taking his second chance seriously. He plans to reconnect with and live near his children, whom he now talks to several times each week.
“I plan to get back to work, stay out of prison, and take care of my grandbabies.”