Fighting For Justice: Attorney Alona Sharon helps non-violent drug offender win clemency.
On Aug. 3, 2016, President Barack Obama sent a letter to Samuel Grooms of Clinton Township, an inmate at Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois, announcing presidential clemency.
Grooms, who had already served more than 13 years of a life sentence, can now expect to be released in the next three years due to a combination of actual time he served, good time credit he’s accrued and the fact that federal prisoners usually transition out at 85 percent of their sentences.
The president’s letter states, in part:
“The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted the president of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”
Obama concludes his letter: “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong and change your life for the better. So good luck, and Godspeed.”
The president has accelerated grants of clemency in recent months. As of Oct. 27, Obama had used his power of clemency to grant 872 prisoners shortened sentences. He intends to consider requests for clemency from all prisoners convicted of non-violent drug offenses before his term concludes in January, according to the Justice Department; experts estimate this group includes about 1,500 prisoners nationwide.
Local attorney Alona Sharon had filed the paperwork on behalf of Grooms to bring the case to the president’s attention.
Grooms began serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense because, in 1994, Congress legislated mandatory enhanced sentences. Prosecutors could negotiate plea bargains for shorter sentences but, if the case went to trial, judges had no discretion: A third-time offender would get life in prison without the opportunity for parole.
So when a young woman picked up her suitcase at Detroit airport and officers found 4 kilograms of heroin in it, she pleaded guilty and received a sentence of two years in prison plus three years’ probation; the man who came to pick up the suitcase pleaded guilty and received a sentence of only probation; the man who repeatedly called to inquire about the delivery, Samuel Grooms, who had prior convictions, went to trial and received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The judge, Bernard A. Friedman, as he issued Grooms’ sentence, remarked, “I feel bad. I mean, I really do, but I think I have no choice in the matter … I just want this record to clearly reflect that if I had a choice, it would not be life, that’s for sure.”
And then, in August 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidelines instructing prosecutors not to seek enhanced sentences for low-level drug dealers who have not committed violent offenses. Holder particularly wished to avoid widely disparate sentences for individuals convicted of equal participation in the same offense.
The Holder guidelines would lessen penalties for future convicts, but many federal prisoners — among them Grooms — had already received the enhanced sentence of mandatory life imprisonment. U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole called for the legal community to help find these prisoners and to file papers requesting presidential commutations for them.
Clemency Project 2014, founded in response to Cole’s request, recruited volunteer attorneys to help these prisoners for no payment.
When Alona Sharon volunteered with Clemency Project 2014, she was already an experienced criminal defense attorney in state courts. After some training, she was ready to help a federal prisoner. Clemency Project 2014 sent her the files on a local man, Samuel Grooms.
Grooms met all the guidelines for clemency. He is a model prisoner, never in trouble with prison authorities. His crimes were all non-violent drug cases. He was not a power in organized crime. He had served more than a decade of his endless sentence. His confederates had received much lighter sentences.
Prison email does not have the protection of attorney-client confidentiality, but, apart from a few phone calls, Sharon and Grooms kept in touch by email anyway. They did not mind who read the correspondence, which largely focused on his potential support system. They needed to identify the friends and family who wanted to offer Grooms a place to live and employment.
“It was important to demonstrate that he had family ties,” Sharon said. “He also has a friend, a business-owner, who wants Mr. Grooms to work for him.”
Every time President Obama issued a list of prisoners to receive clemency, without Samuel Grooms’ name, Sharon sent Grooms an encouraging email, expressing her confidence that he would be granted clemency.
Asked for a comment on his clemency for this story, Grooms sent this email:
“Now, when I heard about my clemency from my attorney, Alona Sharon, it was great news. Because she just seems like a real down-to-earth person, I felt like she was God-sent. I have had some bad experience with attorneys in the past, with me getting a life sentence. I knew that God would rescue me.”
Months after Grooms applied for help with his request for clemency, he says, “I got some legal mail from Ms. Sharon, and then I got a legal call from her. I started feeling so relaxed; I went back to my cell and started meditating and thinking about the conversation we just had, and thought that God is going to bless me with the clemency.
“Then, months later, she called me again to give me the news. It was a feeling I would never forget in my life. It was like God had used her to resurrect me, and I feel like she is one of my guardian angels. Thank you, Ms. Sharon, for returning me back to my family and giving me another chance at life.
“God bless you and your family, Samuel.”
Alona Sharon really qualifies as a grassroots local attorney. Her education started at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield. When she graduated from Akiva, she got her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her law degree from Wayne State University.
Sharon, 37, grew up in Southfield. She started law school at WSU without a precise idea about what she would do as a lawyer. “Probably make a lot of money,” she now jokes.
In her second year, though, she studied criminal procedure with Dave Moran and fell in love with criminal defense. (Moran now heads the Innocence Project at U-M.) He thought she could succeed at the work because she “has a knack for arguing.” Moran recommended she work with a mentor, local attorney Robyn Frankel. Frankel remained her friend and guide as Sharon graduated from law school and established her own practice.
Sharon met her husband, Mark Jeross, at the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park “when I made a very pathetic attempt at flirting with him by the free weights. He was too cute to ignore.”
The couple are members of Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, where she serves on the board.
Sharon has a solo practice in Royal Oak, dedicated to the defense of those accused of crimes such as drunk driving, sex offenses or murder. She went entirely into solo practice, at her husband’s advice, so she could give her clients the time and respect they deserve.
“I am eternally grateful for his unwavering confidence in my ability to be successful on my own, his patience while I built this practice and made very little money, his pride and excitement when the money started rolling in and his complete lack of an ego that allows me to shine.”
Sharon says she thanks her husband every day. “Without him,” she says, “I would not have had the opportunity to start and build this practice.”
She describes her practice this way: “I am a bulldog for my clients. The state has the burden of proving its case; if it cannot do that, then my client should go free. I feel protective of my clients.
“It can be frustrating. Sometimes my clients make bad choices; but I do not hide from them — they all have my cell phone number, and they know they can call me any day, any time of day or night, except Shabbos and Yom Tov. I answer their calls even when I am on vacation.”
Is Sharon still working on pro bono projects. Yes, but she is not doing Clemency Project cases now because she is working on two time-consuming juvenile lifer cases.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing a child to mandatory life without parole is an unconstitutional and excessive punishment. In January 2016, the court, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, held the Miller decision was retroactive to all juveniles.
The combination of those two decisions has made the 300-some juvenile lifers in Michigan eligible for resentencing. This August, each local prosecutor was required to file a notice if he or she intended to seek a life without parole sentence for a particular juvenile lifer.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has directed that mandatory life sentences should be reserved for those “rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption,” who exhibit “such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified,” Michigan prosecutors have sought to re-impose life without parole for over 60 percent of the state’s juvenile lifers.
The goal in these cases is to persuade the presiding judge to impose a term-of-years sentence so eventually they will be parole-eligible rather than having the judge impose life without parole again.
She notes, though the courts may eventually award some payments for attorneys for this work, she does this because it is close to her heart. *
By Louis Finkelman, JN Contributing Writer
Photos by Brett Mountain