Professor and students help transformed man win clemency
In 1994, Al-Kareem Shadeed was a nearly illiterate 24-year-old with a drug habit when he tried unsuccessfully to steal a high school teacher's wallet. He had no weapon and no one was injured, but Shadeed's conviction for attempted second-degree robbery resulted in a sentence of life in prison without parole under the state's new three strikes law. Even his victim argued at the time that Shadeed needed help, not a life behind bars.
Nearly eighteen years later, Shadeed is a changed man. And a free man. This fall, Gov. Christine Gregoire granted a petition for clemency filed by Seattle University School of Law Professor Paul Holland and students Ryan Pauley and Josh Springer '08. Shadeed left prison, under strict conditions but grateful for another chance to make a life. He is one of only four people in the country to be granted clemency after being sentenced to life in prison under a three strikes law, according to the King County prosecutor.
"Every day I thank God for the blessing of being free," Shadeed said. "No doubt about it, I appreciate all the work of Paul Holland and his team."
Holland, who is now the associate dean for academic affairs, was directing the law school's Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic and teaching in the Youth Advocacy Clinic when he agreed to take the case. It has been one of his most rewarding and gave his students a remarkable opportunity.
"This case is a rarity -- the justice system corrected itself in an instance when it didn't have to." Holland said. "It would have been lawful for the life sentence to stand, but it wouldn't have been just."
In 2008, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg initiated a review of cases of inmates sentenced in the years just after the three strikes law took effect. Aware that voters intended to send persistent offenders away for good, Satterberg recognized that the lowest-level qualifying crimes are handled differently thee were years ago.
"The law did mandate life sentences for people who had three of the most serious offense crimes, but it had a provision that specifically authorized clemency as a way for the governor to review an inmate's progress," he said. "The law anticipated that the governor would exercise that power for people like Shadeed, who had done everything an inmate can do to better themselves."
Shadeed was convicted of attempted second-degree robbery, a class C felony, and the lowest level crime to qualify for a strike. Before the three-strikes law, that conviction would have merited an 18-month sentence. Today, Satterberg said the prosecutor's office shows more discretion in charging the lowest-level third strike. In similar cases, he most likely would levy a slightly lower theft charge and ask for an exceptional sentence of 10 years. That's more proportionate to the crime but not lenient.
"Life without the possibility of release is definitely something we should reserve for the worst of the worst," Satterberg said. "When I met with Mr. Shadeed, I could tell he was a guy who really regretted his conduct as young man that was fueled by his drug addiction. He was determined to make it right if he had another chance."
"I am more mature. I just don’t look through the same lens I did as a young kid. Uneducated, insensitive, self-serving…I was all those things. Now I realize my actions have an impact on people. It does matter what I do. I see the big picture."
Satterberg enlisted the help of defense attorney Jeff Ellis, who specializes in post-conviction and death penalty work. They came up with a handful of cases they thought should be investigated, and Ellis, who was an adjunct professor at the law school, approached Holland. Holland agreed to take the case, although it was outside the ordinary purview of his clinic and he had never done a clemency case before. Ellis knew it would require hundreds of hours or preparation.
"In order to get clemency you really have to show extraordinary changes and extraordinary actions," said Ellis, who has won clemency for two other lifers. "It's not for people who have just followed the rules, but people who have really turned their lives around and made significant changes. Sometimes there are facts about a case that the criminal justice system either ignores or doesn't have a system to review. That's what clemency is for."
A changed man
By all accounts, Shadeed fits that bill. He simply is not the same person he was, his supporters argued.
"I am more mature," Shadeed said. "I just don't look through the same lens I did as a young kid. Uneducated, insensitive, self-serving...I was all those things. Now I realize my actions have an impact on people. It does matter what I do. I see the big picture."
Ever since the victim, high school teacher Craig MacGowan, argued that Shadeed's sentence was too severe, Shadeed made it his goal to be what his victim thought he could be.
"What made me change was him saying 'look at this individual. This sentence is not warranted.' He believed in me, even after what I did."
Even with seemingly no chance of a life outside of prison, Shadeed immediately enrolled in classes and earned his GED. During his years behind bars, he took college writing classes and earned a computer repair certificate. He regularly went to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings throughout his imprisonment, voluntarily took anger management classes, and participated in a victim awareness program.
"I genuinely started feeling empathy and started to feel sorry for what I had done," Shadeed said. "My actions didn't affect only myself, but my family and the community. I had a broader perspective about crime and breaking the law. I started looking at things from a citizen's perspective. How would I feel if someone did that to me? I began establishing my credibility by being a man of ethics, speaking the truth, doing right, and treating others like I would like to be treated."
Now living in Eastern Washington with his wife he married two years ago, he is taking online classes, working toward earning his bachelor's degree in business, looking for a job, and attending 12-step meetings and checking in with the Department of Corrections. Any violation of the conditions of his release could result in the reinstatement of his life sentence.
"It's all about taking it one day at a time and being responsible," he said. "I go to these meetings and talk to young people about my story. Hopefully they will make better choices."
A great lesson
Holland knew taking Shadeed's case would require him and the students assigned to the case, Ryan Pauley and Josh Springer, both '09, to learn a lot, about the clemency process and, more importantly, about their client.
"When you hear that term 'life without parole' you think of the worst crimes possible," Pauley said. "When I heard about what he did, and that he was in for life, I thought, 'how is that even possible?'"
From the first meeting with Shadeed, the team knew that it was essential that they find a way to make the Clemency and Pardons Board and, eventually, the governor see the transformation that Shadeed had undergone.
"He's a very warm man," Holland said. "He always has been."
"He's extremely charismatic," Springer said. "He's articulate and positive. Once you meet someone like this, you get emotionally attached and personally involved."
Springer and Pauley set out contacting people who had worked with Shadeed during his imprisonment. The list of supporters was extensive, and every one of them attested to the power of his personality and their belief in his readiness to rejoin free society.
It was great experience for the students and left a lasting impression.
"Any chance a law student has to interact with an inmate opens the student's eyes to the humanity involved," Satterberg said. "These are real people on both sides of the case. The work we do does affect real people and their families."
The waiting game
Holland presented his petition to the board in June 2009, before a packed house of Shadeed's supporters. Among those endorsing clemency were Satterberg and the victim. The board voted unanimously to recommend clemency, but the governor was under no deadline to act. Holland continued checking in with the governor's office and visiting Shadeed to make sure he knew that someone was still looking out for him. When an email alert flashed onto his screen this September, his heart started pounding.
"It was a moment I'd always imagined would come, but you don't know when and there's always reason to doubt," Holland said.
He excitedly drove out to Monroe to give the news to Shadeed, who after letting it sink in, asked his attorney for a hug.
"I felt like I was on a cloud," Shadeed said. "I was so elated. If you had a pin, you could have burst me."
For Holland, the chance to let the now-former students hear the news was almost as good as telling Shadeed himself. Even though they had moved into their post-law school careers, the students had not left the case behind.
"This kind of case makes it feel good to practice the law," Springer said. "I don't get the gratification every day that I got when I was working on this case. I would be OK if this was the pinnacle of my legal career."
Springer practiced insurance coverage and insurance defense as an associate at Cozen O'Connor before starting his own law practice. He volunteers monthly at the Greenwood Legal Clinic, which he calls the best part of his legal work.
Pauley, who practices with his father, Tim, at Pauley Law Group, also found the experience meaningful. "It made me a better attorney," he said. "No matter what I do in my legal career, I really did make a difference. We helped him get his life back."
Shadeed knows there are some who will question whether he should be released.
"Until people can meet me themselves, they should not judge. There is always mercy and forgiveness," he said. "If a person repents and changes his ways, there should be mercy. Every life is sacred. The human soul is redeemable."
"This case is a rarity -- the justice system corrected itself in an instance when it didn’t have to. It would have been lawful for the life sentence to stand, but it wouldn’t have been just."
Ellis says prisoners like Shadeed are not appointed counsel for clemency hearings and have no access to funds to hire a lawyer to start the process.
"That's why it is so important for people like Professor Holland to step up and take these cases," Ellis said. "It's easy to say criminals are apart from us, but they're not. Some of them ought to be able to return to our community, and Mr. Shadeed was one of them who earned that right. This group of people who have been released understand their obligation to make amends for past wrongs and give back to the community."
Holland said Shadeed is as well-positioned as he can be for success.
"He really is committed to steering kids away from trouble and pursuing his education," Holland said.
Shadeed is still acclimating to life on the outside, looking for work and reconnecting with family, all the while enjoying life's simple pleasures, like a Thanksgiving dinner with relatives.
"What I appreciate the most is being able to wake up in the morning and kiss my wife."