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Pro Bono Team Secures Release of Nonviolent Drug Offender Who Served Nearly 20 Years

April 27, 2016

HOUSTON, April 27, 2016: A pro bono team from Morgan Lewis and Vinson & Elkins has secured the release of a man who served nearly 20 years of a life sentence in prison on a nonviolent drug offense when the Illinois federal judge who presided over his trial amended the sentence to that of time served.

The man, Scott Walker, 44, has been represented for the past seven years by Morgan Lewis Houston litigator Christina Vitale and her husband, V&E Houston finance lawyer Darin Schultz. Mr. Walker was freed after US District Judge J. Phil Gilbert of the Southern District of Illinois amended Mr. Walker’s original mandatory life sentence at the conclusion of an April 25 hearing.

Through a referral from Roger Williams University School of Law Professor David Zlotnick and the national sentencing reform advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Ms. Vitale and Mr. Schultz took up the cause for Mr. Walker at their respective firms.

Mr. Schultz, who worked in V&E’s Washington, DC, office in 2009 when he agreed to represent Mr. Walker, took the pro bono case with him after transferring to Houston. As the case wore on, Mr. Schultz frequently confided in Ms. Vitale, who soon signed on to become his co-counsel. It was she who argued the motion developed by the two that ultimately freed Mr. Walker. Professor Zlotnick also provided the two lawyers with expert guidance and insight throughout the process.

“Although the outcome was bittersweet for everyone since so much time had passed, it was profoundly gratifying to finally see justice served,” said Ms. Vitale. “This was truly a rewarding case and I was happy to be a part of it.”

In 1997, Mr. Walker was arrested and charged for transporting small amounts of marijuana and methamphetamine from Arizona to sell in Illinois to support his drug addiction. Two years later, a jury found him guilty of narcotics trafficking.

Prior to this conviction, Mr. Walker had never before been convicted of a felony or served time in prison, but he nonetheless faced a life sentence under the then-mandatory federal US Sentencing Guidelines. Although the US Supreme Court declared the guidelines to be nonbinding in 2005, the ruling in US v. Booker was not retroactive, meaning Walker did not benefit from the decision.

Judge Gilbert, who had wrestled with Mr. Walker’s plight for years, supported a commutation petition filed by Ms. Vitale and Mr. Schultz with the Obama Administration in 2011, but the request went unanswered. Finally, when the sentencing commission began retroactively reducing penalties for nonviolent drug offenses in 2014, Mr. Walker’s sentence was reduced to 30 years.

The sentence reduction resulted in an anomaly. Mr. Walker’s original life sentence did not come with a normally imposed condition of supervised release. That opened the door for Ms. Vitale and Mr. Schultz to file a motion for a corrected sentence, which Judge Gilbert granted. Mr. Walker's sentence was amended to time served plus a three-year term of supervised release, resulting in his immediate discharge from custody.

“To say that getting Scott out of his life without parole sentence via commutation or any other way was a long shot was an understatement to say the least,” Professor Zlotnick said. “But because the government and the judge saw value in being able to supervise Scott's reintegration into society, Darin and Christina were able to walk Scott out of custody on Monday for the first time in decades. Scott and his family are grateful to Darin and Christina for their dedication and perseverance.”