Foley & Lardner LLP attorneys Pamela Johnston and Daniella Gutierrez recently secured pro bono client Christopher M.’s release from California State Prison in a stunning legal victory in light of the fact that he had been serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for more than 15 years. As a result of this life-changing win by the Foley team, 33-year-old Christopher M. is now home with his family and is extremely grateful for the second chance he never thought he would receive. Johnston brought the pro bono case to Foley in 2014, at a time when the odds of Christopher M.’s release were very low.
In 2006, the prosecution charged Christopher M. as an adult for crimes he committed as a minor. Notwithstanding his adolescence, spotless record, and mitigating circumstances, the California trial court imposed the harshest sentence possible: two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Christopher M. filed numerous appeals, and as a result, his original sentence was reversed and remanded, resentenced, and reversed and remanded once more due to trial court errors and changes in applicable law. However, with the passage of a California proposition regarding youth offenders and the California Supreme Court’s retroactive application of the same in People v. Superior Court (Lara), coupled with the election of George Gascón as Los Angeles County’s new district attorney in November 2020 (which brought forth office-wide Special Directives to, among other things, end the practice of trying children in adult court), the Foley Team together with Christopher M. saw a rare opportunity unfolding that might lead to his release.
Tasked with handling Christopher M.’s resentencing in front of the California trial court, the Foley team drafted a lengthy motion seeking a transfer of the case to the juvenile court’s jurisdiction in light of the recent changes in the law and altered political landscape. Johnston skillfully argued the motion, which the trial court granted as a matter of law, and the matter was transferred to the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. Once in juvenile court, the matter proceeded to disposition – the juvenile court’s equivalent of sentencing – and the Foley team filed a motion for Christopher M.’s immediate release from prison, with time served, which was also granted.
During her hour-long oral argument before the juvenile court, Gutierrez argued how the various changes in the law mandated Christopher M.’s release, and that as a discretionary matter, Christopher M. was not only deserving of this second chance, but a shining example of the fact that youth offenders are corrigible – citing to his unblemished prison record, countless good deeds, and dedication to education, rehabilitation and philanthropy. As Gutierrez argued:
“Incarcerated in an adult prison … as a child . . . by a justice system that was not designed to reform or rehabilitate his young mind but rather to punish--Chris chose not to be bitter, not to be overwhelmed by the darkness of the tragedy that his life had become, Chris chose light … Chris has demonstrated over the past 15 years, through his actions, that his life is salvageable and worthy of a second chance in this world…His actions were not motivated by a self-serving expectation of parole or early release. Chris had already come to terms with the fact that the gates had closed shut on his life…The way Chris has chosen to live … notwithstanding [his] life sentence, is demonstrative of why youth offenders are capable of great transformation.”
Christopher M. was released from prison August 18, 2021. On October 15, 2021, the matter was officially closed subsequent to a final hearing on restitution. Johnston and Gutierrez are thrilled with this phenomenal outcome. “Chris is the living, breathing embodiment of why the juvenile system’s rehabilitative and treatment-oriented philosophy is worth following. We are happy he and his family get the second half of his life back,” Johnston said.
Christopher M. plans to graduate from college in 2023 and hopes to spend the rest of his life “paying it forward” by being an advocate for juvenile justice reform and continuing to volunteer for the Paws for Life Prison Program (pawsforlifek9.org) – a highly successful rehabilitative program that gives inmates an opportunity to train and care for dogs rescued from high kill shelters to prepare them for adoption.
In addition to Johnston and Gutierrez, the Foley team representing Christopher M. over the past seven years included various current and former Foley attorneys, such as Alyssa Titche, Ashley Koley, Jaime Guerrero, Pooja Nair, and Melissa Lerner, as well as several summer associates. Foley is proud of its robust pro bono program and thanks this dedicated team for a job well done.