President Trump on Wednesday commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman serving a life term for nonviolent offenses, after meeting with reality television star and socialite Kim Kardashian West last week to discuss the case.
Johnson, 63, was convicted in Tennessee in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison on federal drug and money-laundering charges.
She was denied clemency by the Obama administration in January 2017 in one of the administration’s last batches of clemency denials.
In a statement, the White House noted that Johnson was a great-grandmother who had served almost 22 years for a first-time offense.
“Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behavior and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades,” the White House said. “While this Administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, had helped arrange the meeting with Kardashian West in the Oval Office last week and had pushed for leniency for Johnson within the West Wing, according to administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Others in the West Wing, including White House counsel Donald McGahn, had cautioned against the action.
“President Trump saved Alice’s life today,” said Brittany K. Barnett, an attorney who is a member of Johnson’s legal team. “We are extremely grateful and hope the president continues to use his clemency power to save lives.”
Kardashian West welcomed Trump’s action on Twitter, writing: “BEST NEWS EVER!!!!”
“So grateful to @realDonaldTrump, Jared Kushner & to everyone who has showed compassion & contributed countless hours to this important moment for Ms. Alice Marie Johnson,” Kardashian West wrote. “Her commutation is inspirational & gives hope to so many others who are also deserving of a second chance.”
Trump’s acts of clemency have been scattershot, driven by television segments, celebrities, friends and White House advisers who have pressed their cases for pardons. Among those on the receiving end have been controversial former sheriff Joe Arpaio, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Richard B. Cheney.
In the fall, Johnson was interviewed on Skype from prison by a reporter at the website Mic.com. In October, Kardashian West happened to spot the interview on Twitter, according to Barnett.
“Kim was moved to tears,” Barnett said. “And then she was moved to action.”
“I think that she really deserves a second chance at life,” Kardashian West later told the publication. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get her out.”
Kardashian West created a legal team and asked Barnett, who had advocated on Johnson’s behalf for 10 years, to be on it. Kardashian West then contacted Kushner about the case, Barnett said.
Barnett said the legal team got the heads up from the White House on Wednesday that Johnson would be released and be able to return to her family in Memphis that night.
About 12:45 p.m. Eastern time, Kardashian West, Barnett and three other lawyers all called the federal prison in Alabama to tell Johnson. She was brought into a prison official’s office for the call.
“We did it,” Kardashian West told her, according to Barnett. “You’re going home!”
“Miss Alice was overwhelmed with tears and joys and gratefulness,” Barnett said. “She was crying. She said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been resurrected from the dead. I have my life back.’ ”
“All the lawyers were crying, too,” Barnett said.
Barnett has successfully represented eight nonviolent drug offenders, including Johnson, who have received clemency. Four were serving life sentences.
Barnett, 34, was in her second year of law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2009 when she heard about another nonviolent drug offender, Sharanda Jones, who was in Fort Worth’s Carswell women’s prison serving a life sentence for her first crack cocaine offense.
Barnett met Johnson while visiting Jones at Carswell. Jones and Johnson had become best friends while serving their life terms in federal prison.
Jones said she was grateful to be granted clemency by Obama but “heartbroken” to leave Johnson behind.
“Alice was just as deserving,” said Jones, who spent 15 years in prison with Johnson.
In its statement, the White House said Johnson had “worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates.”
The White House noted that letters of support for clemency had been received from Johnson’s warden, her case manager and her vocational training instructor.
Trump’s decision won praise Wednesday from a range of interests, including Freedom Partners, a group funded by the conservative activist Koch brothers.
“We support common sense criminal justice reforms that end overcriminalization, protect taxpayers and reduce incarceration consistent with public safety,” its chairman, Mark Holden, said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which had also provided legal support to Johnson, praised Trump as well.
The organization, a frequent critic of the president, said on Twitter that “overly harsh sentences hurt families and are not justice.”
Ashley Parker, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.