A Passionate Approach to Pro Bono Work
This episode of Point By Point was produced prior to the combination of Waller and Holland & Knight.
In this episode, Waller's Drew Warth is joined by Brittany K. Barnett, co-founder and director of the Buried Alive project, an organization that has gained freedom for dozens of men and women serving life sentences under federal drug laws.
Barnett is an attorney and entrepreneur focused on social impact investing. She has dedicated her career to transforming the criminal justice system and has won freedom for numerous people serving lengthy sentences for federal drug offenses – including seven clients who received executive clemency from President Barack Obama.
Her memoir, A Knock at Midnight, was published by The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, on September 8, 2020.
Drew and Brittany worked together on the Chris Young case, which involved a Clarksville, Tennessee man who was facing a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. In this episode, they discuss the case - which garnered national attention - and the importance of pro bono work.
Morgan Ribiero: Welcome to PointByPoint. This is Waller's Chief Business Development Officer and the host of the podcast, Morgan Ribiero. Over the last six months. and since the devastating and very public murder of George Floyd, the topic of social and racial justice has been thrust into the limelight. The conversation has made its way to dinner tables, churches, political debates, social media, and the like.
Today I am joined by Drew Warth, a partner in Waller's trial and appellate group and Brittany Barnett, an attorney who has recently authored a book, " A Knock at Midnight," on the topic of social justice. Drew and Brittany, welcome to the show.
Drew Warth: Thanks for having me.
Brittany Barnett: So great to be here.
Morgan: So the topics of social and racial justice have received a lot of attention lately, as I mentioned in my intro. A lot of Americans have taken this time to become more educated and to open their eyes to the many injustices that have occurred over many, many decades. In today's conversation, I want to focus on what lawyers, specifically, do to engage in this time of great change.
Brittany. First, I want to start with your career path. You were initially a corporate transactional attorney, but now you focus on representing people serving life in prison for nonviolent federal drug offenses. How did that transition come to be?
Brittany: I had always been really into the criminal legal system and its many flaws.
But when I was a law student at SMU, I took a critical race theory course that analyzed the intersection between race and the law. And in this course, I learned about ridiculous disparities in sentencing between powder cocaine, and crack cocaine cases, and this 100-to-1 sentencing disparity that it created.
So I could have 500 grams of powder cocaine. Another person could have five grams of crack cocaine, and we would get the same sentence in prison. It's not lost on anybody, especially in 2020, that at the time in the late eighties, when these laws were implemented, more affluent white people were using powder cocaine and crack cocaine was running rampant in communities of color, in particular, black communities.
And so this law that created this 100-to-1 ratio just had a very significant disproportionate impact on people of color. And as I was researching this paper in law school, I wanted to really humanize the issue. So I came across the case of Sharanda Jones, a woman serving life without parole for her first conviction, felony, or otherwise, a federal drug offense and her case just tugged at my soul, you know, I couldn't let it go. And all the while, I was on a path to practice corporate law, I had gotten a Master's in accounting. I was a certified public accountant working at Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
And so just the natural trajectory of my career was corporate. And I did, I went to practice corporate law. Did corporate finance at Winstead in Dallas and went on in-house to practice mergers and acquisitions at Orix USA Corporation in Dallas. But all the while, even as I was helping move millions and billions of dollars in deals by day, I was still working pro bono on Sharanda Jones's case and cases like hers.
The transition for me really stemmed from that critical race theory course in law school. And just getting really heavily involved as a corporate lawyer in President Obama's clemency initiative. Gratefully, I worked on Shawanda's clemency petition, and President Barack Obama graciously granted her clemency.
After 16 years and nine months, Sharanda Jones was freed. But these life without parole sentences for drug offenses, just, I didn't understand them. There's no parole in the federal system. So people are set to die in prison. That really propelled me as I got more into the Obama clemency initiative, that it was time for me to what was a difficult decision to leave corporate law, to really follow my passion, to help transform the system.
Morgan: Tell us more about your personal story because that seems like that may also have had an impact on you going towards your true calling in life.
Brittany: I grew up in rural East Texas and had a happy childhood. You know, I played sports. My mom was a nurse. My stepdad worked at the local coal mine, but all that while my mom was suffering with a severe drug addiction.
And her drug addition, just ultimately it got worse and led to her receiving eight years in prison. Every day in this country, there are over 2 million children with a parent who was incarcerated and it's devastating. There's something about your mama being in prison, it just causes this primal wound. And that situation for me, brought me so close in proximity to the suffering of people in prison and knowing that they're all mothers and fathers and daughters and sons, you know, it really shows me the heartbeats behind the statistics that we hear about the heartbeats behind all the stories that are told and all the tough-on-crime rhetoric. And it really was an experience that was devastating for my sister and I. I know that when one person goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison. And so that experience, you know, really opened my eyes to the suffering of people behind bars and the people beyond the bars. And that includes their family members and loved ones.
Morgan: You and Drew met a few years ago while working on the Chris Young case in Tennessee. Drew, can you give us more background on your practice before we jump into the Chris Young case?
I think it would be helpful to know more about your background and how you and Brittany ended up crossing paths.
Drew: I do litigation at Waller and have done litigation at other firms. I also started out at a big firm in Texas. I worked at Jones Day for a couple of years and, you know, my parents, they were doctors and they always talked about not doing things for the money and, that sort of thing.
I think while I went into a corporate practice of law, that kind of insight drove me to try and find some balance in my career with regards to doing pro bono work. And, I kind of bounced around in that regard. When I moved back to Nashville, I clerked for a few years for Judge Traugher here in Middle District of Tennessee.
And, you kind of see all manner of cases, including drug cases and that sort of thing. When I got back into private practice in 2011, I still kind of was looking to do pro bono opportunities. At my old firm, one of the partners who worked there, -a great, criminal lawyer, Jim Thomas - he put me on Chris's case and Chris and two, co-defendants had been convicted of, drug crimes at a federal trial.
Morgan: You sort of teed it up for yourself on the Chris Young case. Maybe, you can take a step back on that and give us some more background on the case in his situation in particular, the situation he found himself in.
Drew: So, Chris had a very challenging upbringing. He mostly raised himself.
He didn't have a father that he knew. He had a mother who had a lot of drug issues and he, and he bounced around from house to house. And as a lot of people do at that age, they find themselves with the wrong crowd and Chris Young was no different. And he found himself, you know, in a crowd that got involved with drugs and you had some run-ins with the law when he was younger.
And, one night he was at a gas station with a guy who was ultimately charged with being involved in this drug conspiracy. And when that guy was arrested, Chris was arrested too. And they ultimately charged Chris with being involved in this drug, conspiracy and under laws that fortunately don't exist anymore - but existed at the time - because Chris had two prior drug convictions, the government could file a document in court that said: "This individual has two prior drug convictions. If they're convicted of this drug conspiracy crime, the only sentence the judge can impose is mandatory life in prison." The judge has no discretion and, that's the situation that Chris found himself in. He, went to trial and he was convicted. And so he faced mandatory life in prison. And at the hearing where he was sentenced, it was very remarkable.
Judge Sharp, who has since left the bench to do mostly plaintiff's work, said this is a travesty that I have to sentence this. That's the thing - at the time - Chris was 22, 23 years old. I have to sentence this 22, 23-year-old man to prison for the rest of his life for a nonviolent drug offense.
And, you know, during that hearing Judge Sharp asked Chris if he had anything he wanted to say and Chris stood up and gave a 20-minute soliloquy about everything that he learned, philosophers, history, all that sort of thing. And, you know, just said that if he ever had the chance to get out, he would invest in learning even more.
And he was going to use the opportunity in prison to continue to grow. And I wasn't there, but I imagine that had people in tears, you know, and so Chris was sentenced and we got his appeal and we did his Sixth Circuit appeal and we made Constitutional arguments and raised challenges to the trial and the Sixth Circuit, denied our appeal and the Supreme Court denied, what's known as cert, so they, they didn't hear the case. And, I had followed it, but it was always something in the back of my mind that this was an awful thing that had happened, but it wasn't until Brittany contacted me in the summer of 2018 that I became re-engaged on the case.
Morgan: Brittany. I think that's a good segue to you jumping in here if you have any other kind of additional background you want to add on the case. I would love to hear more on, when you inserted yourself in sort of the legal arguments that were there and what ultimately led to Chris' being freed of these convictions.
Brittany: Just to show how atrocious the sentence is that Chris Young received and how I talked Sharonda Jones and how some cases just tug it our souls. When I reached out to Drew, I was reaching out to him because I knew he had worked on the appeal, but I was seeing if you knew any other lawyers who may be interested in working on the habeas relief, that was the only option left for Chris and Drew - because the case still tugged his soul - he offered to help, which made my search a lot easier. I'm just really grateful for that, but it shows how impactful this case is. And as Drew mentioned, he worked on the appeal and they had all of these amazing, Constitutional arguments about why Chris' conviction shouldn't stand.
But what I found is, as lawyers, especially as it relates to the criminal legal system, that we are forced to work within the bounds of laws that are outside of the bounds of moral consciousness. And so even though Drew had all these arguments that anyone with common sense would say, these are legitimate reasons for this conviction not to stay, it just hit roadblocks in the court. And so for Chris, unfortunately in a drug case, there's not a lot of ways to get around that, but in Chris's case, we found after digging through hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, interviewing past lawyers and other witnesses, we found that there was some substantial evidence against Chris in the form of wiretap phone calls that he was not aware of prior to going into trial. Even, prior to turning down this 14-year plea offer that he received before trial.
And so we started going down this path of maybe our only option here is "ineffective assistance of counsel" during plea negotiations. Chris' trial lawyer had a duty to ensure that Chris was properly informed so that he could make an educated or informed decision about whether or not to reject a plea.
And unfortunately he didn't have that opportunity. And so not knowing about this evidence that the government possessed, Chris chose to go to trial and that uninformed decision cost him his life so we wanted to argue that Constitutional violation for Chris.
Drew: Yeah, I was delighted when Brittany called. I was delighted to have the chance to help, and, she and her team had done amazing work in terms of developing this argument and getting it ready for this next phase, which was going to be the habeas relief. So, we worked on, that and we filed the petition in October 2018 and just hoped for the best at that point.
Morgan: So this particular case involves some pretty interesting twist and turns - some of which you've already covered - but one of the most noteworthy being the involvement of Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump. Kardashian brought Young's case to the national spotlight when she shared a tweet from the "Buried Alive" project, which focused on Young's case and sentence.
Tell us more about this element of Chris's path towards justice.
Brittany: I had worked with Kim Kardashian on the Alice Johnson case, and Alice Johnson had received clemency from Donald Trump in the summer of 2018. And Kardashian played a very active role in that release.
After Alice Johnson was free, I told Kim about Chris' case. And she immediately wanted to help. She was educated about the issues from me. That is something that I definitely applaud of her, that she doesn't step into these issues blindly. And because of that, you know, she went back to the White House to try to get clemency for Chris Young.
From my perspective, just as an attorney working on these cases, we have to, pursue freedom from all angles and freedom is not linear. It's not a linear process and we have to work it, whether it's through the courts, Congress or through clemency, you know? And so in this case, Kim's involvement was very helpful and no, we weren't successful in securing clemency for Chris Young. With Kim using her platform, it made a lot of people aware, of this issue that people are serving life without parole sentences for these federal drug crimes, very low-level ones at that. And so, you know, it takes a strong team and influencers are very helpful in using their platforms to help amplify the issues. All the while, it still takes lawyers on the ground to do the work, to break chains,
Drew: I think this was, the first case that I've worked on that, the President of the United States was meeting with Kim Kardashian about and will probably be the last one, but, it's not just about the publicity. The reason that Chris is ultimately in a much better position than he is now is because of the work that everyone's done.
Brittany has an amazing team of people who work for her, law students, and otherwise, who dig through the case law, who dig through the file, who find the evidence, who find the experts that are needed to make these claims and the difference between someone rotting in jail for the rest of their life and having decades of freedom to be contributing tax-paying members of society is that work - 99% of the time.
Morgan: Awesome. Well, I'm going to switch gears here, Brittany. I mentioned in my introduction, your book "A Knock at Midnight." This is your memoir of growing up in rural east Texas and follows your journey into adulthood.
Brittany: So my book is about my journey. And just a journey that transformed my understanding of injustice in the courts, of genius languishing behind bars, and quite frankly, the very definition of freedom itself. The book is a memoir and it follows my life, as a young girl growing up in rural east Texas to becoming an attorney that uses her platform to help free people from human cages.
Morgan: In your book, you note it's not necessarily about the wrongfully accused, but the hyper-punished. I think that's an interesting distinction for those who are corporate attorneys listening in. Can you speak more to that?
Brittany: My clients sold drugs. And that is a point that's beyond debate. They accept responsibility for their actions, but the quantity in these federal drug cases and beyond is often exaggerated with little to no evidence.
And that leads to the punishment just far exceeding the crime. There is no logical explanation as to why Chris Young was serving life without parole for a low-level drug crime. He was convicted of that occurred when he was 22. It is just both morally and economically unjustifiable. That's what we mean, by hyper-punish. This isn't the "Innocence project;" my nonprofit is called the "Buried Alive" project, And it is solely focused on people who had some involvement in selling drugs and know that there are consequences that come from that, but the consequences should not be them spending the rest of their natural life in prison. That is just not justice.
Morgan: So, this conversation has been really eye-opening and I love to hear these stories that obviously have a somewhat, happy ending where you're able to turn around the outcome. For those listening in and wondering. 'What can I do to make a difference?' What would you say to our listeners? How can they get involved?
Brittany: You know, I would say for lawyers doing pro-bono work is necessary for us to push for this movement to transform the criminal justice system. There aren't many professions, you know, where you can actually save a life, doctors, firefighters, police, perhaps, but as lawyers with cases like Chris Young is we're in a position to, to save his life, you know, and Drew, I think the listeners will be happy to hear with Chris's case even after years of work and dedication, we stuck in there. And because of that, just recently, Chris Young's life sentences were given back. As I like to say to the federal government and his sentence was reduced to 14 years, which is an amazing feat and victory, you know? And I'm so blessed to have been a part of the team - and having Drew on the team - and linking arms to, to have literally saved Chris Young's life . And, you know, sometimes we have to take time after such long fights to really relish in the fact that we won, Lawyers can really use their skills to be able, especially if they're passionate about this issue, you know, to be able to volunteer and help. With some of these cases, for sure.
Drew: I would echo that. I think one of the challenges that pro-bono work presents is it can be very challenging, to find your fit. And a lot of times working in firms, they have initiatives where you go staff a clinic. Or you take this subset of cases. And a lot of times you can find yourself in a more administrative or bureaucratic, low-level part of the justice system that can be very frustrating and people get turned off by it. So what I would say generally to lawyers about pro -bono work is you shouldn't do it just to do it. And you should do it because it matches a passion. And I think to Brittany's point right now, a lot of people are finding passion in this social justice movement that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
And it presents a natural opportunity to, use resources like Brittany to find pro-bono opportunities that fit within this movement. But even if that movement is not your passion, lawyers can do so much good and help so many people if they match their passions and their causes with the opportunities that present themselves in the legal field. So if you feel like, you know, intellectual property theft is a major issue that you are bothered by, there's plenty of opportunities to, work with, content producers and artists and people that don't have a lot of money necessarily, but want to protect their work. So there are opportunities across the board, but the reason this was such a profound experience for me was because it matched passion with opportunity.
Morgan: Right. And even if, you know, Brittany, I think you're a great example of even if you're an M&A or corporate transactions attorney, even if your passion is over here, you don't have to be a trained litigator to, help those in need.
I think that's really important. Of course, we're having this conversation it's right now in the midst of pro-bono month with the bar association. So I think it's a timely discussion of trying to push that forward because there are certainly, a great need, for attorneys with a variety of different skill sets and sort of giving back.
So, anything that you all want to, to add for our listeners?
Brittany: No, just a reminder, you know, that lawyers we are needed in this movement and there's just nothing more urgent than freedom.
Drew: And go on Amazon and buy "A Knock at Midnight" because it's a great book.
Brittany: And buy my book. You'll learn more about Chris Young, too. And Drew's mentioned.
Morgan: I'm gonna need your autograph, Drew. When did, your book come out?
Brittany: It just came out last month on September 8. It is newly birthed into the world.
Morgan: Awesome. Well, congratulations. I'm sure you didn't think you were going to be doing that from your home office, but here we are. You’ll be on a book tour soon.
Brittany: I hope so.
Morgan: Well, thank you all so much. I have enjoyed our conversation. Brittany. Nice to meet you again.
Speaker 3: Nice to meet you too, Morgan. Thank you so much for this.