Twenty years ago, Eustace Jennings was leading a rudderless life. He committed crimes typical of those suffering from homelessness and drug addiction, including robbing someone of a $10 bus ticket, which resulted in his second felony conviction. He would go on to rob six banks in the course of two weeks in Pierce County, Washington. No one was physically hurt in the commission of his crimes and, had they happened today, when the Three Strikes Law is no longer in effect, Mr. Jennings would have had an opportunity to resolve his offenses. Instead, in 1998, he was sentenced to life without parole.
People who expect to spend the rest of their lives in prison often feel they have nothing to live for and eventually give up. But Mr. Jennings had a different reaction: He completely turned his life around.
During the following two decades of incarceration, Mr. Jennings achieved an extraordinary record of compliance. He had only one minor infraction (receiving food through improper channels—an outside care package) and not a single failed drug test. He earned dozens of certificates for anger and stress management, nonviolent communication, and other life skills. He became a mentor to other inmates and a leader in the prison's "Bridges to Life" program, which is focused on inmates achieving "responsibility, repentance, and restitution." And he became closer to his family, re-establishing relationships that had been broken during his life of crime.
So when the Seattle Clemency Project asked Mark Bartlett and former associate Ashley Brown (now with Cooley LLP) to assist with a commutation petition for this remarkable man, they immediately and zealously started working on Mr. Jennings' matter. They spoke to him every two weeks and connected with his extended family. At a hearing before the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board in December 2018, Mark, a former federal prosecutor, noted that Mr. Jennings was about to turn 60, that the recidivism rate for former prisoners his age was extraordinarily low, and that it was costly to keep older people in prison. Still, he added, "If Eustace were the same person he was in 1998, you shouldn't release him. The real and primary reason is, he is a totally changed person."
Family members traveled from as far away as Florida and the islands of Turks and Caicos to testify on his behalf and to persuade the board that Mr. Jennings would have an extensive support network ready to welcome him home. Mr. Jennings himself appeared via video at the hearing and spoke movingly of his transformation.
Convinced that Mr. Jennings deserved a new chance at freedom, the board voted unanimously to recommend that he be released from prison, and in August 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee granted him a conditional commutation. He will be released in February 2020.