WASHINGTON -- Karen Orehowsky decided to join the Beltway lobbying crowd not long after getting a phone call from her mother, back home in Iowa. Her mother told her she had a new pen pal, a former drug dealer by the name of Phillip Emmert who was serving a 27-year sentence in federal prison.
Orehowsky was alarmed to hear that her 62-year-old mom was corresponding with an inmate. But her mother assured her that Emmert had reformed and did not deserve his long sentence. She said her rural church had begun writing letters to him to give him hope and support, and suggested her daughter do the same.
Orehowsky was skeptical. "Nobody in this great country gets 27 years with no possibility of parole as a nonviolent first offender," she said, recalling her initial doubts.
But after some research, she, too, came to believe Emmert had been the victim of an unjust sentence -- and heartbreaking personal misfortune. He had, she learned, become a model prisoner.
Orehowsky decided she would do more than write him letters: She would lobby the Justice Department to get President Bush to commute Emmert's sentence.
As an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, she knew people inside the federal bureaucracy. She talked up the case at parties attended by administration officials. She sought advice from government lawyers who had first-hand knowledge of the clemency process.
Early on, a former Justice Department official warned her that she was taking on a nearly hopeless task. Orehowsky scribbled her exact words -- "You have no reasonable chance of success" -- on a piece of paper and pinned it to a wall above her desk at work.
The Bush administration's record for granting clemency was not encouraging. In 2002, when Orehowsky embarked on her quixotic task, Bush had not commuted a single sentence.
He since has taken action in four cases, the most prominent being that of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case. Bush has also granted full pardons to more than 100 people -- but only after they had served their time.
Cases such as those of Libby and Marc Rich, the fugitive financier pardoned by President Clinton in 2001, have raised questions about the fairness of presidential clemency because they involved the affluent and politically connected.
More routinely, hundreds of the unconnected apply for clemency every year with little or no guidance or hope. Their petitions are filed with the 12-person Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department, whose deliberations and recommendations are never made public. Applicants often wait years for a response.
Yet they frequently have compelling stories of rehabilitation and steep punishment.
Even some prominent conservative jurists have come to believe that clemency is a tool of the justice system that is not used enough.
"The pardon process, of late, seems to have been drained of its moral force," Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told the American Bar Assn. in 2003 in a speech calling on lawyers to file more petitions. While defendants in many cases have not served their full sentences, they have served long enough, Kennedy said.
Tough federal sentencing guidelines over the past two decades have made sentences uniform across the country -- but also uniformly harsh. Drug crimes bring stiff "mandatory minimum" sentences even for first-time offenders.
Parole, once viewed as a tool for addressing injustice, creating incentives for rehabilitation and accounting for special circumstances such as family or personal illness, was long ago abolished for inmates in federal prison.
In Libby's case, Bush declared the 30-month sentence "excessive," even though it was at the low end of the range of federal guidelines. He also said Libby was a first-time offender and that his family had suffered from his conviction.
Some inmate advocates hope the president now will take another look at the sentences given lesser-known defendants. Margaret Colgate Love, a lawyer who once headed the pardon office, said: "There are scores, perhaps hundreds, of people doing hard time in federal prison who are also worthy of the president's mercy."
Phillip Emmert grew up in rural Arkansas, one of seven children. He was 5 when his father left home; his mother worked as a waitress to support the family. That left the kids to raise themselves, and as Emmert readily concedes, they did not do a very good job.
He started using drugs at 13. Later, when he was convicted of breaking into a car and stealing a watch and sunglasses, a judge offered him the chance to avoid prison by joining the Army.
After his discharge from the service, he got married, had a daughter - -- and got hooked on methamphetamine.
In 1992, he was implicated in a conspiracy to distribute more than 25 pounds of meth with a group of motorcycle friends. Emmert claimed he was in on the deal simply to support his own habit. Under the law, however, he was held responsible for the entire stockpile of drugs. At age 36, he was sentenced to 324 months -- 27 years -- even though he was a first-time drug offender. The ringleader got life.
Initially, Emmert had problems as a prisoner. Eighteen months into his sentence, he was busted for drinking alcohol and sent to an isolated unit known as "the hole."
That's where he got the news that his wife and daughter had been in a horrific car accident. His wife was left a paraplegic. His daughter was then 8.
He said the tragedy motivated him to turn his life around. He prayed and began reading the Bible. "Change didn't happen overnight," he said, "but change did come."
Over the ensuing decade, he learned a trade: servicing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. He completed a ministerial studies program endorsed by the Assemblies of God Church and became qualified to be a licensed pastor. He served as a hospice volunteer and mental health companion, attending to terminally ill inmates and counseling suicidal prisoners.
"I met many inmates who 'found God' but immediately lost Him when it became evident that God was not going to get them out of prison," said Robert Williams, an inmate who served time with Emmert. "But Phillip was different."
In 1996, Emmert caught a break. After Congress had modified the sentencing guidelines, the judge shaved five years off his prison time, leaving him with only 18 more years to serve.
The lobbying team that took up his cause did not look to be a K Street juggernaut.
There was a small-town church -- First Assembly of God in Washington, Iowa, whose members included farmers, plumbers, and electricians but "not a single professional among them," said Orehowsky. Her own credentials consisted of running an office at the EPA that regulates vehicle emissions.
It was clear the group would need some political muscle, but that would not be easy.
Iowa's senior U.S. senator, Charles E. Grassley, was a tough-on-crime conservative who supported the sort of lengthy sentence that Emmert got. And the scourge of methamphetamine addiction was becoming a major concern in the heartland. Aides signaled Grassley would have trouble supporting clemency for Emmert.
"The statistics were unbelievably against them," said James A. Leach, then a member of the Iowa congressional delegation and another lawmaker the group approached.
As a first step, Orehowsky found a major Washington law firm willing to take on Emmert's case as a public service. The firm, Crowell & Moring, filed an eloquent brief with the Justice Department. But the firm's lawyers found the assignment frustrating because communications were so one-sided.
"It is a black hole," said Thomas Means, one of the lawyers involved. "They don't tell you anything at the pardon office. You can't get anything out of them."
Means and Orehowsky decided to step up the offensive.
"You take every opportunity to tell the story to somebody. You never know who might get through," Means said. "That seems to be the essence of the process -- somehow rising above the pack."
Orehowsky began working the bureaucracy. She found out that her boss at EPA once worked in the auto industry with Andrew H. Card Jr., Bush's first chief of staff. The boss agreed to write a letter to Card about Emmert.
"Every time I went to a dinner party, every time I met someone who said, 'Oh, I work for the Justice Department,' they got my [Emmert] story," Orehowsky said.
She turned friends -- and friends of friends -- into lobbying partners. When one got to play a round of golf with a cousin of the president, she made sure he took along a "one-pager" on Emmert.
She had Pastor James E. Cluney, of First Assembly of God church in Iowa, write to former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, a member of the same denomination, which had also given Emmert his divinity papers. Ashcroft wrote a letter of support -- he sent Orehowsky a signed copy - -- but it was unclear whether he ever sent it to the Justice Department. Orehowsky urged Cluney and his flock to write their own letters.
Initially skeptical, Leach agreed to host a meeting in his Washington office with representatives from the pardon division and his Iowa constituents. Cluney and Emmert's wife, Dixie, who uses a wheelchair, flew in to help make the case.
The Justice lawyers were polite but poker-faced as they listened.
A formal clemency petition had been filed in February 2004, and for nearly three years, hopes ebbed and flowed.
At one point, Means also appealed to U.S. District Judge Charles R. Wolle in Des Moines, who had given Emmert the hefty sentence.
Wolle initially was not interested in helping arrange an early release. But the judge had an unexplained change of heart. He decided that, while the sentence was legally correct, Emmert had been rehabilitated and deserved a break. "The purpose of the sentence I imposed has fully been served," Wolle wrote the Justice Department in June 2004.
Six months later, Grassley came around, writing a passionate letter on behalf of Emmert two days before Christmas. Hopes were high. But the holiday passed without word from Bush.
"Every year Christmas time rolls around and you think that would be a great Christmas present," Cluney said, "and it would come and go, and other things would happen."
Last December, Means received a phone call from the Justice Department: Bush had granted clemency.
Emmert was summoned to the office of a corrections official at the federal prison camp in Duluth, Minn., and told to contact his attorney. He was not prepared for the news he was about to receive.
"'You are going home a free man,'" he recalls Means telling him over the phone.
"I cried like a little girl. I pretty much lost it." He still chokes up at the memory.
Emmert was released Jan. 19, and, on a Sunday night in February, had an emotional homecoming at the First Assembly of God church in Iowa, where he preached about his journey to a packed congregation that included some former biker friends. He had served 14 years, four months. The lobbying campaign had taken more than four years, including 300 hours of attorney time. More than 100 people were involved, including 70 from Washington, Iowa, who wrote letters. Throughout the process, Emmert, who had received copies of the letters that were being sent on his behalf, knew that unusual influence was being brought to bear. "Karen was just tenacious," he said. "I thought, 'Boy, if this doesn't happen, this is going to crush her.' "
But he also recognized the odds were against him, and he tried not to get his hopes up.
Orehowsky's mother, whose August 2002 phone call launched the drive to free Emmert, was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and died five weeks later. She did not live to see her pen pal released.
Today, Emmert works the night shift as a housekeeper at the Veterans Administration hospital in Iowa City. He is hoping to get day hours so he can preach and counsel drug users. The local sheriff has a standing offer for him to speak with youth groups.
He is rebuilding a small house that Dixie's father bought her after she became paralyzed. She works part time as a clerk at a farm implements store. His daughter, now 22, has her own apartment in Iowa City.
In July, Emmert was eating dinner, watching a TV news report about Libby's sentence being commuted, when he saw his name flash across the screen. "I stopped with my mouth full," he said. "There was Scooter Libby, me and two other people."
The report noted that Emmert was part of an exclusive club: four people granted clemency by Bush.
"I know why I am on that list. It is because of the prayers of many, many people," he said. "But there are a lot more deserving people, if you take the time to look."
Orehowsky said she has no idea what compelled the president to act; the White House declined to provide an explanation. "It will always be an amazing mystery to me why it had the outcome it did," she said.
"I am not one who believes a drug dealer should go free. A decade in federal prison is just what Phillip Emmert needed."
But, she added, "he is really an example of how mercy and second chances are so important."
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