Governor Brown Grants Criminal Justice Reform Clinic’s Clemency Petition
February 09, 2018
Governor Kate Brown granted a clemency petition on February 8 for Dondrae “Choo” Fair, 44, prepared by Lewis & Clark Law School’s Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC). Law professor Aliza Kaplan and law students Maya Rinta, ’19, and Sarah Rissberger, ’18, wrote the petition last summer.
Choo sought a pardon of a 1992 Robbery I conviction. Kaplan, Rinta, and Rissberger wrote his petition to ensure Choo could continue his work as the Lead Mentor for Volunteers of America’s Gang Impacted Team.
“Without a pardon of his 1992 Robbery I conviction, Choo will be limited in his capacity to work with gang-impacted youth—the very population that Choo is best-equipped to serve and who trusts Choo’s guidance the most,” Rinta and Rissberger wrote in their letter to Governor Brown.
CJRC works on 3-5 clemency petitions per semester, and its clemency work mostly focuses on women and youth. “Our governor has granted a few pardons and one commutation so far, but we are hoping this is only the beginning,” Kaplan said.
“More and more, governors from both parties are invoking their power when a person has been unjustly treated by the criminal system, when they have made transforming changes while in prison, when there are extenuating individual circumstances, when laws or policies have changed or should be changed.”
“This case is unlike most of our other cases because Choo already served his time but this pardon will change his life,” Kaplan said. “Dondrae’s case is special for a lot of reasons and we are excited about his pardon.”
Rissberger volunteered at the clinic in addition to working a full-time summer externship at Clackamas County Counsel’s office. “Choo, to me, really proves the importance of criminal justice reform. His history and story in regards to his criminal record walks the fine line of taking personal responsibility for his actions while still acknowledging the damaging effect of social and political circumstances such as the crack epidemic and gang activity.”
Her work on Choo’s petition is what she’s “most proud of” during her time at Lewis & Clark Law School, and she emphasizes the importance of hands-on clinical experience. “Knowing the law and applying it is irrelevant if you can’t work with clients and coworkers in a real-world setting. It is an entirely different skill set you can’t get in a classroom.”
Rinta, a current Clinic student, also worked a full-time summer position and volunteered her time to the Clinic last summer. She said that experiences like Fair’s petition “help remind me why I came to law school in the first place: to advocate for people, to benefit the public interest, and to support movements for social change.”
“It astounds me to think of the many people who have been and who still are impacted by the criminal system—even after they do everything ‘right’ and achieve the oft-cited goal of rehabilitation,” Rinta said. “I hope Choo’s case inspires the Oregon legal community—and society in general—to interrogate ourselves when we think about what justice means, how it functions, and what justice can look like.”
Students can get involved in the Clinic through an application process which will be posted in late March. The CJRC is open to second and third-year law students. “Clinic students and volunteers that work on clemency cases have an incredible experience truly getting to know a client over a semester and learning all about their lives, before, during and after the crime,” Kaplan said.