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Mark Osler
Mark Osler is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN) whose work advocates for sentencing and clemency policies rooted in principles of human dignity. In 2013, he was awarded the Outstanding Teaching award by his school, and in 2015 the same award for his scholarship.

In 2014-2015 Osler's writing on clemency, sentencing, and narcotics policy has appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, and has or will be published in law journals at Harvard, Stanford, Rutgers, Northwestern, Wayne State, DePaul, and the University of Chicago. His University of Chicago Law Review article (with Rachel Barkow) was highlighted in a lead editorial in the New York Times, in which the Times' editorial board expressly embraced Barkow and Osler's argument for clemency reform.

A former federal prosecutor, he played a role in striking down the mandatory 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine in the federal sentencing guidelines by winning the case of Spears v. United States in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Court ruling that judges could categorically reject that ratio. He has testified as an expert before the United States Sentencing Commission and the United States House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Much of his work has been in collaboration with other academics, commentators, and judges, including Tom Ashbrook, Rachel Barkow, Amy Baron-Evans, Judge Mark W. Bennett, Dustin Benham, Douglas Berman, Jeanne Bishop, Graham Boyd, Judge Avern Cohn, Randall O'Brien, Randy Roberts Potts, Nkechi Taifa, and Bill Underwood.

Osler's 2009 book Jesus on Death Row (Abingdon Press) critiqued the American death penalty through the lens of Jesus's trial, and led to an improvised performance of that trial that has been conducted in 11 states, with Osler serving as the prosecutor. He serves as the head of the association of Religiously Affiliated Law Schools, and held the Byrd Preaching Chair at St. Martin's-by-the-Lake Episcopal Church in 2012. He has given sermons in five states and for three different denominations. His current work on clemency and mercy is rooted in ideals of the Christian faith. In 2011, he founded the first law school clinic specializing in federal commutations, and he trained hundreds of pro bono lawyers for Clemency Project 2014.

The character of Professor Joe Fisher in the Samuel Goldwyn film American Violet was based on Osler, and in 2014 he was the subject of profiles in Rolling Stone and The American Prospect. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School.

Mark Osler may be reached at

Entries by Mark Osler

The Day Jimmy Carter Called Me Out

(0) Comments | Posted August 25, 2015 | 11:40 AM

As Jimmy Carter faces cancer, many of the people who were influenced by this gracious, thoughtful man are brought to sadness. I am one of them. President Carter told me what I needed to hear -- that I was not doing enough in service to the world.

In 2008,...

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God, or Not, on the F Train

(0) Comments | Posted July 24, 2015 | 4:22 PM

Recently, I was in New York for a week, working in Manhattan and staying in Brooklyn. With colleagues at NYU, we were setting up a new project to submit clemency petitions for federal prisoners serving overly long sentences for non-violent drug crimes. I traveled back and forth on the F...

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The Case Against Killing Dylann Roof

(4) Comments | Posted June 29, 2015 | 2:30 PM

By many moral standards, Dylann Storm Roof deserves to be executed. He has been described as a terrorist killer filled with racial hate. However, this is one of those many moments where wisdom tells us to decline to use a power that is in our hands. Dylann Roof should be...

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A Church With Open Doors

(2) Comments | Posted May 27, 2015 | 11:02 AM

This is a magical time in Minnesota. Another long winter has faded, and we have shed our thick coats and mittens. The bugs have not yet appeared but it is warm outside, so we throw open every window we can find and let the warmth and fresh air into closed-off...

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A Wormhole of Mercy at Easter

(3) Comments | Posted April 3, 2015 | 11:46 AM

Buried beneath the Holy Week headlines about a religious freedom law in Indiana was a remarkable event: President Obama shortened the sentences of 22 federal prisoners under the pardon power, and wrote them a letter. It was a fitting gesture for a season of hope and renewal.


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Holy Week's Prosecutor

(6) Comments | Posted March 26, 2015 | 3:36 PM

In Holy Week, many churches focus on the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, and the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Lost in this procession is one of the events of Holy Week that is most relevant to our modern age: the trial of Jesus...

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The Weight of a Lenten Cross

(1) Comments | Posted February 26, 2015 | 9:33 PM

I am not a person who wears jewelry. But sometimes I wear a watch, and other times I wear a cross on a chain. It is the size of my thumb, and made of worn silver. It was given to me by Dr. Joanne Braxton, the poet who gave me...

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The Withering of a Church Between Pastors

(33) Comments | Posted January 22, 2015 | 2:52 PM

My Episcopal church is fading before my eyes. Several months ago, (because I usually arrive late for services) I would find myself wedged into the last few seats in the back of the church. Then, a few months ago, I began to find plenty of seats, even for a latecomer....

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Tumult and Advent

(0) Comments | Posted December 14, 2014 | 3:51 PM

A few weeks ago, I was hard at work mid-day on a Friday. I was in an old, warm room in Yale's Harkness Hall. My audience was a group of academics from across the country who have taken on the same task: They are working with students to seek clemency...

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Interview With a Henchman

(0) Comments | Posted December 2, 2014 | 12:44 PM

Rocky LeFebre, a professional henchman who has worked for several leading super-villains, talks with Mark Osler about his fascinating and often troubling career.

You've worked for some fascinating personalities. Which were most memorable? I was with the Joker from 1985 to 1989. Then I worked for Dr. Doom through, oh,...

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The 5 Scariest Teachings of Jesus

(730) Comments | Posted October 30, 2014 | 11:45 AM

Halloween is a celebration of artificial fear. No goblins or witches are really going to cause harm to us. For Christians, the deeper and more genuine fear may come from within our own faith. If taken seriously, after all, it threatens to upend our society. Let's look at just five...

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Vick, Incognito, Rice, Peterson, and the Power of Symbols

(1) Comments | Posted September 17, 2014 | 12:47 PM

If there is one thing the NFL understands, it is symbolism. That is the essence of the business after all: taking events with no inherent meaning and making it stand for something. The NFL's genius is in bringing us iconic characters and actions that would not exist but for the...

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Faith for In-Between Times

(0) Comments | Posted August 27, 2014 | 12:54 PM

In Minnesota, this is an in-between time. Summer is over, the pool is closed, but it isn't quite fall yet. We know what was, and what is coming. There is something awkward about it, a sense of displacement.

We aren't comfortable with such empty, undefined spaces. This kind of...

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... And They'll Know We Are Christians When We Sue

(17) Comments | Posted July 10, 2014 | 9:51 PM

The furor over the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case has revolved like a cyclone around several hot-button issues, including contraception, the separation of church and state, and Obamacare. The least-examined aspect is the most confounding: How is it that suing for your rights is a Christian act?

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Four Spiritual Opportunities of Facebook

(5) Comments | Posted June 19, 2014 | 12:03 PM

Loud voices often tell us that social media is an enemy of community, faith and love. It isolates us, dehumanizes us and too often divides us, the critics claim. They are, in some ways, right. Any form of communication can and does tend to challenge existing ideas about how we...

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And Then He Was Gone (A Story Before Pentecost)

(16) Comments | Posted May 30, 2014 | 9:45 AM

Christianity is at its best when it offers a way to see and understand the most profound human conditions: joy, love, fellowship, reconciliation. This week before Pentecost offers a view of a nearly universal heartache -- the pain of being left.

Jesus had returned from the dead, through the miracle...

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Jesus Loves Me, But I'm Not Sure He Likes Me So Much

(35) Comments | Posted April 30, 2014 | 12:11 PM

Christianity is a hard faith for a relatively affluent law professor. While Jesus may love me, a plain reading of the gospels doesn't convince me that he likes me very much.

He had hard words for the teachers of law in his own time, and it all might apply to...

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Bigotry or Belief? A Test

(22) Comments | Posted March 31, 2014 | 4:22 PM

Conservative Christians often bristle at the charge that they are bigots because of their views about homosexuality and their exclusion of gay men and lesbians from church institutions. They are sometimes right to be upset; such charges are at times unfairly made. An important question that should precede such accusations...

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Narcotic Sentencing's Long Arc and Obama's Year of Action

(0) Comments | Posted February 26, 2014 | 3:05 PM

On January 30, Deputy Attorney General James Cole made a remarkable speech to the New York State Bar Association, and repeated his message last week in a meeting with advocacy groups. The bombshell was this: The Department of Justice is going to recruit and give heightened consideration to...

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Obama's Opening to Mercy

(1) Comments | Posted January 29, 2014 | 1:18 PM

Americans often, and wrongly, assert that the United States Constitution reflects a Christian heritage or the Ten Commandments. Nothing could be further from the truth -- the Constitution (unlike the Declaration of Independence) is a thoroughly secular document, and at times the Bill of Rights countermands the Ten Commandments directly....

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