WASHINGTON ― On Wednesday, President Donald Trump commuted the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old great grandmother who has served nearly 22 years in federal prison for a drug offense. The decision comes nearly a week after Kim Kardashian met with him about Johnson’s case.
Like all of Trump’s pardons and commutations, this one didn’t go through the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the standard Justice Department process. The only reason Johnson’s story came to Kardashian’s attention is thanks to the availability of videoconferencing in Johnson’s prison.
It’s extremely rare to see video interviews with federal prisoners because the Federal Bureau of Prisons typically does not allow video interviews with inmates. But unlike most federal prisons, the facility where Johnson is held ― Aliceville Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama ― allows prisoners access to videoconferencing. Then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced in 2016 the expansion of a pilot program that aimed to provide video services to BOP’s female prisons.
Because of the availability of videoconferencing in Johnson’s prison, Mic was able to record an interview with Johnson. The video humanized Johnson as she told her own story. The video soon went viral and made its way onto Kardashian’s Twitter feed. The reality star says it tugged at her heart and moved her to action.
Brittany Barnett, an attorney who has known Johnson for a decade and co-founded the Buried Alive Project, a sentencing reform group, told HuffPost she believes the Mic video “played a significant role” in elevating Johnson’s voice.
“I think it was very important for people to actually see Ms. Alice tell her own story, and that really brought people proximate to Alice and her plight,” Barnett said.
Speaking with HuffPost shortly after talking with Johnson on Wednesday, Barnett said Johnson felt that she got her life back and had been “resurrected from the dead.”
“We’re so grateful to the president for allowing Alice to go home after 21 years in prison and very grateful to Kim Kardashian for using her platform to advocate on Alice’s behalf,” Barnett said.
“We’re really hoping that Alice’s case has shown a light on the thousands of people buried alive by life sentences and that President Trump will find it in his heart to grant more,” Barnett said.
Johnson had been denied a commutation through the process in place under former President Barack Obama. While the pardon process under Trump isn’t typical, Barnett said that it presented an opportunity in Johnson’s case.
We really hope that more people can get free, whether they have Skype or not. Brittany Barnett
In a statement, the White House noted that Johnson “has accepted responsibility for her past behavior and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades” who had “worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates.” While the administration “will always be very tough on crime,” the White House “believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
Trump, who has controversially tweeted about his ability to pardon himself, has upended the traditional pardon process. He pardoned a long-deceased boxing legend after being lobbied by Sylvester Stallone. He pardoned a Navy sailor who appeared on Fox News. He pardoned right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza and pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Those interested in pardons or commutations have been taking notes on these recent developments. An attorney for Kristian Saucier, the former Navy sailor who pleaded guilty after he snapped photos on a nuclear submarine and buried evidence in the woods after an interview with the FBI, previously told HuffPost that getting his client appearances on Fox News was a key part of their pardon strategy. The fiance of George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, has recently appeared on Fox News to ask Trump to pardon Papadopoulos.
Barnett said any criticism that Kardashian received for meeting with Trump was “gravely misplaced,” while praising the socialite for using her platform and access to lobby for Johnson’s case. “She just so happened to be on Twitter and saw the video,” she said. But instead of moving on, Barnett said, Kardashian took action.
As a result, Johnson is going to be released, Barnett said. Through the Buried Alive Project, Barnett said she wants to tell the story of more prisoners who she believes deserve to live their lives outside of prison walls. “We really hope that more people can get free, whether they have Skype or not.”
Clarification: This article previously referred to Brittany Barnett by a previous name, Byrd, and has been updated throughout.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at email@example.com or on Signal at 202-527-9261.