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Judge takes early step in clemency program

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge is giving an early push to the Obama administration's new program to encourage nonviolent federal prisoners to apply for early release.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman encouraged the court-appointed lawyers for defendant Byron Lamont McDade to pursue clemency for McDade — a prisoner the judge sentenced to 27 years in prison over a decade ago.

A week ago, the Justice Department unveiled a new clemency push directed at low-level felons imprisoned for at least 10 years who have clean records while in custody.

The effort is part of an administration effort to scale back the use of harsh penalties in some drug prosecutions and to address sentencing disparities arising from the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic that yielded disproportionately tough punishment for black drug offenders. It's also aimed at saving money and relieving prison crowding.

McDade's story, detailed in an opinion by Friedman, provides an indication of how significant the clemency program might become. Officials say they don't know how many of the tens of thousands of drug-related convicts would be eligible for early release,

In 2002, a jury found McDade guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession with the intent to distribute.

Under federal law at the time, Friedman was required to sentence McDade to a lengthy prison term of 324 months in prison, a sentence which the judge described then as "much more than sufficiently punitive." At that time, McDade was a 34-year old married man with two young children, one of whom is disabled.

In the years since, McDade has said that his lawyers were ineffective. His trial counsel failed to interview and present the testimony of three potential defense witnesses, McDade said.

Last July McDade, representing himself, filed a new motion to set aside his sentence on grounds of newly discovered evidence and of prosecutorial misconduct. Friedman appointed two lawyers to represent the prisoner.

On Tuesday, Friedman said he is confident that McDade's court-appointed lawyers will receive cooperation from the federal public defender in Washington, D.C., and from the organizations that have joined to form Clemency Project 2014, which was established to answer Deputy Attorney General James Cole's appeal to defense lawyers for help.

Friedman granted the government's motion to transfer McDade's case to the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., where McDade must first obtain authorization before the matter can be taken up in Friedman's courtroom.

"The sentence this court was required to impose on Mr. McDade was unjust at the time and is 'out of line' with and disproportionate to those that would be imposed under similar facts today," Friedman said. "While the court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not. The court urges Mr. McDade's appointed counsel to pursue executive clemency on Mr. McDade's behalf so that justice may be done in this case."

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