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From behind bars to Bar exam

Published May 6, 2006

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - A nostalgic smile crosses Serena Nunn's face when she remembers the young man she fell in love with at age 19. But there was no happily-ever-after in that teen romance: Nunn's boyfriend was a drug dealer, and she got a 15½-year prison sentence for assisting in a drug conspiracy.

After a decade behind bars, Nunn walked out ahead of schedule with a commutation from former President Bill Clinton in July 2000 and quickly made up for lost time. Today, she will fulfill a dream she has had since high school when she gets her law degree from the University of Michigan.

About 20 relatives, friends and supporters will be there to cheer Nunn on, "but, you know, realistically it wouldn't matter if I was by myself," the 36-year-old Minneapolis native said this week with a laugh. "I'm walking across that stage and getting my degree."

Nunn's severe sentence was mandated by law, and the judge could not take into account her lack of a criminal record and the minor role she played in the conspiracy.

Today, Nunn remains active with the organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She hopes continued publicity of her case will lead to further changes in the sentencing system, which already has been somewhat softened since she was sent to prison.

Nunn's odyssey began in 1988 when financial difficulties forced her to return home after her first semester at Morris Brown College, a historically black college in Atlanta. She was introduced to Ralph Lamont "Monte" Nunn. (The two coincidentally share the same last name.) Monte Nunn was a drug dealer, and his father was the leader of Minnesota's biggest cocaine ring.

Nunn says that drugs were so commonplace in the inner city that she didn't think twice about getting involved with a drug dealer.

The drugs themselves were not an attraction, Nunn said. Though she drank and occasionally smoked marijuana, Nunn said she never used cocaine.

But Nunn did become involved in cocaine deals - by answering the phone, taking messages and driving her boyfriend to meetings.

"It just became a part of my life, the same way it was his," she said.

That life came apart on May 17, 1989, when Monte Nunn tried to purchase 20 kilograms of cocaine from a government informer. Serena Nunn was one of 24 people indicted in the case.

A jury convicted Nunn of cocaine possession because small amounts of powder cocaine and crack were found hidden in her bedroom. She was also convicted of aiding and abetting in the deal and conspiracy. In April 1990, U.S. District Judge David Doty sentenced her to 15 years and eight months in prison.

In 1997, Nunn's case attracted the attention of a young lawyer, Sam Sheldon, who read about it in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis while passing through town. He took her case pro bono and set about gathering support for a commutation.

The most powerful support came from Doty. In a letter to Clinton, Doty said "no judge in America" would have given Nunn the sentence he did if there had been a way out.

Clinton commuted Nunn's sentence, along with those of four other drug convicts, on July 7, 2000. Her ex-boyfriend remains in prison with some years to go.

When she applied to law schools, both Clinton and Doty wrote letters of recommendation.

David Santacroce, a law professor who oversees a program in which students handle real cases, said Nunn understands the justice system "like no other law student."

"She's really good at relating to our clients," he said.

[Last modified May 6, 2006, 08:10:22]

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