When retired federal judge and current defense attorney John Gleeson was asked who the White House should consider for clemency, it took “about 5 seconds” for him to recommend Baltimore man Jawad Musa.
Musa was sentence to life in prison in 1991, after being involved in a federal drug sting over one kilogram of heroin. He had two priors, and the sentencing judge lamented that he had no discretion: he told Musa to “hang in there.”
Gleeson, who did not sentence Musa, went into private practice four years ago, and started an initiative seeking to shorten mandatory prison terms. Though Musa had been rebuffed by federal judges, including as recently as late November, relief came early Wednesday when President Donald Trump included him among 143 pardons and commutations issued on his last day in office.
“His case is a window into almost every single wrong with our federal criminal justice system, from trial penalties to how we treat addicts to excessive punishment,” Gleeson told The Sun Wednesday morning. “He’s honest to goodness a microcosm — a clinic in where we went wrong.”
Musa, 56, grew up in Lexington Terrace and plans to return to Baltimore and live with family. His mother, Geraldine Harris of Reservoir Hill, was ecstatic about the news.
“I haven’t seen my son in 30 years. I just wanted to see my son before I leave this world,” she told The Sun. “My prayer was answered.”
Trump previously backed the First Step Act, which passed with bipartisan support and has led to the release of thousands of people. Under the First Step Act, Musa would not have received the same sentence today.
“During his time in prison, Mr. Musa has strengthened his faith and taken dozens of educational courses,” the White House said. “Mr. Musa is blessed with a strong supportive network in Baltimore, Maryland and has numerous offers of employment.”
Musa was arrested in 1990 after being involved in a reverse sting, in which a confidential informant offered to sell drugs to someone Musa knew. Musa provided $20,000 cash for the transaction, which was to take place in Manhattan; instead of being provided heroin, DEA agents moved in.
Musa received a mandatory life sentence because he had two prior convictions.
“The judge’s discretion has been taken away from him,” the sentencing judge said at the time.
Kenneth Wainstein, who prosecuted the case and later rose to assistant attorney general for national security, wrote to the acting pardon attorney in 2016 that “justice has been done for Mr. Musa’s drug crime in 1991, and he has more than paid his debt to society.”
“Mercy and fairness now dictate that he be given the opportunity to rejoin society and enjoy the balance of his life as a free man.”
Gleeson, Musa’s current attorney and a federal judge in Brooklyn from 1994 to 2016, took up Musa’s case in 2017 as part of his pro bono Holloway Project, named after a defendant he sentenced to 57 years and later moved to release, saying he viewed the sentence as unfair.
Current federal prosecutors assigned to the case opposed the request, however. Among other things, they said Musa had forged a letter from the warden at his prison supporting his release.
On Nov. 23, 2020, New York U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Sullivan, a Trump appointee, denied his request for release. Sullivan noted Musa’s good behavior since 2012, when Musa said he overcame a drug problem, and said he could revisit the request for release at a later time.
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“The Court is sympathetic to Musa’s application and the obvious disparity between his sentence and those of defendants charged with the same crimes based on similar conduct after 2018,” Sullivan ruled. “But other than pointing to the general unfairness of Congress’s decision to not make the First Step Act retroactive, Musa has not given the Court sufficient reason to grant his request for compassionate release.”
Gleeson said he was asked by Josh Dubin, an attorney he described as an intermediary to the White House, for names of people deserving clemency. He said Wednesday’s decision did “not come as a surprise.”
Gleeson said he was delighted for Musa but “ashamed to be part of a system that would do this to someone like Jawad.”
“We’re happy for Jawad but it’s impossible in my view to lose sight of the fact that it should never have happened,” he said. “He shouldn’t have had to wait 30 years for a little bit of justice.”
Records show Musa was being held at a high-security prison in Florence, Colorado. His mother said she stayed up all night waiting to find out about the clemency petitions.