Minnesota Law

Winter 2024

An Early Passion for Justice Led Emanual Williams ’23 to Minnesota Law and the Clemency Project Clinic

Last fall, Williams and the Clinic Successfully Advocated to Have a Client’s Sentence Commuted

Emanual Williams ’23. Photo credit: Tony Nelson

Emanual Williams ’23 had just graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School and was studying for the bar when he argued for and won a commutation from the Minnesota Board of Pardons (BOP) for the client he had represented as a student in the Law School’s Clemency Project Clinic. The client, Hansakda Souvannarath, had been the driver in a drive-by shooting when he was just 19 years old. In 1995, he was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, followed by an additional sentence of 17 consecutive years.

This past summer, the BOP agreed to commute Souvannarath’s sentences from consecutive to concurrent, based on Williams’ oral advocacy and the application submitted by the Clemency Project Clinic that Williams drafted with fellow students Emily Doyle ’22 and Stephanie Huisman ’22. As a result, Souvannarath is eligible for release in April 2024 once he concludes 30 years of his original life sentence.

“Hans has made truly extraordinary strides in prison,” says Williams. “His accomplishments in education and community service are amazing, as is the number of lives he has touched. Hans is one in a million and if there is ever a person who is ready to return to society, it is him.”

Professor JaneAnne Murray, associate professor of clinical law and founder and director of the Clemency Project Clinic, says Souvannarath’s age and role as driver made for a compelling clemency case from the start. “But when we began to dig in and hear his story and the story of his family, we also realized that this was the story of many Asian immigrants whose experiences had a significant impact on the next generation,” says Murray. “Hans’ earliest memories are of being in refugee camps, with his Laotian father relegated from hero to lower caste after the Vietnam War.”

Emanual Williams ‘23 & Professor JaneAnne Murray
Photo Credit: Tony Nelson

 In the application for commutation, the students’ petition argued that Souvannarath’s childhood was framed by violence and war and that he and his family had experienced racism and harassment as refugees in the U.S. As Souvannarath juggled school, work, and home responsibilities, including caring for his younger siblings, he sought comfort in a group of friends who were also Southeast Asian immigrants fighting for a place to belong, but also young people headed down a dangerous path of violence. 

Williams began working on Souvannarath’s case as a 2L and bonded with his client over similarities in their backgrounds. “I did not spend more than a year in one state,” says Williams of his childhood. “My family moved a lot, and I went from a high school in Baltimore that was entirely African American to one in Texas where only six of us were Black. I know how it feels to be an outsider. 

Williams persevered, discovering early that he wanted to be an attorney. “My high school was not so welcoming to a city-slicker Black kid, but there were things that I needed to take a stand for,” he says. “My mom realized I was going to be an attorney when I went to the principal to ask why we celebrated Presidents Day and not the Martin Luther King holiday. There wasn’t a month when I wasn’t in the principal’s office defending myself or my classmates.”

Williams moved north to attend Carleton College and then the University of Minnesota Law School, where he met Murray and joined the Clemency Project Clinic. “Professor Murray has been an amazing mentor,” he says. “I can’t thank her enough for the opportunities and the solid advice she gave me on rides up to Moose Lake to see Hans.” Williams also went with a group Murray took to Norway to study the Norwegian penal system, long regarded as a leading example of a humane system. 

For Williams, the experience of the Clemency Project Clinic was critically important. “Law school is often very Socratic and theoretical, but that doesn’t necessarily teach you to have empathy and to be most effective for your client,” he says. “Minnesota Law clinics teach you those skills. You have real clients. You can read case law all you want, but it’s quite another thing sitting across the table from a real person.”

Williams also notes that the same day the Board of Pardons commuted Souvannarath’s sentence, he was notified that an application he submitted for another client had been rejected. “I went from consoling a grandparent in that case to being told I was the greatest by Hans,” he says. “It was a humbling moment.”

Today, Williams is using the skills he learned at Minnesota Law in his position as a criminal defense attorney for the Legal Rights Center. “The relationships I built with classmates and professors helped me find who I was,” he says. “They helped me find that I was not just a lawyer, but a lawyer named Emanual.”

Emanual Williams ‘23 (he/him) is a Saeks Residency Fellow from the University of Minnesota Law School and works on the Legal Rights Center (LRC) Community Defense Team. Emanual is originally from Lovelady, Texas, where his deep passion for criminal justice reform began. He believes that every voice can and should be heard.  He has experience with clemency, parole, and expungement work through various organizations.  Before re-joining the LRC, he spent time at the Attorney General’s Office.  He became involved with the Legal Rights Center because of his unrelenting commitment to racial equity and community-led political change.