Newly Minted Attorney Connor Shaull ’20 Argues Clemency Project Case before 8th Circuit
As a 3L, Shaull took on the representation of Alicia Mofle, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence for a low-level, non-violent drug offense
Connor Shaull ‘20 began a new job at the Stinson law firm in Minneapolis on Jan. 11. Two days later, he was arguing a complex point of criminal procedure before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.
Working through the Law School’s Clemency Project, Shaull argued via Zoom on behalf of Alicia Mofle, who in 2013 was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for her low-level, non-violent role in a conspiracy to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine. The issue in the appeal was whether she gets a second bite at the apple for relief under a sentencing guideline that was made retroactive, where the first bite was denied inaccurately. Success would mean a sentencing reduction for Mofle of two-and-a-half years, bringing the date of her release from Bureau of Prisons custody that much closer.
The Law School’s Clemency Project was started seven years ago in response to President Barack Obama’s clemency initiative for non-violent and low-level federal inmates. Since its launch, it has morphed into a much larger initiative: seeking clemency for state prisoners in New York (under a program announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo) as well as in Minnesota; seeking compassionate release for federal prisoners on grounds of COVID-19 vulnerability; spearheading a lawsuit ultimately filed by the ACLU challenging the COVID-19 measures adopted by the federal women’s prison in Waseca; and identifying and developing other novel “second look” opportunities for those serving disproportionately long prison sentences. In all, more than 50 students have worked on real-life cases under the tutelage of Professor JaneAnne Murray, founder and director of the project.
Shaull, who was just sworn into the Minnesota bar last fall, got the Mofle assignment as a student in the practicum Murray teaches as part of the Law School’s Clemency Project.
“I usually offer a range of cases for students in the practicum to work on,” says Murray. “A clemency application, a compassionate release motion, or, as in Mofle’s case, some other form of litigation that permits a ‘second look’ at their sentence. The students fit themselves into the categories that work for them. Connor expressed interest in Mofle’s appeal, and my attitude was, ‘If you want to do this, run with it.’”
Professor Randall Ryder, the Law School’s Director of Appellate Advocacy, helped prepare Shaull for the 8th Circuit argument. Ryder had little doubt that the recent grad could handle it.
“I always wondered if he ever slept,” says Ryder of Shaull, who was also helping tend to his young children while he attended law school. “Connor was constantly taking on two or three leadership positions within the law school–orientation leader, legal writing instructor–that by themselves were a large workload.”
Putting in the Prep Work
The Clemency Project initially took on Mofle’s case in 2019 with a view to filing a clemency application for her before President Trump. But Matthew Mirabella ’19 and Katie Scott ’20 soon unearthed the error relating to Mofle’s right to a sentencing reduction under the retroactive guideline. The clemency plan was set aside in favor of litigation. Mirabella and Scott drafted the renewed motion before the U.S. District Court (Northern District of Iowa), as well as the reply brief.
Chief Judge Leonard T. Strand denied the motion, holding that this successive motion for sentencing relief should have been made within 14 days after the denial of the first motion — which Mofle had filed without counsel several years earlier. Murray filed a notice of appeal to the 8th Circuit. Shaull drafted the appellate briefs.
Prior to the 8th Circuit hearing, Murray set up a moot court for Shaull consisting of professor Ryder, Professor Paul Vaaler, assistant Minnesota federal defender Robert Myers, and Grand Forks, N.D., lawyer Steven Morrison, a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"I had to remind myself early on in the process that the case was not hypothetical, as are so many situations in law school," Shaull recalls.
Making the Argument
The thrust of Shaull’s argument was that the statute granting Mofle retroactive relief was a remedial statute that should not be subject to the 14-day time-limit on successive applications. He argued that Mofle was a poster child for a sentencing reduction, given that her crime was a low-level, nonviolent offense driven by her own addiction and relationships; she has already served a lengthy period in custody; and her prison record has been exemplary.
According to Murray, Shaull’s preparation and ability to think on his feet was more than evident during his argument.
The argument, for which Stinson served as co-counsel, relied heavily on an 11th Circuit opinion, involving a party named Anderson. At oral argument, Shaull was asked about another Anderson case that had been written by 8th Circuit Judge David Stras, briefly creating some confusion.
“We didn’t cite that one in our brief,” Murray explains. “This is probably your worst nightmare in an appellate argument: One of the judges on the panel refers to a case he authored that you did not include in your brief, and wants you to comment on the application of that case to your issue.
“Most of the time the advocate would just say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that case.’ But Connor was fully familiar with the Anderson case Judge Stras mentioned and was able to explain precisely why it wasn’t applicable to our set of facts. It was a sign of how meticulously Connor researched his arguments.”
“It wasn’t really that intimidating,” Shaull says of arguing his first federal appellate case. “The work of professor Murray and the others had me feeling very prepared.”
Wait and See
Now, all parties involved play the waiting game.
“The court didn’t give any obvious indication of how it views the issue, and the panel [of three judges] is still in the process of making a decision,” Shaull observes.
Meanwhile, the new attorney is ready and eager to get up and running at Stinson.
“I’m a litigation associate,” he says. “Employment law is my top choice, but I’m open to anything.”
That ambition and eye on versatility come as no surprise to Ryder. “If someone asked me to name a new graduate who could handle this, Connor would be near the top of the list.”
For his part, Shaull says is grateful for the experience. “Like most Minnesota Law students, I was really eager to put my legal skills to practice. The Clemency practicum was the perfect blend of legal writing and oral advocacy. I was thrilled to represent a real client while still in law school, and I was so fortunate to get to work with Professor Murray.”
Dan Heilman is a St. Paul-based freelance writer. This story was published in January 2021 as a special online-only extra.