A Texas federal judge granted a motion for compassionate release of a man who was in year 20 of a 27-year drug trafficking sentence thanks to the help of UCI Irvine School of Law’s criminal justice clinic.
Led by the clinic’s director and criminal defense attorney Katharine Tinto, 53-year old Spencer Riley — who pleaded guilty in 2003 to distributing more than 50 grams of crack cocaine — was released last month. Tinto and two of her students helped convince U.S. District Judge Alan D. Albright in the Western District of Texas that his severe heart disease and good behavior were enough to warrant early release.
Riley was released on a five-year probation and has a nonischemic cardiomyopathy diagnosis, Tinto said in an email on Friday.
In 2020, Riley was placed on house arrest. However, his granddaughter accidentally damaged his ankle monitor and he was reimprisoned even though the prison acknowledged he was not at fault, Tinto said.
“Given Mr. Riley’s severe heart disease and the unfairness in which he was imprisoned, the students were committed to getting him released…,” she said.
The judge stated in his order that Riley’s health was an “extraordinary and compelling circumstance” in justifying the release, and that his behavior while incarcerated was “nothing short of exemplary.” U.S. v. Riley, 6:03-cr-00038 (W.D. Tex., filed Feb. 11, 2003).
According to Tinto, this was the law clinic’s 19th successful case since it started compassionate release work for elderly prisoners serving lengthy and life sentences in 2017. Grounds for release have included rehabilitation, age and deteriorating health, and whether the prisoner is serving a sentence longer than they would receive today for the same crime.
The school said it has filed these motions in federal courts in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida.