May 28, 2024

Clinic Students Featured in Restorative Justice Podcast

“Cellblocks to Mountaintops,” a restorative justice podcast, investigates the story of Sterling Cunio, one of the “Oregon Five”– juveniles convicted of aggravated murder without an opportunity for parole. Cunio was a client of the law school’s Criminal Justice Reform Clinic, and clinic students worked on the cases that are featured in the podcast.

The recently published “Cellblocks to Mountaintops” restorative justice podcast highlighted the work of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC) in the podcast and in its accompanying videos. The Clinic represented Sterling Cunio, an incarcerated individual in his parole case and in a clemency petition.

In 1994, Sterling was convicted of two counts of aggravated murder at the age of 16. He received two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. The podcast details not only Sterling’s life story and the events that led to his incarceration, but also explores the cyclical nature of violence, examines the failures of the criminal legal system to rehabilitate the incarcerated, and projects an image of hope and transformation for the future against all odds. It also features CJRC’s work in advocating for Sterling’s release.

At the time of Sterling’s conviction, Oregon law did not have any release mechanisms for juveniles convicted of aggravated murder in adult court. This gap in the law allowed for juveniles to be punished as severely or more severely than adults. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for juveniles to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. For over 25 years, attorneys representing incarcerated juveniles like Sterling have advocated for the implementation of a release mechanism for these individuals.

“Someone like Sterling – if he was convicted today, for example – he would have an opportunity after 15 years to prove rehabilitation,” said Professor Aliza Kaplan, Director of the CJRC.

The CJRC worked with attorney Ryan O’Connor in representing Sterling for a critical prison term hearing, which would determine the amount of time Sterling had to serve until he was eligible for parole. Students, under the supervision of Professor Kaplan, prepared the memorandum to go to the Parole Board in addition to conducting the hearing with Sterling before the Board. Student work helped demonstrate to the Board that Sterling was fully rehabilitated. While the Board shortened Sterling’s sentence somewhat, its ruling still left Sterling in prison until his old age. In fact, the Board chose not to consider his rehabilitation in its decision.

Following the Board’s ruling, in 2021, the CJRC submitted a clemency petition to Governor Kate Brown ’85 asking her to commute Sterling’s sentence, and release him from prison based on his rehabilitation and unjust sentence . Sterling was commuted in November 2021. After release, he worked the CJRC part-time to work on juvenile clemency cases. Today, he is an award-winning author and public speaker, working to fight climate change and volunteering with the Transformative Justice Initiative.

“I would like to see a future where personal transformation is viewed as a form of justice, and we reduce inequity through care,” said Sterling. “Love is what helped me connect and heal, and education is what expanded my realm of thinking.”

To listen to the “Cellblocks to Mountaintops” podcast and view videos featuring CJRC work in action, visit the podcast’s website here.