How an SMU law student and President Obama saved a Fort Worth inmate from life in prison

How SMU law alumna Brittany Barnett-Byrd and President Obama saved a Fort Worth inmate from life in prison.

Brittany Barnett-Byrd

By Sarah Mervosh

Brittany Barnett-Byrd
Brittany Barnett-Byrd

Sharanda Jones expected to die in prison.

She had been caught as the middle woman in a  cocaine operation in Texas. And although she was a first-time, nonviolent offender, she had been sentenced to life in prison. No possibility of parole. 

"It was like a death sentence," she said.

A Southern Methodist University law student who came across her case while researching a paper thought the sentence seemed Draconian. So did President Barack Obama. He commuted Jones' sentence, as he strives to make clemency efforts a key part of his legacy. 

Jones is now four months free and living in Dallas, on her own for the first time in 17 years. Her daily routine, she says, consists of work, church and family. She relishes the sound of silence, something she rarely got in prison. 

"She's such a spirit of light," said her attorney, Brittany Barnett-Byrd, the former SMU student who has worked on Jones' case for seven years. 

"Words can't even begin to touch how joyous it is for me to see her have another chance at life." 

Barnett-Byrd said she first came across Jones' case in 2009, while doing research for a law school paper about how sentencing disparities impact people of color.

She couldn't believe that Jones got life in prison for a first-time drug offense.

So she sent Jones her card. "And the rest," she said, "was history."

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