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JaneAnne Murray
JaneAnne Murray and her students have helped win early release for 32 low-level, nonviolent inmates serving disproportionately long sentences. (Photo: Tim Rummelhoff)

Breaking the Ice: Professor, students devote energy to Clemency Project

Name: JaneAnne Murray

Title: Professor of practice, University of Minnesota Law School

Education: B.C.L., University College Cork; LL.M., University of Cambridge

Since 2014, University of Minnesota Law School professor JaneAnne Murray and her students, through the school’s Clemency Project, have helped win early release for 32 low-level, nonviolent inmates serving disproportionately long sentences.

Murray, who founded the project at the university, served on the steering committee of Clemency Project 2014, a collaboration of defense organizations that recruited and trained lawyers to submit clemency applications under an initiative by then President Barack Obama. Murray focuses now on the clemency or compassionate release cases of people incarcerated in Minnesota’s federal and state prisons, so students (at least before the pandemic) could meet their clients.

“The work became a mission for me as I hadn’t seen federal sentences of this length for such minor players. Judges in New York and Minnesota rarely meted out such sentences,” Murray said, referring to the states where she has practiced since emigrating from her native Ireland.

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Ask me anything about vacations. That famous quote about travel being about the journey not the destination – for me, it’s about the pre-journey. I was born to be a travel agent.

Q: Why did you go to law school?

A: The Irish system is designed to track people into careers right out of high school. What attracted me to the law at 17 was its power to give a voice to the most vulnerable. Also, I was star struck by Veronica Hamel’s character in “Hill Street Blues.”

Q: What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A: The correct answer to your question is nothing, since I have descended into pure listening. That said, on my phone, I’m listening to “Head, Hand, Heart” by David Goodhart, a powerful critique of our unbalanced worship of the knowledge worker. And for light relief, I have Tina Brown’s wonderfully witty and gossipy “Vanity Fair Diaries,” which reminds me of my 20s in Manhattan.

Q: What’s your pet peeve?

A: Not putting two spaces after a period.

Q: What’s the best part of your work?

A: Clemency advocacy connects me and my students with incarcerated individuals serving very long sentences in spirit-breaking conditions, often very far from family. Yet, time and again, we encounter people who have found meaning and purpose in prison, and despite legal loss after legal loss, still keep hope alive. It’s humbling and inspiring.

Q: What do you least like about it? 

A: We can only take a fraction of the many deserving cases we learn about.

Q: What’s a favorite activity away from work?

A: I love cooking and entertaining. I also love to hike/walk with good conversation or listening to a book or podcast.

Q: If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do there?

A: The Cork Gaol (a perfectly preserved prison from the 1800s) is a fascinating visit. No, seriously.

Q: Is there an attorney or judge whom you most admire? Why?

A: Justice Sotomayor, hands down, for her searing (and often sadly dissenting) opinions in criminal cases — most recently in Jones v. Mississippi. She has proved herself to be our wisest justice.

Q: What’s a misconception that others have about your work as an attorney?

A: I tell my students, a legal career is a marathon, into which we pack thousands of apprenticeship hours. As a mentor of mine would say, “They don’t call it the practice of law for nothing.” I think that when people read about any lawyer’s successes, there is simply no conception of how much mentoring and work it took to get there.

Q: What’s a favorite novel, movie or TV show about lawyers or the legal profession?

A: “The Heather Blazing” by Colm Toibin is a beautifully spare book about an Irish appellate judge mulling over a polarizing decision, while also reflecting on his life, relationships, Irish history and the wild Irish landscape.

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