I know that it’s a long shot.
I know that thousands of prisoners are seeking commutations in their sentences from the departing president, and I know there isn’t as much political will to free Jorge Cornell as some of the other contenders.
But with the announcement that more than 270 people were pardoned or had their sentences commuted by President Barack Obama yesterday, including Chelsea Manning and Oscar Lopez Rivera, I’m reminded again of the audacity of hoping and that in our current political climate, nothing should surprise us.
Jorge Cornell is a well-known figure in Greensboro, my chosen home. If you didn’t know him from one of his two runs for city council, maybe you’ve read about him in our pages. It’s been more than five years since Jorge was arrested and about four since a jury handed down a confused and conflicting verdict.
Jorge’s case is unique, and I’m not going to go into it right now — though you can read plenty about it — but here is what you need to know: Earlier this year, a group of community leaders petitioned the US Justice Department on Jorge’s behalf, seeking a commutation in his sentence that still has more than 20 years left. Jorge doesn’t belong in prison, and each day that he sits in a federal pen in Virginia is a day that his daughters are robbed of his presence, another day he can only minimally help provide for their future.
But there’s hope. I talked to Jorge this morning, and apparently the president has turned down batches of commutation requests the last two Fridays in a row. Jorge’s is still in the running, but obviously time is running out.
The letter sent earlier this year was signed by US Congresswoman Alma Adams, NC Sen. Gladys Robinson, two former Greensboro mayors, the president of the state NAACP — Rev. William Barber III who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention — a retired civil rights lawyer and several clergy members, among others. Several other people, including myself, joined with letters of our own.
You can read the full request for commutation here. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote:
If ever I’ve met someone who is truly committed to improving their community, to bettering those around them and to using their position to try and lift others up, it is Jorge Cornell. This is a man who successfully brought together the Bloods and the Crips for a gang peace treaty in Greensboro, and who encouraged similar nonviolence pacts elsewhere in the state of North Carolina to prevent bloodshed. This is a man who, after being shot twice, forgave his assailant(s) and maintained that peace should come before anything else. In his daily life, of which I observed a tremendous amount — on a daily basis during months-long city council campaign — I witnessed that same spirit, that same abiding concern for the greater good.
I don’t mean to imply that Jorge Cornell is somehow more than human or perfect. He is stubborn and can be difficult to work with, and he can be just as argumentative as I can. But I know Jorge to be a caring man and loving father. He’s the kind of person who, when you offer to send him money in prison, will ask you to use it to buy his daughter a softball uniform or to help her go to college instead. He’s quick with a joke and possesses a disarming smile. That, coupled with his ability to listen and unwavering commitment to improving his community, is why so many people here were drawn to him, why hundreds of people voted for him in his two city council races. They saw Jorge for who he really is — a man who cares about them and wants to help give marginalized communities a seat at the table.
In early December, many of us sent follow-up letters to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who is from Greensboro.
Here’s what I’m asking you to do: Join us in calling/emailing for Jorge Cornell’s release. Public pressure could very well be what carries this across the finish line.
Call US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to voice your support for commuting Jorge’s sentence to time served: 202-353-1555
Call the White House line and ask that President Obama commute Jorge’s sentence to time served: 202-456-1414 [Update: the comment line is closed — you can email using the form linked below.]
Here’s some sample text, based off the letter that we wrote last month:
I’m calling to urge you to act quickly on a Request for Commutation of Sentence from Mr. Jorge Cornell. He is a respected community leader and a loving father who will spend his time helping others if he is freed.
You can call whether you know Jorge personally or not. We submitted the request to Acting Pardon Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer at the U.S. Department of Justice in August (it was received by the US Justice Department via certified mail on Aug. 15, 2016).
As a friend of Jorge and his family, I extend my sincere and deep gratitude for your support. Making these two phone calls may seem small and may not take long, but it means everything to those of us who have been waiting on and working for his freedom.