On September 4, 2020, after serving five years in prison for a cannabis-related infraction, Philong Chuong returned home to his family as a result of a compassionate release secured by LPP and global law firm Goodwin. A Goodwin pro bono team led by Cannabis and White Collar Defense + Government Investigations partner Jennifer Fisher began partnering with LPP in the fight to free Chuong in July 2020, as COVID-19 ravaged his prison facility and put his life at significant risk.
Chuong, a 57-year-old father of two, came to the U.S. as a refugee during the Vietnam War, then worked tirelessly to create a life for himself and his family in Oakland, California, including building a local construction business. He became a pillar of his community, known for his selflessness, compassion, and determination.
In 2015, he was sentenced to 87 months in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and money laundering. He received a substantially longer sentence than those given to his co-defendants, despite Chuong neither being the mastermind nor the instigator of the charged conspiracy and having no history of criminal activity or violence.
This year, while Chuong served his sentence at USP Atwater, COVID-19 spread through the facility and put his life in danger. Chuong's attorneys filed a motion for his immediate release in the Western District of Pennsylvania, citing this immediate and grave risk to his life. During Chuong’s incarceration, he developed a litany of medical conditions that compromised his immune system and placed him at a heightened risk for complications if he contracted the coronavirus, and the facility staff were not taking adequate measures to protect him, his attorneys argued.
The team submitted evidence demonstrating Chuong’s record of good behavior and character before and during his incarceration, presenting numerous letters of support from his community. One such letter from the Minister of the Lakeside Temple of Practical Christianity in Oakland lauded Chuong for his generosity and hard work in making repairs at the Temple before he was incarcerated, and informed the court that they would welcome him back and help him after his release.
The motion filed to secure compassionate release argued that Chuong not only received a disproportionately long sentence — of which he had already served the majority — but was also convicted of an offense involving the distribution and sale of cannabis, which has since been legalized in 33 states, including Pennsylvania, where he was sentenced, and California, where he lived.
After evaluating the filing and all of the supporting evidence, the court granted the motion for Chuong’s release, allowing him to return to Oakland and reunite with his family. The court found that the increased risk of severe complications if Mr. Chuong contracted COVID-19 due to his medical conditions, the time he had already served in prison, his lack of criminal history, and his post-offense rehabilitation efforts, among other factors, warranted his release.
The legal team led by Fisher included Hayes Hyde, Parker Reed, Luiza Coelho, David Rapp-Kirshner, Linh Ho, Katelyn Cidlevich, Kimberly Martin, and Jose Valdes.
- Sarah Gersten
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