UCI Law Professor Katie Tinto and Criminal Justice Clinic Secure Client’s Release from Prison


Don Cunningham

Since starting this work in 2019, this is the 16th successful case for the Criminal Justice Clinic’s Compassionate Release and Excessive Sentences Project

IRVINE, Calif. (April 6, 2023) — UCI Law Professor Katie Tinto and the Criminal Justice Clinic (CJC) at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, secured the release of one of its clients, Don Cunningham, who had been serving a sentence of 277 years to life, and was incarcerated in California state prison for 26 years. Last July, CJC filed a request for the San Diego District Attorney’s Office to consider resentencing Cunningham pursuant to Penal Code § 1172.1, a statute which authorizes prosecutors to resentence individuals who were punished under the extreme sentencing practices of the past. After a full review of CJC’s submission and Cunningham’s case, the District Attorney’s Office agreed and filed a request with the San Diego Superior Court that Cunningham be resentenced to 29 years and 4 months — a sentence which qualified him for immediate release. The court granted the order on March 22, 2023.

In 1997, at the age of 26, Cunningham and another young man committed an armed robbery of a store in which they robbed customers and stole $150. As they fled the scene, his codefendant fired his gun at a police officer. No one was injured or killed, and Cunningham never fired his weapon. Despite this, Cunningham was sentenced to 277 years to life, an effective life without the possibility of parole sentence.

Despite facing this impossible sentence, over his more than two decades in prison, Cunningham demonstrated exceptional rehabilitation and today serves as a mentor to both incarcerated individuals and those in the outside community and is poised to become a Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor.

“Don Cunningham’s effective life without parole sentence was an outrageous sentence, imposed in an era of harsh sentencing and grounded in the horrible notion that people should never be given the opportunity to change,” said Katie Tinto, clinical professor of law and director of the UCI Law Criminal Justice Clinic. “Fortunately, Mr. Cunningham never gave up hope and found the strength in himself to transform, to grow, and to give back to others.”

UCI Law alums Alexis Weitzner (’21) and Maria Luiza Coelho dos Santos (’22) worked on the matter, and current CJC third-year student Kenneth Armstrong assisted as well.

UCI Law's CJC fights for the release of prisoners who are elderly and in poor health, or are serving lengthy prison offenses, often due to outdated and unjust sentencing laws. Since beginning this project in 2019, CJC has successfully won the release of 16 individuals, seven of whom were serving life sentences, and seven of whom had each served more than 30 years in prison. CJC files motions on behalf of clients throughout the U.S., including in federal courts in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Florida.

The clinical program at UCI Law is a critical, required part of the curriculum, enabling students to gain valuable experience representing a variety of clients in need and working to address pressing problems. Additionally, students in CJC represent low-income individuals in state criminal court, help non-citizens seek post-conviction relief when facing immigration consequences of past criminal offenses, and much more.

About the University of California, Irvine School of Law

The University of California, Irvine School of Law is a visionary law school that provides an innovative and comprehensive curriculum, prioritizes public service, and demonstrates a commitment to diversity within the legal profession. UCI Law students have completed more than 135,000 hours of pro bono work since 2009. Forty-eight percent of UCI Law’s J.D. graduates are people of color. At UCI Law, we are driven to improve our local, national, and global communities by grappling with important issues as scholars, as practitioners, and as teachers who are preparing the next generation of leaders. The collaborative and interdisciplinary community at UCI Law includes extraordinary students, world-renowned faculty, dedicated staff, engaged alumni, and enthusiastic supporters. More information on UCI Law is available here. Connect with us on Instagram, Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, and sign up for our monthly newsletter for the latest news and events at UCI Law. 

Media Contact:

Colleen Taricani
Assistant Dean for Communications