Two Years of Work by Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic Helps Secure Sentence Modification

members of the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic with Eddie Deleon and Thea Montañez
Dominique James ’24, Eriberto Deleon Jr., Henry Robinson ’24, Professor Miriam Gohara, and Thea Montañez following Deleon’s release.

On April 3, Eriberto Deleon Jr. walked out of Cheshire Correctional Institution (CCI) and into pouring rain. Unfazed by the weather, Deleon, who goes by Eddie, was all smiles. Hours earlier, Judge Courtney Chaplin of the Hartford Superior Court granted his sentence modification request, reducing a 60-year sentence to time served and freeing him after more than 32 years of incarceration. Though the decision came just over a month after the initial February 29 hearing, the outcome is the culmination of decades of dedication from Deleon and his loved ones and more than two years of work by the Peter Gruber Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic (CMIC). 

CMIC was founded by Miriam Gohara, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization. Two student teams represented Deleon under Gohara’s supervision: Andrea Deleon Cruz ’24, Sam Feineh ’24, and Emma Perez ’23 worked on the case in 2022–2023, and Dominique James ’24 and Henry Robinson ’24 were on the 2023–2024 team.

Eddie Deleon Jr.
Eddie Deleon on April 3, 2024, after walking out of Cheshire Correctional Institution following Judge Chaplin’s decision.

In 1991, when he was 19, Deleon and three young men burglarized a home in Glastonbury, Connecticut. One of the other men shot and killed the homeowner, and Deleon was convicted for his involvement in the crime. At the onset of his incarceration, according to the clinic, Deleon struggled to acclimate to his new reality, removed from his community and surrounded by violence. 

Eventually, Deleon found a way to navigate his new life and committed himself to self-improvement. At the time of his release, Deleon had not received a disciplinary ticket in more than 19 years.

“Eddie had a difficult upbringing, but he never used it as an excuse for his actions,” said clinic student Andrea Deleon Cruz ’24. “Instead, he used his circumstances to change his life around and change the lives of others, without any expectation of release.”

While incarcerated, Deleon co-founded the Lifers Group at CCI, which united individuals serving long sentences to help serve the communities they once harmed, finding ways to fundraise and make donations even while incarcerated. He was hand-selected by Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) leaders and the Vera Institute of Justice (led by Nicholas Turner ’96) to be one of the founding mentors in a first-of-its-kind program: the T.R.U.E. Unit. 

In T.R.U.E. (which stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating), older men serving long sentences — known as mentors — live together with younger men serving short sentences, known as mentees. Working alongside counselors employed by the DOC, the mentors facilitate programming for the unit. The mentors provide guidance to the mentees on the skills needed to adjust to society upon reentry, teach them how to break the cycles of violence that brought them to prison in the first place, evaluate their progress, and hold them accountable in their progress. In addition to being an architect of the program, Deleon served on all of the unit’s committees. 

Eddie’s story made clear what is possible when community, commitment, care, and honesty all meet.”
—Dominique James ’24

The T.R.U.E. program now serves as a model for similar pilots that Vera is launching nationwide. The foundations Deleon built in Cheshire have been replicated in other states, and he has continued to be involved with the program. While incarcerated, Deleon held additional jobs outside of his role as a mentor and even restarted a program for visitors to be able to take pictures with their loved ones. 

“Eddie always seemed to have a stack of papers in front of him — mentee evaluations, behavior contracts, and other TRUE paperwork — and was always eager to share updates from the Unit,” recalled clinic member Robinson. “His pride in and dedication to that community was palpable.”

Deleon’s extensive work and profound transformation provided the foundation for the clinic’s efforts. Across three semesters beginning in 2022, the first team led an extensive investigation to prepare an application for commutation, a form of sentencing relief in Connecticut overseen by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The team scoured documents and case records and interviewed Deleon and his community members. In April 2023, hoping to secure his immediate release, the team submitted a more than 200-page commutation application that detailed Deleon’s life. The document also included letters of support from community members and stakeholders, including Deleon’s family members, participants in the T.R.U.E. program, and DOC  employees, among them a former and current Warden and a former Commissioner. Shortly after the application was submitted, the commutation process was suspended by the state.

By the fall of 2023, new rules had been established for commutation, and Deleon’s application had been resubmitted. The second team hoped to spend the semester preparing Deleon for a hearing in front of the state Board of Pardon and Paroles, but within weeks, Deleon’s application was denied without a hearing. 

Clinic member Deleon Cruz said that the team “was heartbroken when Eddie’s commutation was denied. The decision was arbitrary and ignored his long record of rehabilitation and his other accomplishments.” 

The setback was upsetting, but Deleon still had options. He had recently become eligible for parole under Senate Bill 952, a new law that two Yale Law School clinics — the CMIC and the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic — advocated for. But Deleon would need to wait until at least 2025 for a hearing.

To seek relief sooner, Deleon and the team decided to pursue a sentence modification, a form of sentencing relief in Connecticut where a state judge can revise a previous sentence. The new team updated the commutation materials and applied for sentence modification in October. With Hartford State’s Attorney Sharmese Walcott’s agreement, the Court granted Deleon a hearing that took place in February 2024. 

Clinic member Dominique James said that the hearing was powerful. 

“You got to hear firsthand from those who know Eddie best, including himself, and hear the full story of remorse and redemption,” she said. “Eddie’s story made clear what is possible when community, commitment, care, and honesty all meet.”

Judge Chaplin’s decision was remarkable in its choice to completely free DeLeon without any supervision and was a sign of the Court’s faith in Deleon and his achievements, according to those involved. 

Perez, one of the clinic students who now works as a public defender, said the work shaped how she approaches her career.

“I can’t overstate how helpful my experience in CMIC has been in my career,” Perez said. “Building trust with Eddie and his family has helped me do the same with my clients. The whole-person approach that the clinic takes in advocating for clients has made me a creative advocate who utilizes all of a person’s history to get a good outcome for my clients. It’s also helped me understand that this work can have setbacks, but that persistence can pay off in the face of obstacles.” 

Moving forward, Deleon, now 52, hopes to maximize this new chance at life by continuing the work he has long been committed to. He plans to spread the framework of the T.R.U.E. unit to transform communities in need. He said has been catalyzed by the poor decisions of his youth and is driven by his search for redemption. 

“I am looking forward to expressing my newfound freedom in a positive way through community interaction, volunteering, and simply being an outstanding good citizen,” Deleon said. “I can’t wait to enroll in college and graduate, and work with James Jeter, co-founder and director at the Full Citizens Coalition. I plan to move forward and embrace my past to ensure a better future for me and the communities around me.”