Wilkinson Stekloff Wins Early Release for Client in Pro Bono Compassionate Release Case

Washington, D.C. — Wilkinson Stekloff associates Meghan Cleary, Jenna Pavelec, and Matthew Skanchy, with assistance from partner Rakesh Kilaru, associate Betsy Henthorne, and paralegals David Walsh and Jack Satti, recently secured the early release from prison of their pro bono client Steven Pantoja, after he had been incarcerated for almost 30 years. Mr. Pantoja, now 46, had been in custody since he was just 17 years old when Wilkinson Stekloff’s successful efforts in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia led to a reduction of Mr. Pantoja’s sentence and his prompt release from prison to rejoin his family.

The Wilkinson Stekloff team had sought emergency relief under the First Step Act, which allows federal courts to grant early release from prison where “extraordinary and compelling” reasons support a sentence reduction.  In their emergency motion, Wilkinson Stekloff forcefully argued that “extraordinary and compelling” reasons supported Mr. Pantoja’s early release, such as the unique risks to his health posed by COVID-19, the D.C. Jail’s inadequate response to the pandemic, Mr. Pantoja’s disproportionately long term of incarceration, mitigating evidence in his personal history, and his commitment to self-improvement while in prison. Because the government opposed the motion, Wilkinson Stekloff also filed a compelling reply brief addressing the alleged legal hurdles to Mr. Pantoja’s requested relief and detailing a thorough plan for his reentry into society.

As a result of Wilkinson Stekloff’s persuasive filings, the federal court granted Mr. Pantoja’s request for early release just 6 days after it was fully briefed.  In doing so, the court adopted virtually every one of Wilkinson Stekloff’s arguments, describing the government’s legal argument as “not just . . . unorthodox; [but] . . . almost certainly . . . futile, inadequate, and subject[ing] defendant to undue prejudice,” and commenting that the release plan established by Wilkinson Stekloff was “among the most comprehensive the Court has seen.” The court also highlighted Mr. Pantoja’s “significant transformation” since the time of his offense and his extensive efforts in cultivating a near-perfect disciplinary record.   

“The Wilkinson Stekloff team feels privileged to have worked with Mr. Pantoja and to have successfully demonstrated to the court that he deserves a second chance at life,” said Wilkinson Stekloff associate Matthew Skanchy. “Most importantly, we are grateful that Mr. Pantoja is healthy and safe at home with his family.” 

“Wilkinson Stekloff is honored to have had the opportunity to present the court with Mr. Pantoja’s story of personal growth and transformation,” said Wilkinson Stekloff partner Rakesh Kilaru. “Mr. Pantoja has had an exemplary record over the past 25 years, despite his personal challenges.  He was an ideal candidate for immediate release, and Wilkinson Stekloff is proud to have helped achieve that result for him.”

“The firm is strongly committed to pro bono representation,” said Wilkinson Stekloff associate Meghan Cleary, “and it consistently provides outstanding support for attorneys taking on such matters.”

Founded in February 2016, Wilkinson Stekloff has grown to nearly 40 lawyers and has quickly established itself as the leading trial boutique firm in the country. The firm has tried over a dozen cases to verdict across the country, winning the vast majority, and has won several other pre-trial victories in bet-the-company cases.  As part of its commitment to pro bono work, the firm routinely files amicus briefs on a broad array of issues in the Supreme Court and in appellate courts across the county.