Not even the most experienced journalists could resist a hint of scorn: “Trump Meets With Kim. Kim Kardashian West, That Is,” one headline read. Another: “Welcome to 2018: President Donald Trump Just Met With Kim Kardashian.”
Kardashian West had gone to the White House to plead the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman who’d served more than two decades in prison on nonviolent drug charges. When Trump commuted her sentence a week later, the moment came and went like a season finale. Recapped, critiqued, forgotten.
The truth is the meeting between two celebrities (one, breaker of the Internet; the other, president of the United States) was planned over months, and behind it was a woman whose name and narrative—the public defender turned Kardashian “konfidante”—don’t fit in a headline.
Kardashian West was 16 the first time she tapped Shawn Holley for her legal expertise. The women had met two years earlier, when Johnnie Cochran assigned Holley to the “dream team” that would defend O.J. Simpson. Holley was one of the most junior in a group that included Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz, and Robert Kardashian. The case lasted 16 months.
By the time it was over and Simpson was acquitted, Kardashian West had come to see her father’s coworker as a cross between a role model and a relative. (“Oh my gosh,” she remembers thinking, “I just want to be like her.”) Holley became so close to the clan that she’d sometimes meet Kardashian West for lunch or to take her to Billy Blanks dance classes in Sherman Oaks. For their part, the Kardashians invited Holley to parties at their home. (The practice continues even now; the most recent photos on Holley’s phone include scenes from a barbecue on Kourtney Kardashian’s lawn).
Kardashian West and Holley were out to dinner on Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica when the relationship turned professional. It was the pre-iPhone era, but Kardashian West heard that a friend had been arrested at Urban Outfitters and asked Holley, could she help? The shoplifter was out in hours.
Kardashian West has entrusted some of her most personal legal matters to Holley ever since—sensitive contracts, protective orders, nondisclosure agreements. She emails when she wants advice or sometimes just to vent. Almost 15 months ago she texted Holley with a link to a viral video, first released by Mic, that narrated the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman who had been sentenced to life in federal prison on nonviolent drug charges. “This is so unfair,” Kardashian West wrote. “Is there anything we can do about it?”
“There are thousands of Alices who are stuck in her same situation who don’t deserve to be there.”
Holley was raised in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her mother went to school at night to earn an M.B.A. to move up from legal secretary to office manager at a white-shoe law firm. As a child Holley would wander the halls of her mother’s offices, unimpressed. She saw a lot of thick books, no computers, and little fun. She got an English degree from UCLA, went on to teach (her students “took advantage of the fool—that would be me”), and ended up as a waitress at the first ever California Pizza Kitchen when she met (and slung pies for) a “cool” lawyer who did work that excited her. She enrolled in Southwestern Law School in 1985.
One summer Holley took a law-clerk position at the public defender’s office. Her responsibilities included interviewing people who’d been detained at the downtown courthouse (the same complex where Simpson would later be tried for murder). The experience was a revelation. “The holding cell is packed with people,” Holley recalls. “Packed! Everybody is black or brown. I was like, ‘I don’t understand—how is it that only black or brown men have committed crimes?’ I mean, it was just: Whoa.” Most of the men were accused of rock-cocaine possession and had near-identical stories. The narrative went like this: “I’m walking down the street, police pulled up, they searched me and found cocaine.”
Holley was furious: “This is a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution!” But theoretical protection from unreasonable searches and seizures doesn’t mean much. She passed the bar exam and went back to the public defender’s office after graduation. The work was “emotionally gripping and intense” but inspiring. She loved the hustle; payment was extra. (“The check would come and I would be like, ‘I can’t believe I get this too!’” she says.)
But the more time she spent there, the more complex her cases became. Some of her clients were dangerous, almost a certain threat to their communities. “You fight just as hard, you make sure that only admissible evidence comes in, and you treat people with respect, which is important,” she says. She loved her work. But she wasn’t quite as closed off as she’d been before to new opportunities.
That’s when Johnnie Cochran, an outsize presence at the courthouse and a giant to Holley, handed her his card. An interview followed, then an offer. Six months into her tenure at the firm, Cochran joined the Simpson case. Once the verdict came down, she saw her lane. “We’re getting all these great calls from people who have criminal cases,” she told Cochran. She wanted to head up a new division, focused on those (sometimes famous) clients. Cochran gave her the go-ahead.
Holley is now a partner at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert and has represented Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Black Panther leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber, Symbionese Liberation Army bomber Sara Jane Olson, and Lindsay Lohan. The predicaments of the rich and beautiful (see: Lindsay Lohan in court, a nail painted with the words “fuck U”) bear little resemblance to the cases she pored over as a public defender. But Holley insists her experience representing the most disenfranchised deepened her conviction that we all deserve an advocate. Her ethos applies across income brackets: People who’ve been accused of a crime—“they’re scared, it’s a crisis, and you’re helping them through prob- ably the most difficult time of their lives.”
Except: Paris Hilton served just over three weeks behind bars in 2007 for a probation violation related to an earlier DUI. When Lindsay Lohan violated probation in 2010, she was locked up for about two weeks and then checked in to court-ordered rehab. At the time Alice Marie Johnson was almost a decade and a half into her sentence. Her intake papers indicated she’d be released when she died.
According to Holley, Kardashian West has tracked criminal justice issues for decades, so it wasn’t surprising to receive her text about Johnson. Holley was, however, unsure what the women could do about it. She understood the sole option for Johnson to be freed was a presidential commutation: “It just seemed crazy. Trump is in the White House. He didn’t seem like the person who would be for this.” Still, she promised Kardashian West she’d look into it.
Johnson was arrested in 1993 for her role in a conspiracy to sell cocaine across state lines. At trial, 10 of 15 named coconspirators testified against her in exchange for reduced or dropped charges. She has never claimed innocence, but prosecutors made her out to be a hardened criminal. “It was like, ‘We just brought Al Capone down,’” Johnson says. “Like a reality show. That’s what they’ve done to people like me.” Johnson had no prior record. She was sentenced to life without parole.
Cases like Johnson’s are so common that Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, compiled them in a landmark 2013 report. She identified more than 3,000 men and women sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent crimes with no chance of parole. With President Barack Obama in his second term, Turner appealed for clemency for a number of them, Johnson included. Obama approved 1,927 such petitions while in office, but Johnson’s was denied. “I was shocked,” Turner says. “Her case was a slam dunk.” When President Trump was elected on his “law and order” platform, Turner “feared that might be the end of hope for her.”
The odds made Holley nervous too. “I don’t do a lot of federal criminal work because it seems so incredibly unfair, so stacked against the defense,” she says. “It’s too depressing.” But this time the appeal had come from Kardashian West, and Holley is not just skilled but tenacious. And one of her strengths is knowing when to ask for advice. She needed clemency experts on her team, stat. “I said to Kim, ‘We have to retain some of these people.’ And she said, ‘How much?’ ” The funds were wired over in an instant.
First Holley connected with Turner; Amy Povah, founder of the CAN-DO Foundation; and Brittany K. Barnett, cofounder of the Buried Alive Project, who’d known Johnson for several years. From the outset Turner was frank: “If it were any other president, Kim Kardashian’s advocacy might not make a big difference.” But under this one, it had a chance.
Trump likes celebrities and executive decrees of all stripes. The fact that he can rescue someone with a flourish of his pen? These moments are made for television. (With Sylvester Stallone in attendance, Trump granted the famed boxer Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon in May 2018.)
In the meantime Kardashian West set off on a parallel track, an exquisite metaphor for our current political era: She reached out to Ivanka Trump, with whom she was loosely acquainted. Trump in turn put her in touch with her husband, Jared Kushner, who has a documented interest in criminal justice reform. (His father served time for tax evasion, among other crimes.)
It fell to Holley to contact Johnson. “She explained to me that a very famous woman wanted to help me,” Johnson remembers. “Of course I told her I was interested.” Johnson was desperate for more information but didn’t want to press. After, she called her children. Google this woman, she said. Find out who her clients are. It was Johnson’s daughter who guessed Kardashian West had put Holley up to it. “Kim who?” Johnson wanted to know. She’d never heard of her.
While working the case, Holley held routine calls with Johnson. Once, she texted Kardashian West, maybe 10 minutes before a scheduled check-in: Did she want to call in? “Kim was like, ‘What’s the number?’” Holley recalls.
It was Johnson’s daughter who guessed Kardashian West had put Holley up to it. “Kim who?” Johnson wanted to know. She’d never heard of her.
This is what critics who’ve questioned Kardashian West’s motives don’t know, Holley and Turner emphasize. That she’d clear her schedule for Johnson. That she’d send delicate emails to Kushner when momentum seemed to have petered out. That she spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in near-constant communication with Turner and Barnett because the White House needed court documents.
“Kim’s not a criminal justice reform expert,” Barnett concedes. “She doesn’t claim to be. But you don’t need to be an expert to know that it’s wrong to sentence people like Alice to spend the rest of their lives in prison.”
But after that notable uptick in White House communication in December 2017, the line went dead. The women (and the team was almost all female) hesitated over what to do next. Holley remembers thinking, “We can’t bug these people, but we have to bug these people.” The plan had been to whisper in the administration’s ear. Instead along came a bullhorn.
In April 2018, Kanye West declared his support for Trump on Twitter. The announcement drew a firestorm on social media—and the favor of the President. Kardashian West, who has been diplomatic about her political differences with her husband, has since admitted that his public endorsement elevated her cause. (In October he said he would distance himself from politics.) Within weeks the White House set a date for her visit.
Holley recounts the trip to D.C. in snapshots. Fans in the windows, on balconies, scads of people wanting a picture. Steps! Carpets! A portrait of Vice President Mike Pence on a wall. She and Kardashian West in a little room outside the Oval Office. Jared! Ivanka! Trump, expectant, behind the Resolute Desk.
The meeting kicked off with Khloé Kardashian–related small talk. (“Because Khloé had been on The Celebrity Apprentice,” Holley reminds me.) Soon the President wanted to know how Holley and Kardashian West had met. (With then White House counsel Don McGahn and General John Kelly in the room, the O.J. Simpson connection wasn’t Holley’s preferred icebreaker. But exhale: Turns out Trump and Simpson had known each other back when.)
Then business: Kardashian West went first, explaining the case in her usual unhurried, enunciated cadence. But Holley, aware that the President has limited time (and perhaps attention), soon broke in. Trump delivered his verdict moments later: “I think we should let her out.” Deal maker that she is, Holley pushed him to announce the news that afternoon. It happened to be Johnson’s sixty-third birthday; a nice PR moment. No such luck.
Still, Kushner assured them the meeting had gone well and invited Kardashian West and Holley over for dinner to plot a path forward. “They are lovely people,” says Holley, who has five framed photos of herself with President Obama in her office (and one bottle of Kim Kardashian perfume). “Engaged, engaging, interested in us, interested in the world.” The Kushner children took drink orders at the door and recommended an apparent house special—Shirley Temples.
Holley was in court (representing Reggie Bush, one of Kardashian West’s exes) a week later when a text from Kardashian West popped up: “Call me, I just heard from the White House.” Trump had the paperwork; Johnson would be free in hours.
Holley got Barnett, Turner, and Kardashian West on the line to reach Johnson. “Kim said, ‘You don’t know?’ Alice said, ‘Know what?’ Kim said, ‘You’re going home,’” recalls Holley.
Months later Johnson struggles to articulate the moment. “It was an explosion inside,” she says. While she was in prison, Johnson had made it her mission to help other women. She choreographed dance recitals and wrote plays. She mentored. She volunteered in hospice. She didn’t do it for a reward, but she sees now that the acts were seeds “sown into those women’s lives.” A farmer plants and doesn’t know what the crop will yield. Johnson invested in the women around her, and her release was “a harvest I reaped,” she says.
Holley doesn’t have immediate plans to petition the White House on more cases. In November 2017 it was reported that Kardashian West had asked Holley to help free Cyntoia Brown, a trafficked teen who shot and killed a man who’d hired her for sex. But in May 2018 a parole board was divided on whether to recommend clemency for Brown and passed the case to outgoing Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, a Republican. He has so far not addressed it. (A recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision declared that Brown is ineligible for parole until she’s served at least 51 years in prison, making clemency her only option for an earlier release.)
In September 2018 Kardashian West returned to the White House to advocate for prison reform. She intends to keep lines of communication with the administration open, no matter the criticism from those who think she should refuse to cooperate with this president. “We were able to change someone’s life,” she says. “And there are thousands of Alices who are stuck in her same situation who don’t deserve to be there.” It’s not quite a Talmudic reference, but it echoes the precept “Whoever saves one life saves the whole world.”
That’s not just some grandiose metaphor, Holley points out. Johnson has children, grandchildren, even two great-grandchildren. A universe of people had to go on without her.
When Johnson came home, her daughter showed her a collection of photo albums. Johnson tried to smile, but it broke her heart—“seeing 20 years of pictures that I’m missing from.” Still, she has done her best to make up for lost time. A Christmas portrait was scheduled in October.
For Johnson this is a small restitution: “I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted to be free.”
Mattie Kahn is a senior editor at Glamour.