President Barack Obama on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight people he said were serving unduly harsh drug sentences in the most expansive use yet of his power to free inmates.
Among them was 39-year-old Reynolds A. Wintersmith Jr. of Rockford, Ill., who was a teenager when he was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for selling crack.
"I intend to make President Obama proud," Wintersmith told his attorney, MiAngel Cody, upon learning he'd be released April 17.
Wintersmith is a first cousin of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is a close Obama political ally, the Washington Post noted. White House officials said there was no indication Patrick contacted the Justice Department or the White House, and that the relationship had no effect on the president’s consideration of Wintersmith’s case.
At the time of his conviction, Wintersmith had no prior criminal record and wasn't charged with acts of violence. His harsh sentence was handed down under then-mandatory federal guidelines which subjected tens of thousands of blacks to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient sentences to those caught with powder who were more likely to be white.
It was enacted in 1986 when crack cocaine use was rampant and considered a particularly violent drug. Under that law, a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 500 grams -- 100 times -- of powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act signed by Obama in 2010 reduced the ratio to about 18-1 and eliminated a five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack.
Obama said those whose sentences he commuted Thursday had served at least 15 years in prison, many under mandatory minimums that required judges to impose long sentences even if they didn't think the time fit the crime.
"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," Obama said in a written statement. "Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."
In a phone interview, Cody said Wintersmith has worked hard during his decades in prison to become a better person -- something staff at his Greenville prison, just east of St. Louis, attested to in his clemency application.
For someone who's spent his entire adult life inside prison, Cody said it was ironic that one of Wintersmith's prison jobs has been to counsel inmates about to be released about how to cope on the outside, how to properly conduct themselves and how to look for steady jobs.
"Who he has become is his way of apologizing to all the people he ever wronged," Cody said.
Cody took on Wintersmith's clemency application after a friend of his family called her in 2011. At first, Cody couldn't believe that his case could be as egregiously unfair as the friend explained it. Then, she went through his court transcripts.
"Even the judge himself said that giving a life sentence to a first-time offender gave him pause," said Cody. "But then he said, 'I have no choice.'"
The application process took more than a year, Cody said. And there was no way to assess if it would succeed -- until she received a call Thursday morning from a U.S. Justice Department official.
"You apply and you hope for the best," she said. "It was just fabulous to get word."
In the previous five years of his presidency, Obama had only commuted one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people. A pardon forgives a crime without erasing the conviction, typically after the sentence has been served. A commutation leaves the conviction and ends the punishment.
George W. Bush granted 189 petitions for pardon and 11 for commutations, while Bill Clinton granted 396 for pardon and 61 for commutations.
According to a release issued by the White House, the commutations were granted to Wintersmith; Clarence Aaron, of Mobile, Ala.; Stephanie Yvette George, of Pensacola, Fla.; Ezell Gilbert, of Tampa, Fla.; Helen Alexander Gray, of Ty Ty, Ga.; Jason Hernandez, of McKinney, Texas; Rickey Eugene Patterson, of Fort Pierce, Fla.; and Billy Ray Wheelock, of Belton, Texas.
The Associated Press' Nedra Picker and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.