Obama Grants Clemency to Six Houston Drug Offenders

Obama Grants Clemency to Six Houston Drug Offenders
Neon Tommy/Flickr

When Billie Marie Taylor went to prison in 1991 for intent to distribute methamphetamines and possession of an unregistered firearm, she left behind an 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. She was sentenced to 412 months. Today, her kids are in their thirties, and she has seven grandchildren.

This past March, Taylor filed a motion to have her sentenced reconsidered, given her efforts toward rehabilitation. She's taken over 60 adult education courses, completed two apprenticeships in electrical engineering, knitted blankets and hats for cancer patients and the elderly, transitioned from maximum to minimum security clearance with only one write-up in 24 years, and even apparently saved a fellow inmate's life during an accident in woodworking class.

She said that, upon release, she just wanted to be a good grandma. She'd work as an HVAC technician, she said. Then she closed with a quote from President Barack Obama, which she found in a New York Times article titled "A Little Christmas Miracle": "If [drug offenders] had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of the disparity of the law that is now recognized as UNJUST [her caps], they remain separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."

Now, President Barack Obama is letting her out. She is one of 95 non-violent offenders granted clemency by Obama on December 18, and is one of six offenders from Houston. Similar to the 89 others, all six Houston offenders were given harsh sentences for intent to distribute various drugs (one was marijuana; the defendant got 240 months). Two of them were given life sentences.

Marjorie Meyer, chief federal public defender in the Southern District of Texas federal court, said that usually the main reason a drug offender will be sent to prison for life is because a prosecutor files for enhanced sentencing when the offender has at least two prior drug convictions. If the defendant is found guilty, then a judge has no choice: life is mandatory in those cases. Twenty years ago, Meyer's office had represented one of Obama's 95 who was caught in the above predicament—Royal Deandre Allen. He was given life for intent to distribute cocaine. He had no ties to any drug cartel or large-scale gang, which was part of the criteria for clemency review.

Other criteria included that the offenses be non-violent, that offenders have no violent history, and that they've served at least ten years in prison. The big question: Would an offender have received a much different sentence if he or she went to trial today?

The harsh sentences issued to many of these offenders were often the result of draconian mandatory minimum sentences, said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager of the Clemency Project 2014, which provided hundreds of recommendations for clemency review, many of which Obama approved. “There have been a number of amendments to the [sentencing] guidelines that reflect a change in our attitudes toward sentencing,” Roseberry said. “But because those changes were not made retroactive for the folks who were subject to draconian sentences, there are people languishing in prison who, if they committed the crime today, would have a significantly lower sentence.”

The Project received roughly 33,000 applications. In determining if an inmate qualified for clemency review, lawyers had to compare the U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines of today with those those of the date of a defendant's sentence. While mandatory minimums are still largely in place today, some reforms along the way—such as Congress abolishing mandatory minimums for first-time crack possession defendants in 2010—have impacted thousands of inmates. In some cases, Roseberry said, the prior convictions that may have led to the enhanced life sentence could have been low-scale marijuana possession.

Reviewing all of these changes, combined with lawyers having to review whether applicants had violent history—oftentimes not available on electronic documents—created a lengthy, cumbersome process.

“It's just very gray. It's all gray, because you're talking about individuals who've lived unique lives,” Roseberry said. “One of the ways we got here to begin with was putting people in a box and saying, 'You belong in Box A and you belong in Box B.' Now, we're unpacking those boxes and looking at people individually.”

Below is a list of local Houston cases, according to the U.S. Department of Justice:

Royal Deandre Allen
Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base; possession with intent to distribute cocaine base (Southern District of Texas)
Sentence: Life imprisonment; 10 years’ supervised release; $17,500 fine (May 13, 1996)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016, and balance of the fine remitted

Juan Fernando Mendoza-Cardenas
Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana (Northern District of Georgia)
Sentence: 240 months’ imprisonment; 10 years’ supervised release (Jan. 28, 2004)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016

Kenneth Cordell Robinson
Offense: Distribution of cocaine base (Southern District of Texas)
Sentence: 262 months’ imprisonment; five years’ supervised release; $5,000 fine (Apr. 21, 2000)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016.

Billie Marie Taylor
Offense: Did knowingly and willfully conspire, combine, confederate and agree together, with each other, and with other persons, to manufacture methamphetamine; did knowingly and intentionally possess a listed chemical, namely ephedrine, with intent to manufacture methamphetamine; did knowingly use and carry a firearm, namely, a 12 gauge Harrington and Richardson, Inc. shotgun, serial number AX492667, during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime for which the defendant may be prosecuted in a court of the United States, namely, conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine; did knowingly possess a firearm, namely, a 12 gauge Harrington and Richardson, Inc. shotgun, serial number AX492667, with a barrel length of less than 18 inches and a weapon made from a shotgun with an overall length of less than 26 inches, and such firearm was not registered to the defendant in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record (Eastern District of Texas)
Sentence: 412 months’ imprisonment; five years’ supervised release (Feb. 28, 1992); prison sentence amended to 355 months’ imprisonment (Jul. 15, 2015)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016.

Eric Desmond Thomas
Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine; possession with intent to distribute cocaine base (Southern District of Texas)
Sentence: Life imprisonment; 10 years’ supervised release; $20,000 fine (Sep. 26, 1996)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016, and balance of the fine remitted.

Otis Lee Thompson, Jr.
Offense: Possession with intent to distribute five grams or more of cocaine base; possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; possession of a firearm by a convicted felon; possession with intent to distribute codeine (Southern District of Texas)
Sentence: 195 months’ imprisonment; eight years’ supervised release (Dec. 6, 2005); prison sentence amended to 180 months’ imprisonment (May 20, 2008)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016.


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