A Dealer Serving Life Without Having Taken One
A lifer with a pen sat in the 65-square-foot cell he shares. A calendar taunted from a bulletin board. He began to write.
Dear President Obama.
He acknowledged his criminal past. He expressed remorse. And he pleaded for a second chance, now that he had served 18 years of the worst sentence short of execution: life without parole, for a nonviolent first offense.
Mr. President, he wrote, “you are my final hope.”
Sincerely, Jesse Webster.
Eleven hundred men reside in medium security at this remote Greenville federal prison in Southern Illinois. Most come and go, sentences served. Others stay, their legal appeals exhausted, their only hope to take up a pen and enter the long-shot lottery of executive clemency with a salutation that begins: Dear President Obama.
The prisoners are men like Mr. Webster, 46, a former cocaine dealer from the South Side of Chicago. And his old cellmate, Reynolds Wintersmith Jr., 39, a former teenage crack-cocaine dealer from Rockford, Ill., who has spent half his life in prison.
The two friends first met at the maximum-security prison in Leavenworth, Kan. That was almost 15 years ago.
“We were both younger then,” Mr. Webster recalled.
Mr. Webster, bald, stocky and bespectacled, discussed his case several days ago in the spare visitors’ room at Greenville. Signs everywhere said “no” this and “no” that. Nearby stood an artificial Christmas tree used by families as a prop to feign normality in holiday photos.
“I should have done time,” Mr. Webster said. “But a living death sentence?”
Growing up, his family of seven barely survived on his stepfather’s job as a parking-lot attendant. Dropping out of ninth grade to make money for the household, he wound up buffing at a carwash favored by a big-tipping drug dealer. Seeing hustle in 16-year-old Jesse’s eyes, he offered the boy a job as his driver, $200 a week.
Mr. Webster never forgot what his friends had said and how they said it: “that I had moved up in low places.”
He became a low-key freelancer in a hooked-up world, living in a doorman building, driving a Volvo and concealing a gun he never used. “I didn’t do flash,” he said.
In 1995, though, he learned that the law was looking for him, so he decided to turn himself in. One day a station wagon left the South Side for the North Side, jammed with his mother, brother and others who wanted to be there in support. “We all went as a family,” his mother, Robin Noble, said.
Soon Mr. Webster was being cuffed from behind, an indelible moment. “The look on his face,” Leon Noble, his younger brother, said. “Like he let us down.”
Prosecutors offered leniency on the condition that Mr. Webster become a confidential informant against a powerful drug gang. He declined, which Matthew Crowl, a prosecutor in his case, described many years later as a reasonable decision, given that the gang had already killed an informant.
Mr. Webster was convicted of participating in a drug conspiracy and filing false tax returns. His sentence of life without parole left his mother weeping and his brother’s heart dropping to the floor. For a sentence like that, the inmate said, “I thought I’d have to hurt somebody, do bodily harm.”
The federal judge, James B. Zagel, explained to the court that he was adhering to the mandatorily harsh sentencing guidelines of the day. “To put it in simple terms,” the judge said before imposing sentence, “it’s too high.”
If it were 1986 or today, Mr. Webster would probably be sentenced to serve about 25 years. But he was sentenced in 1996, during a period when sentencing guidelines gave federal judges virtually no discretion in assessing punishment.
“That was at the peak of mandatory sentencing,” said Vanita Gupta, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The A.C.L.U. — which highlighted the cases of Mr. Webster and Mr. Wintersmith, among dozens of others, in a recent report on lifers — estimates that more than 2,000 federal inmates are serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses.
What’s more, in a sample study of 169 federal inmates incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, the organization found dozens who were first-time offenders, as well as many others who had only misdemeanors and juvenile infractions in their past.
And this was just in the federal prison system.
“We kind of lost our moral center and any sense of proportionality in our sentencing” during the so-called war on drugs, Ms. Gupta said. “The result was the throwing away of certain people’s lives, predominantly black and brown people’s lives.”
Mr. Webster spent 16 years in federal maximum-security prisons, including Leavenworth, willing himself past the temptations, the lockdowns, the nearly hopeless reality. He received only three infractions — all minor, with the last one in 1997 — and earned the trusted position of captain’s orderly.
In July 2011, finally, he won a transfer to relative tranquillity, here in Greenville. “Took me 17 years to get here,” he said.
Up at 6:30. Bowl of oatmeal. Stretch. Clean cell. Work as a unit orderly. Run three miles. Push-ups and pull-ups. Shower. Lunch. Volunteer as a tutor to other inmates. Stand for count. Dinner. Work on job skills and resume writing. Shower. Read the Bible. And call Mom, whose picture he keeps tucked into his bottom bunk’s ceiling.
Family members say Mr. Webster lifts spirits on the outside when he calls from the inside, urging improvement, strength. Mr. Noble, for example, considers his older brother to be his role model.
All the while, Mr. Webster knows that the associates who testified against him have been free for years; that his mother is ill; that his daughter, Jasmine, who was 4 when he went away, has given him a grandson he has seen only once. That barring the secular equivalent of divine intervention, he will die in prison khaki.
A few months ago, Mr. Webster’s lawyer, Jessica Ring Amunson, sent a thick packet of documents to the Office of the Pardon Attorney of the Justice Department. This office assists the president in exercising his power of executive clemency, including pardons and the commutations of sentences.
In these papers were Mr. Webster’s life, the bad and the good. The particulars of his case, his achievements as an inmate, and many, many letters requesting a commutation of Mr. Webster’s sentence, all effectively beginning with: Dear Mr. President. They even included appeals for clemency from the prosecutors and the judge in his case.
“A commutation of sentence which would result in his service of 20 or so years in prison is enough punishment for his crimes,” Judge Zagel wrote.
The packet also included Mr. Webster’s letter, which had undergone several drafts as he sought concision in conveying to the president the essence of who Jesse Webster was, and is. “I didn’t want a lot of mumbo jumbo,” he says. “I know he’s a busy man.”
The odds never favored Mr. Webster, though, at least not this round. Nearly 2,800 other requests for commutation of sentence were pending — including one from his friend Mr. Wintersmith — and before last week, Mr. Obama had commuted the sentence of just one inmate.
Turkeys at Thanksgiving had a better chance at mercy.
“But you’ve got to keep up the hope,” Mr. Webster said, shrugging, before leaving the visitors’ room.
On Thursday, President Obama increased his number of commutations by eight (while also pardoning 13 others). He described his action as “an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” and called on Congress to come up with further sentencing reforms.
That morning, some inmates were gathered in the Greenville prison gymnasium, including Mr. Webster and Mr. Wintersmith. A voice came over the intercom, summoning Mr. Wintersmith to the associate warden’s office.
Mr. Webster instantly knew what had happened, and what had not. He later said he was overjoyed for his friend, and hopeful that the president would remember the many, many others, and “spread his grace on us.” [h/t]