Equal Justice Matters Wall (W)

Thomas Wade

Wade, Thomas

Serving LWOP for breaking into an unoccupied car and stealing a gun, car stereo, and bath mat from inside it at 20 years old.
Euka Wadlington

Wadlington, Euka

Serving LWOP following a failed drug sting based entirely on the testimony of co-conspirators.
Scott Walker

Walker, Scott

Sentenced LWOP at age 26 for selling drugs with friends in southern Illinois, which he began doing in order to pay for his drug addiction.
Lowell Washington

Washington, Lowell

Serving LWOP for kicking in the back door of a house during the daytime and entering the home in an aborted burglary attempt.
No Available Image

Washington, Ronald

Serving LWOP for shoplifting two Michael Jordan jerseys from a Foot Action athletic store.
Jesse Webster

Webster, Jesse

Sentenced to life without parole in 1995 for his first conviction, which involved an aborted drug deal.
Rufus White

White, Rufus

Serving LWOP for simple possession of less than half a gram of cocaine.
Onrae Williams

Williams, Onrae

Serving LWOP for selling less than a third of a gram of crack cocaine.
Michael Wilson

Wilson, Michael

Michael, a father of three and former business owner, was sentenced two decades ago to LWOP as a first-time nonviolent drug offender.
Fate Winslow

Winslow, Fate

Fate was homeless when he acted as a go-between in the sale of two small bags of marijuana, worth $10 in total, to an undercover police officer.

Wintersmith, Reynolds

Reynolds is a first-time offender who was sentenced to a mandatory LWOP sentence at age 20 for his involvement in a crack cocaine conspiracy starting when he was 17 years old.
Lloyd Wright

Wright, Lloyd

Serving LWOP for selling $50 worth of crack cocaine within a half-mile of a school.
Thomas Wade

Thomas Wade


Wade dropped out of school in the tenth grade but never learned to read. “I was dumb to a lot of things,” he says. Of his life at the time of the crime, Wade says, “It wasn’t the best, I didn’t have a job, but I take care of my family the best way I can.” In 1992, Wade served 30 months in prison for two counts of grand theft of a motor vehicle, grand theft of over $300, and burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, committed when he was 18, and escape and resisting an officer without violence when he was 19.

On January 9, 1993, when he was 20, Wade’s life “changed forever.” According to court records, at 4:30 a.m., a 1985 Pontiac was reported stolen in Winter Haven, Florida. A police officer discovered a vehicle matching the description in the Winter Oaks Apartments Complex one hour later. At trial, the officer testified to observing two individuals, later identified as Wade and his co-defendant, Watson, peering into the vehicle. Because a concrete wall blocked the officer’s view of the car’s tag number, he made a U-turn, drove past the vehicle, and verified that it was in fact the stolen car he had been looking for. Wade and Watson then drove off in Wade’s Chrysler, which had been parked next to the reportedly-stolen Pontiac. The officer had been told that a loaded handgun was in the passenger’s compartment of the stolen vehicle and, as such, called for back-up.

Shortly after Wade and Watson drove away, officers signaled for Wade to pull his car over, and he complied, exiting the vehicle and submitting to a pat-down. Upon searching Wade’s car, officers discovered a bath mat and “car stereo or equalizer” on the rear floorboard, allegedly belonging to the owner of the stolen vehicle, and arrested the men. Wade maintains these items belonged to him and were not stolen property. The officers also found a revolver on the ground beside the stolen vehicle. In his appeal, Wade argued that he was never in possession of the firearm, and noted that his fingerprints were not found on the weapon.

Wade says he did not “know nothing about the law.” He went to trial on charges of armed burglary of an unoccupied conveyance (a car), grand theft of a motor vehicle, and escape. He was sentenced as a habitual offender to life without parole for the armed burglary charge, 10 years for the theft, and 30 years for escape. Wade recalls of hearing his sentence, “It hurt very, very bad. They take everything in me that day.”

Now 41 years old, Wade has been in prison for 21 years. Illiterate when he entered the prison system, he has since taught himself how to read and is now teaching himself how to spell. He says the separation from his family has been difficult for him. He told the ACLU, “I missed all of my kids’ child hood. It hurt like hell.” He tries to remain optimistic, stating, “I know deep in my heart I will make it. I’ll take it one day at a time.” His stepfather, Maurice Jordan, told the ACLU, “They gave him life and that don’t make no sense at all because he didn’t kill anybody. He’s been gone 21, 22 years…I feel like he’s served the time he should have served, and more.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 140).


Wadlington was raised in a housing project on the North Side of Chicago and later moved to the South Side, where he worked construction, drove a garbage truck, and ran a carwash. For a couple of years in the mid-1990s, Wadlington managed one of the first nightclubs catering to the African-American community in Clinton, Iowa, a majority white town on the Mississippi River. Around 1995, a joint federal and state task force began investigating a crack cocaine distribution operation in Clinton headed by another South Side native known as Geo. According to Wadlington, during most of the time that Geo sold drugs in Clinton, Wadlington was working five days a week as a garbage man 200 miles away in Chicago. In 1996, Geo and five associates were convicted of federal drug conspiracy charges. Wadlington believes he was targeted when Iowa-based federal drug agents were looking for their next drug case.

Wadlington was arrested in Chicago in 1998, following a failed drug sting in which a confidential informant attempted to induce him to sell cocaine to an undercover agent. According to Wadlington, a government informant known as Flame, an admitted cocaine and meth dealer cooperating with the government to avoid incarceration, tried to get Wadlington to help him sell drugs. For months Wadlington refused, and he says he finally agreed to meet with Flame in late 1998 to help him carry out a money-making scam in order to discharge a longstanding debt (Flame had loaned Wadlington $3,000 in 1994 to help him open a car wash). The government informant claimed he had arranged to introduce Wadlington to an undercover agent posing as an Iowa drug dealer, to whom Wadlington was to sell one kilo of cocaine at the planned meeting. Wadlington was arrested at the meeting location, but he had no drugs or weapons on his person or in his vehicle and less than three dollars in his pocket.

At Wadlington’s trial in the Southern District of Iowa, the prosecutor argued that from 1992 to 1998 Wadlington was the leader of a drug organization selling powder and crack cocaine in Clinton, Iowa. According to the prosecutor and government witnesses, Wadlington employed and supervised others who concealed cocaine in Tide detergent boxes and transported, cooked, and distributed the drugs. The case was based entirely on the testimony of cooperating witnesses who testified in exchange for immunity or leniency for their own drug sentences, including one of Wadlington’s co-defendants who pleaded guilty. Wadlington was not connected to the crime via any physical evidence; he was never caught with any drugs, either on his person or in his vehicle, home, or business. No drugs were ever seized during raids of the nightclub he managed. Police surveillance of Wadlington’s nightclub never revealed any indication of drug activity. No cell phone, pager records, or fingerprints connected Wadlington to drug activity, and the prosecutor offered no evidence of unexplained wealth.

Wadlington was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute powder and crack cocaine, and attempted distribution of crack cocaine. All but one of his jurors were white. Although no drug amounts were specified in the indictment or decided by the jury, Wadlington was held accountable for more than 18 kilograms of cocaine.

Because his sentence was enhanced based on two prior drug felonies, Wadlington was sentenced to two concurrent LWOP sentences in 1999, when he was 33 years old. He had two prior state drug convictions: a 1988 arrest for 14 grams of cocaine found in a friend’s underwear after they were pulled over for a traffic violation, and a 1991 arrest for possession with intent to deliver cocaine when he was 25; he pled guilty to both charges in 1991. Wadlington says, “When I heard the sentence, I went into a kind of shock. I couldn’t remember a lot of things that truly mattered in my life. For at least a month, I couldn’t even remember my mother’s telephone number, which had not been changed for 30 years.”

Since the trial, four witnesses have come forward and signed affidavits supporting Wadlington’s claims of innocence and alleging prosecutorial misconduct. One of the key witnesses who testified against Wadlington submitted an affidavit stating that his false accusations at Wadlington’s trial were coerced by federal agents who told him he could avoid a life sentence only by implicating Wadlington. Two members of Geo’s drug-dealing conspiracy gave sworn statements that Wadlington was not a member of their conspiracy, much less the leader. The appellate court also found that circumstances indicated the prosecutor improperly used grand jury subpoenas to secure interviews with two individuals who eventually testified against Wadlington—falsely, according to Wadlington. Wadlington has exhausted all of his appeals, which were unsuccessful despite the witness recantations.

Wadlington is 47 years old and has served 14 and a half years in prison. He says he became deeply depressed following his sentencing but found new purpose by teaching fellow prisoners. Since he first helped his cellmate become literate and obtain his GED more than 10 years ago, Wadlington has helped hundreds of incarcerated men obtain their GEDs, taught literacy classes for illiterate inmates, worked with his prison’s warden to create re-entry programs for soon-to-be released prisoners that will help them to adjust to daily life outside of prison, and started partnerships with local universities to allow students to play chess with inmates and create positive relationships. He also teaches grammar, essay writing, and creative writing courses, and helps enroll other prisoners in vocational classes and college correspondence courses. At the same time, he says he has enrolled in every class available to him that does not interfere with the classes he teaches.

If he were released from prison, Wadlington wants to return to his South Side neighborhood, Englewood, to run educational programs for youth and adults. He says, “I dream of going to schools and speaking with children about the realities of actions and consequences.” He adds, “I hope that I could somehow be forgiven for my actions and help rebuild what I contributed to destroying…I want to return home with newfound wisdom, energy, and a unique perspective to promote nonviolence and create a safer place for children and young adults alike.”

At the time of his incarceration, Wadlington was engaged to be married to the mother of three of his children. He maintains a relationship with his five children, but he says it pains him to have missed raising them. Wadlington’s mother, Gloria Driver, suffers from Alzheimer’s and her condition is steadily deteriorating. While she still remembers and loves her son, she is becoming increasingly confused by his absence. At her son’s sentencing, she told the judge of her children, “When they are wrong, I’ll admit that they are wrong. When they are right, however, I’ll go to my death fighting for them. I’m asking for the one thing every mother wants for a child—a fair chance at life.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 153).

*Euka’s sentence was ultimately commuted by a federal judge after serving more than 20 years behind bars.

Euka Wadlington

Euka Wadlington (center, not in a cap and gown) with several of his students who earned GEDs under his tutelage.

Scott Walker

Scott Walker


Walker’s parents divorced when he was six years old. According to Walker, his father physically abused his mother, inflicting injuries that once required her hospitalization for days, an incident Walker recalls from when he was in kindergarten. Two years after they divorced, Walker’s father was killed in a motorcycle accident. Walker says he turned to marijuana at age 14 or 15 in an effort to cope with the resulting emotional distress. He recalls becoming psychologically addicted, and his drug use escalated to LSD, cocaine, and methamphetamine. As a result of his drug addiction, he dropped out of high school on three occasions before dropping out permanently during his senior year. After his family moved from southern Illinois to Arizona when he was 17, Walker began purchasing small quantities of drugs in Arizona and taking them to Illinois for resale to support his drug addiction.

When Walker was arrested in 1996, 500 grams of marijuana were seized from him. On the basis of testimony of several of his co-defendants who cooperated in exchange for sentence reductions, Walker was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, marijuana, and LSD. It was his first felony conviction; previously, he had committed two petty juvenile offenses—for stealing a bicycle in November 1988 and theft of aluminum gutters from a yard in 1989, when he was 17 years old—and had adult misdemeanor convictions for underage consumption of alcohol at age 19 and criminal trespass at age 22.

Walker was sentenced at age 26 to life without parole, a mandatory sentence due to the calculation of his offense level, which was based on an aggregation of all the drug quantities that cooperating co-defendants testified about, plus increases for his leadership role; possession of a gun; obstruction of justice; and his use of minors, including his younger brother, to commit the offense. His offense level was also increased because of his prior petty offenses and because he was on probation for a misdemeanor for which he had not served jail time. His co-defendant, Timothy Conway, the supplier and alleged kingpin of the conspiracy who was 20 years older and had two prior felony drug convictions, served less than five years in prison. Conway initially received a sentence of only 71 months because the government stipulated to a significantly reduced drug amount in exchange for a guilty plea; the sentence was further reduced because of his testimony against Walker. Walker states that his first lawyer encouraged him to take his case to trial despite the overwhelming evidence against him; he also says that his attorney never told him that he faced a life sentence without parole if he was convicted. Walker would likely have received a five to 10-year sentence if he had cooperated, and 20 years if he had pleaded guilty rather than go to trial. In recognition that 20 years would have been the most likely outcome of his case at the time, Walker’s commutation petition requests that his sentence be reduced to 20 years rather than seek immediate release.

Judge J. Phil Gilbert, a former prosecutor and appointee of former President George H.W. Bush, had no discretion in sentencing Walker to die in prison. Judge Gilbert told him at his sentencing hearing in 1998, “[T]o do what I am compelled to do under the law is not easy for me. If you think it’s easy to sit up here and impose a life sentence on someone, it’s not. And there’s no question you need to be punished severely for what you have done. Whether this is the right sentence or not, is not for me to judge. I have to apply the law and apply the facts to the law, and I’ve done that here. And it’s a very harsh sentence, but that, as I said, is not for me to decide, but I want you to know that it’s not easy on this Court to impose a life sentence on anybody. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it. I hope it’s the last because I don’t like to do it.” Calling the sentence “excessive and disproportionate,” Judge Gilbert added, “[M]aybe somewhere down the line Congress will relieve the people in your position,” and he encouraged Walker to write to legislators in Washington.

Judge Gilbert wrote in support of Walker’s pending commutation petition, “Mr. Walker’s fourteen years of incarceration read like a handbook on self-improvement,” concluding, “As a judge, as a citizen, and as a taxpayer, I see no reason that this individual should spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated.” Judge Gilbert later told the Southern Illinoisian that Walker’s sentence continues to haunt him, explaining, “There have been times that I’ve had to render decisions, such as in the sentencing area with sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums, that are dictated by the law. In one particular case, I had to give a life sentence to an individual who I didn’t feel deserved it. That affected me for quite a while, day and night, and there was nothing I could do about it.”

Now 41, Walker has been incarcerated for almost 17 years. He has maintained a clean disciplinary record with the exception of one minor citation for remaining in bed following a work call. He reports he has been sober for 16 years and has completed self-awareness, values, drug education, literature, and correspondence courses. Walker’s mother, Brenda Shelton, has been raising his teenage daughter since taking custody of her when Walker was incarcerated. His daughter said:

“My father never forgets to send me cards on holidays. He writes me letters, calls me on the phone and on birthdays and Christmas, and always tries to see I have a gift of some kind from him. Most of all, he talks to me about staying in school and away from drugs, alcohol, and people that are involved in drugs. He tells me he has been in prison a long time because of his bad decisions, but it would be worth it if I never make the same mistakes.”

If he were released, Walker says he would like to go to college to earn a degree in social rehabilitation. Recognizing the hurdles he would face in obtaining employment upon release, he has also completed vocational training programs in trades such as waste-water treatment and plumbing.

Walker is an avid reader and says he has read hundreds of books while in prison; he particularly loves Russian classics and history books. He credits his rehabilitation in part to all of the reading he has done in prison. “Since I was a child, I was taught that America was the land of redemption. But if you are a first time offender sentenced under a mandatory minimums sentence, this is not the case,” he said. “Prison probably saved my life. I just hope I can get out someday to live that life.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 85).


The house belonged to a police officer with the Greenville County Police Department, who returned home while Washington was inside. Washington had not taken any possessions, did not resist the officer, and remained seated until more officers arrived at the scene. He had two previous housebreaking convictions and one burglary conviction. These previous convictions were the only aggravating circumstances elevating the break-in to first-degree burglary, and without the prior convictions Washington would have been charged with second-degree burglary.

His defense lawyer explained to the jury, “There is no violence in this case. There is no weapon. This is not a nighttime burglary. This is a burglary second charge, which they want to elevate to a burglary first based on his prior record. This is a classic burglary second case. He was caught red handed in the act. No violence. Total cooperation. Made a statement. Sat down. No problem. No resistance. Daylight hours. And they want you to convict him on a technicality.’” Notwithstanding his lawyer’s arguments, the jury convicted Washington of first-degree burglary. Because the trial judge found that Washington’s two burglary charges constituted a “most serious” offense under South Carolina’s two-strikes law, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 125).

Lowell Washington

Lowell Washington

No Available Image

No Available Image


On his way out of a Foot Action athletic store, Washington was confronted by the assistant manager for shoplifting. Washington gave him one stolen jersey before departing. When mall security apprehended Washington outside the store, they found a second stolen jersey on him, and he admitted to taking it. Although Washington says the jerseys were on sale that day for $45 each, he was held responsible for their full price of $60 each, raising his theft conviction from a misdemeanor to a felony because the total amount exceeded $100. Following a 45-minute trial, Washington was convicted of one count of felony theft of goods valued at over $100. A crack addict who also worked as a drywall finisher, cook, and general laborer, Washington says that he shoplifted in order to support his drug addiction.

Washington was sentenced to LWOP as a fourth-strike felony offender under Louisiana’s habitual offender law. Over the previous 21 years, he had been convicted of forgery, possession of cocaine, four counts of theft of goods, and twice of simple burglary. According to Washington, he had never received drug treatment prior to being sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. He recalls of his sentencing, “I felt as though somebody had just taken the life out of my body.” He adds, “I seriously felt rejected, neglected, stabbed right through my heart. I also felt it was…to be sentenced to death.”

Washington has been incarcerated for 10 years. He has finally received substance abuse treatment and counseling, and he has completed anger management and victim awareness programs. He works as a baker in the prison and spends his free time in religious study. He laments that no matter his achievements in prison, he will never be permitted to return to society. “Whatever you had or established, it’s now useless, because you’re being buried alive at slow pace,” he says.

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 113).


As a teenager living on the South Side of Chicago, Webster began working for tips at a neighborhood carwash to earn bus fare and lunch money for school. Although at first he worked after school and on weekends, eventually he began working full time to help his mother pay bills and buy food for the family. According to Webster, when a customer offered him a job as a driver, he accepted the job, even though he knew the customer was a drug dealer, because his family needed the money. He quit school in the ninth grade and became more involved in the drug trade.

In August 1994, Webster helped set up a deal to purchase 25 kilograms of cocaine from an individual who had recently been arrested on drug charges and was cooperating with the DEA as an informant. That drug deal was abandoned, the DEA made no arrests, and no drugs were ever seized. However, months later, upon hearing that he was wanted for questioning by the authorities in connection with the aborted deal, Webster voluntarily turned himself in. In September 1995, he was indicted, along with two other individuals.

Webster says he wanted to cooperate with the government, but the government would not accept a guilty plea unless he agreed to serve as a confidential informant against a local gang. According to Webster, he was not affiliated with the gang and worried that he would put his family’s safety at risk if he agreed to testify against gang members. He went to trial, and the jury acquitted him of the main count of possession with intent to distribute but convicted him of attempt and conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and filing false tax returns. Based entirely on the testimony of Webster’s co-defendants who agreed to testify against Webster in return for significantly reduced sentences, the trial court found that Webster and five others participated in a conspiracy to distribute 200 to 300 kilograms of cocaine from 1992 to 1994. It was Webster’s first conviction.

At sentencing, the federal judge stated that he regarded the policy decision underlying the mandatory sentence as “essentially incorrect” and the mandatory sentence as “too high,” but he added that he had no choice under the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. Judge James B. Zagel further stated that if not bound by the mandatory sentencing guidelines, he would consider imposing a sentence of around 25 years with an expectation of 85 percent of the sentence to be served. The judge searched the sentencing guidelines independently for grounds to impose a lower sentence but could not find any that applied in Webster’s case. As a result, because of the large quantity of cocaine involved—a quantity established based on the testimony of Webster’s co-defendants since no cocaine was ever seized—and because his sentence was enhanced for the leadership role his co-defendants attributed to him, Webster received the mandatory sentence of life in prison. His co-defendants received sentences of less than five years in exchange for cooperating with the government and testifying against him.

“The world just got snatched out of me. I was 27 years old, had never been to prison before,” Webster recalls. “I was just numb because you don’t really know [what a life sentence means]. When you’re 27, you still have a little hope. You can’t even understand. Then my daughter started getting older. My only child was three when I left. As your child gets older and you’re missing out on her life, things start to get more real.” He says he has since come to understand the reality of his sentence, explaining, “You never get to go back to society…They are saying that I’m not ever fit to re-enter society. You wonder if this is the end of it for you, which prison you’ll die in, if I’ll just pass here.”

Webster has now served 18 years in prison. In that time, he has counseled other inmates and worked as a Captain’s orderly. In 2011, his request to transfer from a high-security to a medium-security institution was granted, and he moved to a federal prison in Greenville, Illinois. Since his transfer, he has earned his GED and completed classes in typing, creative card-making, financial management, mental math, effective communications, and lifestyle interventions. In addition to pursuing his own educational development, he tutors other inmates working to earn their GEDs and assists prisoners with developing skills to successfully reenter society upon release.

Webster is in close contact with his family and intends to help support them if released. His daughter, who was five when he went to prison, is now 22. She attends Kennedy King College, where she is studying criminal justice, and recently gave birth to Webster’s first grandchild. Webster’s mother is in poor health, and his stepfather recently succumbed to cancer. Webster wishes to return home to help care for his ailing mother and to be a father and grandfather. If released, he intends to help his mother and work with ex-offenders to help them get the skills needed to become productive members of society.

Webster recently filed a petition for commutation of his sentence. Webster’s petition is supported by Judge James B. Zagel, who sentenced him to life in prison, as well as by both of the former Assistant United States Attorneys who prosecuted him. In a letter to President Obama supporting commutation of Webster’s sentence, Judge Zagel stated that he was unable to give Webster the sentence he believed the crime actually merited because at the time, “cocaine was incorrectly perceived to inflict social damage so grave that it should be punished in the severest way.” Judge Zagel wrote that Webster’s sentence was “an anomaly at the time,” because “[r]ape, armed robbery, [and] ruinous financial crime were rarely punished with life sentences” and “[i]n many jurisdictions, even murder was not deemed to warrant mandating life in prison.” Writing that he “doubt[s] that after a decade or two in prison [Webster] will represent a danger to society,” Judge Zagel concluded that after “20 or so years in prison,” Webster will have had “enough punishment for his crimes.”

“If both my judge and prosecutors, who know my case better than anyone else, believe that I am fit to return to society, and that my sentence was excessive, then how can it be justice for me to serve a life sentence?,” Webster says. “I am not the person that I was 18 years ago. I deserve to be punished for my crime…but surely not condemned to serve the rest of my natural life in prison. Give me an opportunity to prove myself.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 48).

*Jesse’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Obama after serving 18 years behind bars.

Jesse Webster

Jesse Webster

Rufus White

Rufus White with his mother, Eisibe Sneed.


In March 2001, a Shreveport police officer attempted to pull over White’s car for having tinted windows, captured him after a short foot chase, and recovered a handgun on the ground that the officer suspected White had dropped. Hours after White was arrested and booked for gun possession, a baggie of cocaine was found on the floorboard in the back of the police car that was used to transport him to the police precinct. He was later charged with leaving the baggie in the patrol car, and a forensic analyst concluded that the DNA found on the bag matched White’s.

According to court records, during voir dire the prosecutor objected to all Black potential jurors, and all but one of the jurors was white. White was convicted at trial of cocaine possession and was sentenced to mandatory LWOP as a third-strike offender for an offense that usually carries a sentence of zero to five years. He was 26 years old. He had prior convictions for attempted manslaughter in 1992 at age 17 and attempted robbery in 1995 at age 20. White says that he was addicted to and strung out on drugs when he committed his crimes.

“It just seemed like your whole world end,” White recalls of his sentencing. “It hurts very deep, and you lose everything on the outside.” Now 38 years old, White has been incarcerated for over 12 years, during which he has participated in Narcotics Anonymous, anger management, and academic programs.

His mother, Eisibe Sneed, told the ACLU, “When they sentenced my child, they sentenced me too. I’m in Angola too—my heart is there.” “It destroyed me,” she added. “My life was taken too.” She says that the 12 years she has been separated from her son, who is incarcerated a six-hour drive from her Shreveport home, have been a nightmare. “If my son has done something, let the sentence fit the crime. But you are going to over-sentence my child, it just don’t make no sense,” she said. “They gave my baby natural life. The crime doesn’t match the time.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 139).


His two prior convictions that triggered South Carolina’s habitual offender sentencing law included an offense that he committed as a juvenile. According to Williams, the combined value of the drugs involved in his three strikes is $60.

Williams was raised in a downtown Charleston public housing project, and at times his family was without electricity or food to eat. His mother and other family members struggled with drug addiction, and he says that without a functional adult figure in his life or steady job opportunities, he began selling marijuana at age 12 or 13 to support himself and his sister. He first got in trouble with the law when he was 13 years old, after which he was barred from entering the housing project where he was raised. As a teenager, Williams was arrested repeatedly for trespassing at the Gadsden Green housing project where he lived with his grandmother. Because he was no longer permitted on the project grounds on account of his juvenile record, his grandmother was eventually forced to move out of the apartment they shared. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and was shot in the head when he was 18 years old.

In 2000, when he was only 17 years old, Williams was arrested by police in a park adjacent to the housing project where he lived. He pleaded guilty to possession of crack cocaine, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and a separate charge for doing so within 1,000 feet of a school, for which he received adult probation. According to Williams, he had probation fees to pay and his conviction made it hard to find a job, so he returned to the streets. When he was 20, he was arrested again in the same park and charged with distribution of marijuana, distribution of cocaine, distribution within proximity of a school, and possession of cocaine. Although he says police did not find drugs on him and had no physical evidence to use against him, he pleaded guilty to the charges because he was told it was the quickest way out of prison and he wanted to return to his newborn daughter as soon as possible. For the second conviction, Williams was sentenced under South Carolina’s Youthful Offender Act and served a year before he was paroled. While incarcerated, he asked for drug treatment but was not accepted. Williams reports that after the birth of his daughter, Onajah, and his release from prison, he began to turn his life around.

In 2004, Charleston police set up a controlled drug buy by sending a confidential informant into the same park where Williams had been previously arrested. The informant purchased two pebbles of crack weighing only 0.3 grams. Although the drug buy took place in August 2004, when Williams was 22, Williams was not charged and arrested for selling to the confidential informant until January 2005, almost half a year later. He had been reporting regularly to his parole officer during the intervening months, but police never approached him about the drug buy. Williams was offered a plea deal but maintained his innocence and chose to go to trial. The informant, who had spent half his life in prison or jail, later testified that he had purchased the crack pebbles from Williams. Williams was convicted of distribution of crack cocaine and distribution of crack cocaine within a half-mile of a school.

Williams was sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on both charges. The court used one of Williams’s juvenile offenses as a necessary third strike to sentence him to life without parole. He was sentenced under South Carolina’s habitual offender law, which requires a life-without-parole sentence for a third conviction for a “serious offense.” Distributing controlled substances within a half-mile of a school is considered a “serious offense” under the law. All of Williams’s alleged offenses took place in Harmon Park, a public park located about 100 yards away from the housing project where Williams lived and within a half-mile of a high school. Williams points out that mandatory LWOP school-zone laws discriminate against people living in densely populated urban communities such as downtown Charleston, where drug sales are unavoidably within South Carolina’s expansive drug-free school zones.

Williams told the ACLU that he regrets what he has done and has learned from his mistakes but believes his sentence is too severe: “I know I don’t deserve to be in a situation like this. Being given a life sentence without parole, it’s just not right. They locked me up for half a gram, something that amounted to $20 worth [of drugs]. That doesn’t make any sense, that they sentenced me for the rest of my life. I don’t want them to do this to anybody else after me.” His aunt, Dee Williams, said that when Williams called her a few hours after being sentenced, his primary worry was his then-three-year-old daughter. “He kept saying, ‘What am I going to tell her?’” She said of her nephew’s sentence, “He has over half his life left. It’s crazy.” Williams’s uncle, Sidney Williams, told a local paper at the time of his nephew’s sentencing, “It just seems unfair and cruel…. I by no means of the imagination condone what he has done. But I still don’t think that adds up to life in prison.”

Williams has served seven years in prison and is now 30 years old. Since he has been incarcerated, his mother died, and he was unable to attend the funeral. He has earned his GED in prison, is writing a book, and spends his time studying the law, reading, and playing chess. He told the ACLU that if he were allowed out of prison, his priority would be to go to college, adding, “Since I’ve been locked up…I’ll do whatever I can do to increase my development and my knowledge,” but adds that “I just pushed my education as far as I could push it” in prison. He speaks regularly with his daughter and says, “What matters the most to me is to…be a father to my daughter and build a relationship with her. That’s what helped change me and helped me understand that I don’t need drugs in my life. I’ve grown up and matured from an adolescent into a man.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 102).

*Onrae’s sentence was ultimately commuted by the S.C. Supreme Court after serving more than 11 years behind bars.

Onrae Williams

Onrae Williams with his daughter, Onajah, who was three years old when her father was sentenced to life without parole.

Michael Wilson

Michael Wilson and his three sons in 1996, two years after he was sentenced to life without parole. Wilson’s sons are all in their 20s today.


Wilson and his brother owned a car dealership in Dallas, Texas. Wilson and seven others, including his brother and girlfriend, were arrested and charged with participating in a crack cocaine conspiracy. Following a jury trial, Wilson was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, three counts of use of a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking crime, and three counts of aiding and abetting money laundering. At his trial, several of his co-conspirators testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences. To determine the amount of drugs involved in Wilson’s case, the judge multiplied numbers noted in a ledger found in a co-conspirator’s apartment by the number of weeks prosecutors claimed the conspiracy had run. Using this calculation, the judge determined that Wilson and his co-conspirators were responsible for 54 kilograms of crack, though only one kilogram of crack was actually recovered near a co-conspirator’s home and no drugs were recovered in Wilson’s home or business.

In Wilson’s 1994 sentencing, the judge said that because he sentenced Wilson’s co-conspirator to life, he had to sentence Wilson to the same. In 2001, former President Bill Clinton commuted the sentence of the co-conspirator, who was the only white defendant involved in the case. According to Wilson’s attorney, if Wilson had been convicted of the same amount of powder cocaine instead of crack cocaine, his mandatory sentencing range would have been approximately 20 to 24 years. However, he is not eligible for a sentence reduction based on sentencing reforms that have reduced the disparity in federal sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. Wilson says he was shocked by his sentence, explaining, “Because I had never been to prison before…you never think you’re about to get life…. They give us life without parole, you’re like, that can’t be possible, but it really is.”

Now 48, Wilson has served 20 years in prison. His three sons, who were ages three, four, and six when he was incarcerated, are all now in their mid-20s. He corresponds with his mother, Dorothy Wilson, and sons regularly and says he has a very close relationship with his mother. His mother and sons are seldom able to visit him because he is imprisoned in California and they live in Texas. Since his incarceration, he has taken several classes related to self-improvement. He has also completed several leatherwork courses in which he learned hand-stitching, design, and traditional construction techniques.

Wilson suffered a stroke in November 2011 and required hospitalization for several days. The stroke left him with extreme difficulty reading and writing, severely impaired speech, and vision problems. His condition has improved very little since his stroke. He was not provided with speech therapy until nine months after his stroke, when it was too late to recover speech ability. He is imprisoned at Victorville United States Penitentiary in California, a high-security facility at which he reports he has been unable to obtain adequate medical care for his medical condition.

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 47).

*Michael’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Obama after serving more than 23 years in prison.


During an undercover investigation in Shreveport in September 2008, an undercover officer approached a white man named Mr. Perdue and Winslow, who is Black. The officer asked Winslow for two dime bags of marijuana worth $10 each and promised a $5 commission for Winslow, who says he accepted the offer in order to earn some money to get something to eat. Winslow says he bought two $5 bags of marijuana from Perdue and sold them to the undercover officer as dime bags worth $10 each. The undercover officer testified that he witnessed a hand-to-hand transaction between Winslow and Perdue and that he paid Winslow with a $20 bill and a $5 bill. When officers arrested Winslow, he only had the $5 bill on him. Officers found the marked $20 bill on Perdue (the white supplier), but did not arrest him.

According to Winslow, at trial, the 10 white jurors found him guilty of marijuana distribution, while the two black jurors found him not guilty (the state of Louisiana does not require a unanimous jury to convict and instead allows convictions by 10 out of 12 jurors). He was sentenced to mandatory life without parole as a fourth-strike offender. His prior convictions were for a simple burglary committed in 1984, when he was 17; simple burglary in 1994, when he was 27 (he was accused and convicted of opening an unlocked car door and rummaging inside without taking anything); and possession of cocaine in 2000, when he was 37 (an undercover officer tried to sell him cocaine, which he says he did not purchase).

Winslow is now 46 years old. He cannot afford an attorney and has filed his unsuccessful post-conviction appeals, written in pencil, himself. His mother died recently, and he has no friends or family outside prison with whom he is in contact. He spends time in the law library daily, “try[ing] to learn how to get out” and prays “every day all day…just living day by day waiting to die in prison.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 157).

*Fate’s sentence was commuted due to a change in Louisiana Law and help from the Innocence Project after serving more than 12 years in prison. He was murdered after four months of freedom.

Fate Winslow

Fate Winslow after his sentence commutation.

Reynolds Wintersmith


Wintersmith says he grew up surrounded by family members and family friends who used drugs and cooked, packaged, and sold crack cocaine. According to Wintersmith, both of his parents were drug addicts. After his mother, a heroin addict, died of a drug overdose when he was 11 years old, he went to live with his grandmother, who sold crack and operated a brothel out of her home. Prior to moving in with his grandmother, Wintersmith recalls his lowest grade was a B. After living with her for a year, he says his highest grade was a C, and he started receiving mostly Ds. Although still a child himself, he frequently had to take care of his three younger siblings. Social services agencies failed to investigate complaints of child abuse and neglect. While living at his grandmother’s as a young teenager, he says his aunts taught him how to cook crack. When he was 16, his grandmother was imprisoned for selling drugs and he was left responsible for contributing to the rent and electricity bills and supporting his younger siblings. He says he secured a summer job at a local Red Lobster restaurant, but on only $4.25 an hour, and without a car or reliable public transportation to get to work, he ultimately quit his job at the restaurant and began selling crack cocaine on the street.

In 1992, when Wintersmith was 17, he dropped out of high school. He became involved with a drug ring in Rockford, Illinois, and began selling cocaine for them. The drug ring sold crack and powder cocaine out of various drug houses in Rockford and was highly organized, with several levels of management, including runners, lookouts, and supervisors. The members of the operation owned guns and carried them on a regular basis, but the case against them did not include charges that the defendants committed any specific acts of violence. Wintersmith was arrested shortly after his nineteenth birthday, a year after becoming involved in the drug ring. He and 19 others were indicted in federal court for their participation in the conspiracy. Wintersmith declined a plea offer of 10 years’ imprisonment, and says he was unaware he faced a mandatory life-without-parole sentence when he chose to go to trial. Wintersmith was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute crack and powder cocaine, and possession of crack cocaine. Although he was a street dealer, Wintersmith was convicted as part of the much larger drug conspiracy case, and he was held accountable for the entire amount of cocaine sold by the conspiracy during his one-year involvement.

Even though Wintersmith had no criminal record, was convicted of nonviolent drug crimes he became involved in as a juvenile, and was still a teenager when he was arrested, he was sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence in 1994. His sentence was the product of disparately harsh crack sentencing policies. According to his clemency attorney, if he had sold the same—or almost triple—the amount of cocaine, but entirely in its powder form, the federal sentencing guidelines would have required just 30 years’ imprisonment. However, because he distributed crack as well, the guidelines mandated a life sentence.

When sentencing Wintersmith, U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard told him, “Under the federal law I have no discretion in my sentencing. Usually a life sentence is imposed in state courts when somebody has been killed or severely hurt, or you got a recidivist, that is, a defendant who’s been convicted time and time again. This is your first conviction…and here you face life imprisonment. I think it gives me pause to think that that was the intention of Congress, to put somebody away for the rest of their life.” Judge Reinhard added, “Even though…there ought to be some latitude for the court to take that into consideration when you have a 17-year old who gets involved…there is not another alternative available.” Judge Reinhard told Wintersmith that he could hope that “something will change in the law” and he could be released at an earlier date as a result.

Wintersmith is now 39 and has spent half his life in prison. During his nearly two decades in prison, he has completed multiple educational and vocational programs. He completed 4,100 hours of teaching apprenticeship and has become a U.S. Department of Labor-certified teacher’s aide. He tutors other inmates, works as a certified victim impact counselor, and serves as a companion for suicidal prisoners as part of a federal inmate suicide prevention program. As a federal community re-entry mentor, he counsels prisoners on how to be productive members of society following their release from prison, an opportunity he does not share with the prisoners whom he mentors.

Wintersmith’s appeals have been exhausted, and in March 2012 he filed a petition for commutation of his sentence, which is pending. His daughter, Chonte’, wrote in support of the commutation petition:

“Even though my father has been away from me physically, he’s been there for me mentally. My father and I have a really close relationship; I can talk to him about anything. He always makes me smile even when I’m down…My father has served almost 20 years already; he didn’t get a chance to see me grow up…Every girl deserves to have their father in their life. Obama, please commute my father’s sentence…I miss him so much and I just want him to have a second chance at life.” If Wintersmith’s clemency request is granted, he says he intends to continue teaching and counseling. He is incarcerated in a federal prison in Greenville, Illinois. He writes, “My past mistakes—though serious in nature—were done in the ignorance of my youth. I grew up without a mother or father in what was considered a drug-house. I was surrounded by drug use and drug deals. I had nothing else to compare that life to. What I saw daily was what I believed.” He adds, “The person I have grown into was my way of apologizing to everyone I have ever wronged.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 67).

*Reynolds had his sentence commuted by President Obama after serving more than 20 years behind bars.


In September 2007, Wright, then 28, sold crack cocaine to an undercover officer posing as a drug buyer as part of a joint undercover operation by Charleston police and the FBI. Police videotaped the transaction and arrested Wright three weeks later. He says that he was selling crack because he was poor and unable to find work; according to Wright, at the time, it was the only way he knew how to take care of his family, including his ailing mother.

A jury convicted Wright of charges of distribution of $50 worth of crack cocaine and distribution of crack within a half-mile of a school. In May 2009, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole under South Carolina’s three-strikes law. The court used a juvenile conviction as a necessary third strike to sentence Wright to LWOP. According to prosecutors, Wright had previous convictions for possession of crack, possession of a stolen vehicle, and unlawful carrying of a pistol dating back to 1997, when he was 18 years old.

Wright has been incarcerated for five years, and he spends his time studying the law, reading the Bible, and praying. He says he remains close to his wife and mother. Wright told the ACLU of his sentence, “To me to have life without parole is just like being dead…I am very stress[ed] and depress[ed] to know I might not ever be with my loved ones and I might die back here in this place.” If given the opportunity to appear before a parole board, he says, “I would [tell] them how I made some mistakes in my life, [but] being in prison has changed my life…Even though I committed a crime, I’m not a violent person, and I have changed my life to be more positive and productive if I was to be let back in society.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 119).

Lloyd Wright

Lloyd Wright

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