Manda­tory min­i­mums dev­as­tated a con­vict and his judge alike. Now, they’re fight­ing the pol­icy.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JUSTIN WM. MOYER

When Evans Ray Jr. stood in a fed­eral court­room in 2007 after ar­rang­ing a drug sale, a judge ex­plained, at length, that he didn’t want to hand down the manda­tory life sen­tence re­quired by law.

“It is my de­sire not to sen­tence you to life,” Judge Alexan­der Wil­liams Jr. said in his Green­belt, Md., court­room, ac­cord­ing to tran­scripts. “I be­lieve that the cir­cum­stances jus­tify a sen­tence shorter than life. I fur­ther be­lieve that there is some dis­pro­por­tion­al­ity be­tween what you’ve done and the sen­tence of life.”

Ray, 47, a bar­ber with a wife, four chil­dren and two prior drug con­vic­tions, ini­tially re­fused to ar­range the sale. He was a mid­dle­man pushed into the trans­ac­tion by a friend who turned out to be a govern­ment in­for­mant, and he didn’t profit from the deal. The other de­fen­dants in­volved in the sale re­ceived lighter sen­tences. Wil­liams tried to sen­tence Ray to a shorter term of 27 years, but pros­e­cu­tors ap­pealed.

The con­vic­tion was what is com­monly called a “third strike,” which can trig­ger a manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tence. In Ray’s case, a life sen­tence it would be.

After his sen­tenc­ing, Ray thanked the man who en­sured that he would die be­hind bars.

“I have to own up to my own re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The law says life. I’m not in agree­ment with it, not at all, and I know you weren’t,” Ray said, ac­cord­ing to tran­scripts. “But I just want to thank you and the courts for at least try­ing.”

Ray now con­sid­ers him­self blessed, he said — he was granted clemency in 2016 by President Barack Obama. After 12 years, he is out, and he and the judge who gave him life are join­ing forces to con­demn manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences.

“It had to be said,” Wil­liams, now re­tired from the law, said of his com­ments from the bench dur­ing a re­cent meet­ing with Ray at his of­fice at the Univer­sity of Mary­land jus­tice and ethics cen­ter named after him. “It didn’t sit right in my stom­ach.”

Ray, mean­while, is ad­just­ing to a life he thought he would never re­turn to. Now 57, he is liv­ing with his par­ents in Prince Ge­orge’s County, get­ting to know his chil­dren, hold­ing down a job and speak­ing out against the law that sought to keep him be­hind bars for life.

A let­ter from the president

Manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences have long trou­bled dru­gre­form ad­vo­cates. First in­sti­tuted by Congress dur­ing the war on drugs in the 1980s, they pre­vent judges from con­sid­er­ing other fac­tors, such as past be­hav­ior, when hand­ing out prison time.

Some judges don’t like them, ei­ther. Kevin Sharp, a for­mer fed­eral judge in Ten­nessee who re­cently stepped down after six years, said he “didn’t sleep for sev­eral nights” in 2014 after he sen­tenced a mi­nor player in a drug deal to life.

“I dragged out the sen­tenc­ing so that I wouldn’t have to say th­ese words and sen­tence him,” said Sharp, now a civil rights at­tor­ney in pri­vate prac­tice.

Wil­liams said that he presided over about 1,000 crim­i­nal cases in Mary­land be­fore step­ping down and that “cer­tainly a cou­ple hun­dred” in­volved manda­tory min­i­mums.

“None of the judges like hav­ing their hands tied,” he said.

The Mary­land U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice, which pros­e­cuted Ray, de- to com­ment on the case. But Del Wright Jr., a pros­e­cu­tor in Ray’s case who is now a law pro­fes­sor at Val­paraiso Univer­sity in In­di­ana, said he didn’t think Ray’s sen­tence was fair — even though Wright worked for the of­fice that asked for it.

After Ray de­clined a plea agree­ment and was con­victed at trial, Wright said, pros­e­cu­tors had no choice but to ask for a manda­tory life sen­tence. The threat of a manda­tory min­i­mum is what can in­duce peo­ple to ac­cept plea bar­gains to lesser charges, he said.

“I use that [as an ex­am­ple] in my classes some­times,” he said of the case. “It’s our role. It’s not some­thing you nec­es­sar­ily want to do.”

Ray was thrown into the fed­eral prison sys­tem with a hefty sen­tence, serv­ing hard time. Al­though he had never fired a gun, he said, he was sent to Big Sandy, a high-se­cu­rity pen­i­ten­tiary in Ken­tucky also known as “Killer Moun­tain.” Some killers and rapists were serv­ing shorter sen­tences than his, and peace among the races was kept by the con­stant threat of vi­o­lence.

“They’ve got knives, we’ve got knives,” Ray said.

Ray kept out of trou­ble, work­ing to­ward lower-se­cu­rity in­sti­tu­tions, and ap­plied for clemency in 2014. Obama made clear that he was no friend of manda­tory min­i­mums, even­tu­ally grant­ing clemency to more than 1,700 peo­ple. Ray was the type of can­di­date the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had in mind: He had a lim­ited crim­i­nal his­tory and ar­guably was pulled into a con­spir­acy.

Sapna Mir­chan­dani, a Mary­land fed­eral pub­lic de­fender, said she learned of Ray’s case dur­ing a re­view of hun­dreds of manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences while search­ing for pos­si­ble clemency ap­pli­cants.

“His jumped out at me,” she said.

Mir­chan­dani helped put to­gether Ray’s clemency pe­ti­tion. Among the let­ters sub­mit­ted on his be­half were some from prison of­fi­cials — and one from Wil­liams, the judge in Ray’s case.

“As I stated at the time of sen­tenc­ing, and as I be­lieve even more strongly to­day, im­pos­ing a life sen­tence on Mr. Ray for the sin­gle sale of 60 grams of co­caine base . . . amounted to cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment,” the judge wrote in April 2016.

Ray was granted clemency in Au­gust. He was so ner­vous about read­ing the let­ter when it ar­rived that he asked a fel­low pris­oner to read it for him.

“I am grant­ing your ap­pli­ca­tion be­cause you have demon­strated the po­ten­tial to turn your life around,” Obama wrote. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this op­por­tu­nity.”

Since he stepped out of prison, Ray says he has done just that.

“It’s like a long black tun­nel, but you can’t let that bea­con of light go dark,” he said.

Fore­cast for a bet­ter fu­ture

It’s not clear whether President Trump and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions em­brace manda­tory min­i­mums. The Jus­tice Depart­ment didn’t re­spond to re­clined quests for com­ment.

Kevin Ring, a for­mer pris­oner and the president of the ad­vo­cacy group Fam­i­lies Against Manda­tory Min­i­mums, isn’t op­ti­mistic, say­ing, “We’re go­ing back­ward.”

Some pros­e­cu­tors dis­agree. Larry Leiser, president of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­neys, a pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tion for pros­e­cu­tors, de­clined to com­ment, but re­ferred to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s 2015 white pa­per on manda­tory min­i­mums that con­cluded that they help re­duce vi­o­lent crime and per­suade de­fen­dants to co­op­er­ate with pros­e­cu­tors.

“Be­hind the sen­ti­men­tal ap­peal of the cir­cum­stances of some de­fen­dants serv­ing long manda­tory sen­tences is the ‘rest of the story,’ ” it read. “In nearly ev­ery in­stance, the de­fen­dant has been con­victed mul­ti­ple times be­fore and could have avoided a longer sen­tence . . . . In­stead they elected not to as­sist law en­force­ment and in­stead pro­tected fel­low co­con­spir­a­tors.”

Ray and hun­dreds of other of­fend­ers granted clemency by Obama, mean­while, are strug­gling to adapt to a re­al­ity many thought they would never see: shak­ing off a life sen­tence and learn­ing to sur­vive out­side prison — in some cases at an age when others may con­tem­plate re­tire­ment.

David Carroll, 64, was con­victed of dis­tri­bu­tion of crack co­caine in 1995 in Vir­ginia. He served 22 years be­fore Obama com­muted his sen­tence, and he was re­leased last fall.

“Twenty-two years takes a toll, whether you’re inside or out,” he said.

His first stop was Hope Vil­lage, the ma­ligned D.C. half­way house with a his­tory of se­cu­rity is­sues and prob­lems con­nect­ing res­i­dents with jobs.

“Some guys would rather stay in jail than go to Hope Vil­lage,” Carroll said.

In an in­ter­view, Hope Vil­lage Di­rec­tor Jeff Varone re­ferred to Washington Post sto­ries about prob­lems at the half­way house, say­ing he shared Trump’s opin­ion that The Post of­fered “fake news.”

“No mat­ter what we say isn’t go­ing to be good enough,” Varone said. “We do the best pos­si­ble job with th­ese guys. They think we’re mir­a­cle work­ers. I think we do a really out­stand­ing job for our com­mu­nity.”

Carroll is sleep­ing on his niece’s couch in Falls Church, with lim­ited job prospects. He wants to start a haul­ing busi­ness with his Ford truck but said he’s had trou­ble get­ting a driver’s li­cense be­cause of com­pli­ca­tions with a 32-year-old out­stand­ing traf­fic ticket.

Un­like less for­tu­nate for­mer pris­on­ers, he is sur­rounded by friends and fam­ily to sup­port him as his new life be­gins, but wants to get back to work.

“I hope to be half­way sta­ble so I can give a bet­ter fore­cast for next year, five years,” Carroll said. “I have to make money.”

Ray is help­ing to care for his mother, who re­cently had a mas­tec­tomy, and his step­fa­ther, who lost both legs to di­a­betes. He makes a lit­tle more than the District’s min­i­mum wage of $11.50 an hour at the Toni Thomas Com­mu­nity Em­pow­er­ment Train­ing Academy, a jobs pro­gram in South­east Washington. He’s also able to help his chil­dren for the first time, “tak­ing some of the slack off their moms,” he said.

“I didn’t have any mem­o­ries,” said Thea Ray, his 14-year-old daugh­ter who was 2 years old when her fa­ther was locked up. “Just pic­tures.”

Among sen­tenc­ing re­form ad­vo­cates, Ray’s voice is val­ued — but in­ter­views and speak­ing en­gage­ments don’t pay, and he some­times misses paid work for them.

“I just can’t for­get where I came from,” he said. “The day you stop fight­ing for your life is the day you give up.”

Among those cheer­ing for him is the judge who sent him away.

“It’s a happy end­ing,” Wil­liams said, “and I’m just glad I could play a small part.”

“It had to be said. It didn’t sit right in my stom­ach.” Judge Alexan­der Wil­liams Jr., who con­demned manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences from the bench even as he gave Evans Ray Jr. life in prison in 2007

MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

In 2007, Evans Ray Jr. was given life in prison un­der manda­tory sen­tenc­ing laws. In 2016, he was granted clemency by President Barack Obama. Now, he has teamed up with the man who sen­tenced him to ad­vo­cate for the end of manda­tory sen­tences.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Evans Ray Jr., left, is ad­just­ing to life out­side prison. Alexan­der Wil­liams Jr., the judge who sen­tenced him, re­tired from the law and over­sees an ethics cen­ter. Both are work­ing to end manda­tory sen­tences.

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