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Florida leads the nation in the number of prisoners released by Obama

Published Sep. 19, 2016

Fulton Washington was doing pullups in the recreation yard of California's Lompoc federal prison when the loudspeaker blared: "Inmate 08204-112, report to the guard shack."

Washington, 61, reluctantly let go of the metal bar. The last time he was called to the shack, his mother had died. Did something happen to one of his kids?

He walked into the room of correctional officers, where a speakerphone sat on the table. The call was for Washington.

"You're a free man," said his Tampa attorney, James Felman. "Obama just commuted your sentence."

Washington is among hundreds of federal prisoners, most convicted of drug crimes, who have been released or had their sentences reduced as part of President Barack Obama's clemency initiative, which provides relief to nonviolent offenders who would have received much shorter terms if convicted today.

To date, Obama has commuted 673 sentences, more than the previous 10 presidents combined.

Florida leads the nation in the number of granted clemency cases, with most coming from Tampa Bay's Middle District of Florida, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

Dozens of Tampa Bay lawyers are also among the roughly 4,000 nationwide participating in the initiative, considered the largest pro bono effort in the country's history. The pace of filing cases is expected to accelerate in coming months as Obama's last term ends, leaving uncertain the future of the initiative.

Hearing the news of his release, Washington stared at the phone. He was sentenced to life, and for nearly 20 years watched others leave prison knowing he would likely die in a cell. Felman asked how he felt.

Washington could say only three words: "I feel good."

• • •

Under federal sentencing guidelines during the War on Drugs, defendants convicted of drug charges were likely to face much steeper prison terms if they had previous drug convictions. Prosecutors were encouraged to seek the maximum penalty and mandatory minimum sentences offered judges little discretion.

But the tough stance on drug cases has diminished in recent years. Among the changes was an August 2013 memo by then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Citing rising prison costs, Holder said prosecutors should exclude nonviolent defendants without ties to large drug organizations from harsher penalties.

"We've been overcriminalizing and we're incarcerating too many people and really doing harm to ourselves," said criminal defense lawyer Brian Shrader of Tampa. "We're really punishing our own society."

Christopher Gulley of Pensacola was one such defendant. With four previous drug convictions, prosecutors filed to enhance his sentence to life in 1996. He was convicted of conspiring to distribute about 3 pounds of crack cocaine.

"The law is the law, and I don't really have any choice of what I can do," U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson said during Gulley's sentencing. "There's always the possibility that some of these things are going to be revised, and you may get the benefit of that."

• • •

In 2014, the Department of Justice announced the Clemency Initiative and released criteria for federal prisoners who qualify. It sparked the creation of the Clemency Project 2014, a pro bono group of lawyers from across the country.

The project is headed by a committee of about 10 members. Among the group is Felman, a Tampa criminal defense lawyer, and Donna Lee Elm, federal public defender for the Middle District of Florida.

"We all know and knew and had known for decades that there are a lot of people in federal prison who probably didn't need to be there," said Felman, former chairman of the American Bar Association's criminal justice section.

The Clemency Project screens cases and distributes the ones that seem to meet clemency guidelines to lawyers nationwide who review them and write summaries outlining how the defendant meets criteria. The packets ultimately make their way to Obama, who makes a decision on each case.

Many who received clemency had been sentenced to life in prison. Among them is Gulley, the Pensacola man convicted in 1996. Shrader, his attorney, called him this summer to tell him he would be released Sept. 2.

"Walking out that door without handcuffs," Gulley, 47, said, "I can't describe it."

• • •

Nearly one in 10 prisoners granted clemency were prosecuted in the Middle District of Florida, a Times analysis shows. It's unclear why this district leads the nation in commutations, but possible factors include Florida's high volume of narcotics cases during the War on Drugs.

Another reason, according to Felman and Elm, is the support from Middle District U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley.

"From a purely fiscal standpoint, the United States cannot afford to warehouse people for life when it's not necessary to do so to protect the public," Bentley said. "We think the president has done the right thing."

The clemency initiative also raised awareness of the racial disparity in drug convictions. In Florida alone, 76 percent of cases involved a black defendant.

"Ever since I started practicing criminal defense in 1990, we have been raising the issue that this sentencing disparity is outrageous," said Elm, the federal defender. "(The president) is trying to fix something that's been badly broken for the wrong reasons for a long time."

Many lawyers filing petitions don't even practice criminal defense. Roxanne Fixsen, a St. Petersburg commercial litigation lawyer, got involved after receiving a call from a local bar association. With guidance from Felman's office, she filed three petitions. Two were granted.

"I knew nothing about the criminal world," she said. "Anytime there is an opportunity to help people regain their freedom or some of their rights, I'd like to be a part of that."

Each pro bono lawyer typically handles a few cases. But Felman's Tampa office has filed nearly 100 petitions, most of them by his firm partner, Katherine Yanes.

"To watch Katherine leave in the evening with a briefcase under her arm and come back the next morning having written two cases," Felman said, "it's unbelievable."

So far, 16 of their cases have been granted. "We felt like this was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to make a difference on a larger scale in people's lives," Yanes said. "Honestly, I feel like it's about the most satisfying and fulfilling thing I've done as an attorney."

• • •

Sentenced to life in 1997, Washington was one of four defendants convicted of conspiring to manufacture PCP. Investigators said they had obtained chemicals that could have produced up to 623 pounds of the drug, court records show.

In prison, Washington, of Los Angeles, led a productive life. He filed motions to prove his innocence and wrote to loved ones. He discovered his talent for drawing and painting after sketching the face of a witness in his case.

He learned to paint portraits, flowers and sceneries, and painted murals at the prison.

After Felman's phone call May 5, Washington sent a framed print of one of his paintings to the Tampa lawyer's office. It shows Washington in prison scrubs sitting at a table, his wrists handcuffed and his feet shackled. Around him are Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Holder, Felman, Yanes, and Washington's daughter, Erica.

The frame now hangs near the entrance of Yanes and Felman's downtown office.

"You want to believe that our judicial system operates and runs correctly," Washington said. "I have a second chance."

On his first day outside prison, Washington stopped at a Starbucks and watched people sip iced coffee. In an Albertsons he saw a display of bagged cherries.

He bought a bag and opened it.

For the first time in 20 years, Washington ate fresh cherries.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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