Two men who received life sentences decades ago during the toppling of St. Petersburg's most notorious cocaine trafficking regimes will go free later this year after President Barack Obama commuted their sentences Monday.
Roy Larry Lee, 63, and Marlon McNealy, 42, were among 46 inmates in several states who received clemency under a federal initiative to fix old drug sentences that critics say were too harsh for nonviolent offenders.
"These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years," Obama said in a video statement. "Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses. So their punishments didn't fit the crime."
Anthony Leon Carroll, 41, of Tampa, who was serving a nearly 22-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, was also granted clemency.
Monday's announcement brought the total number of commutations Obama has issued to 89 — more than the last four presidents combined and the most since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his tenure, according to the New York Times.
Sally Quillian Yates, the U.S. deputy attorney general, said in a statement that the commutations were part of the Justice Department's "commitment to correcting" past "inequities" in sentencing, many of which date to the height of the war on drugs. Obama requested the Justice Department create criteria last year to determine candidates for clemency who might receive lighter punishments if they were sentenced today.
To be eligible for clemency, offenders must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history and have demonstrated good conduct in prison, according to the Department of Justice.
Lee, who was 38 at the time of his trial, was convicted of two counts of selling narcotics and one count of conspiracy to distribute narcotics in 1990. He received a life sentence as a career offender and currently resides in a medium-security prison in Sumterville.
Lee's brother, Robert Earl "Wonderman" Lee, was the kingpin of a multimillion dollar cocaine trafficking syndicate that controlled south St. Petersburg in the 1980s. He lived lavishly with 30 vehicles, including a limousine and semi-trailer truck. He also owned a car wash.
Investigators toppled his group in "Operation Irongate," so named for the wrought iron gate in front of the family home at 926 Union St. S.
"Wonderman, he and his family, they're the ones who were responsible for introducing crack cocaine basically to the west coast of Florida," said Mike Celona, a former St. Petersburg police officer who worked in south St. Petersburg at the time.
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Celona said he did not encounter Lee on the street.
Margaret S. Russell, a volunteer lawyer who worked on Lee's case for the Clemency Project 2014, said the president acted on the right side of justice Monday.
"It's truly incredible to be a part of giving people a second chance at freedom and redemption," Russell said.
McNealy was Wonderman's grandson. He got through the first bust and continued dealing drugs under Romeo Mathis, Wonderman's successor, according to authorities.
At its peak, Mathis' syndicate trafficked $300,000 of cocaine a week, according to Celona.
The Mathis group "held a lot of neighborhoods hostage" and was suspected in a number of homicides, shootings and robberies, Celona said.
McNealy was convicted of conspiracy to commit racketeering as well as drug charges and sentenced to life in prison in 1993. Neither Lee nor McNealy were convicted of violent offenses.
"They themselves weren't charged with committing an act of violence, but in 1990, 1991, the area that they controlled and sold the narcotics in — there was a lot of violence associated with it," Celona said.
McNealy's father, Donald, said the news Monday "knocked (him) off (his) feet."
"These people did not commit anything violent, and to just take their whole life away from them? That's totally ludicrous," the elder McNealy said.
Ellen Podgor, a Stetson University law professor whose students have reviewed case files for clemency candidates, said the commutations are a step toward reducing overpopulation in American prisons. She said recipients still serve significant time.
"It's not like they're opening the doors of the prison and just letting everybody out," Podgor said.
McNealy's father said his son, who was 19 when he was arrested, has remained positive about life even in medium-security FCI Talladega in Alabama.
"I'm just going to be glad to see him, to see him walking a free man," Donald McNealy said. "That's my first reaction. I just thank God he's a free man."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Kameel Stanley and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.