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  1. Florida Politics

President Obama shortens prison sentences for 61 drug offenders, including one from Tampa

Tony Lewis was a young boy when his father, Anthony Lee Lewis, was convicted of a slew of drug charges and sentenced to life in prison nearly 22 years ago.

Over the years, the younger Lewis was told the harsh sentence might not hold up, and that his father, who lived in Tampa, might one day be released.

"They always told me he was getting out, and I just stopped believing it," said Tony Lewis, 29.

A year from now, though, the elder Lewis will be free.

President Barack Obama commuted the federal prison sentences of 61 drug offenders on Wednesday, including more than a third serving life sentences. Eleven of the offenders were from Florida, including Lewis, who was 28 years old when he was sentenced in 1994 for possession and sale of cocaine and illegally possessing a firearm, among other drug charges.

His sentence is now set to expire on March 30, 2017. By then, he'll be 51. Records show he is being held at the Coleman medium-security prison in Sumter County.

Tampa attorney Kenneth S. Siegel, who represented Lewis at trial and during subsequent appeals, said Lewis was among many defendants of that era who were given mandatory life sentences because of prior felony drug convictions.

"He was always very determined to do whatever he could to challenge his sentence," Siegel said. "He's a very bright guy, very personable and considerate. I'm sure when he gets out he'll lead a very productive life."

Lewis had prepared a clemency petition without an attorney, and that is what got his sentence commuted, said Katherine Yanes, a partner with Kynes Markman and Felman, a Tampa firm that reviews cases as part of the Clemency Project. The effort, launched in 2014, works to prepare or supplement clemency petitions for defendants who likely would have received a shorter sentence if they had been sentenced today. Defendants must not have prior convictions for violent crime, among other criteria.

Yanes' firm was about to start work on Lewis' case when they got the news that his sentence had been commuted.

"He did this himself, which is pretty amazing," Yanes said.

Obama, in a letter to those receiving commutations, said the presidential power to grant commutations and pardons "embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws."

One of the inmates commuted Wednesday, Jesse Webster of Chicago, is serving a life term for intent to sell cocaine and filing false tax returns. Another, Byron McDade of Bowie, Md., got 27 years for cocaine-related charges as well. In both cases, judges in the cases later said publicly it was too harsh, though sentencing guidelines often prevent judges from being more lenient.

Obama has long called for getting rid of strict sentences for drug offenses that critics say lead to excessive punishment and sky-high incarceration rates. With Obama's support, the U.S. Justice Department in recent years has directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimums and expanded the criteria for inmates applying for clemency.

The latest tranche of commutations brings to 248 the total number of inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted — more than the past six presidents combined, the White House said.

Lewis has six children and eight grandchildren, his daughter, Themika Lewis of Tampa, told the Times in an email. Lewis said giving her father a sentence comparable to what murderers receive was "harsh and unjustified."

She called her father an "intelligent, charismatic, caring and God-fearing man."

"He has helped many young men with their cases while incarcerated and strengthened his relationship with God," Lewis said. "Although not always right, his actions and motives before and during his imprisonment have always been for the betterment and well-being of his family."

Lewis spoke with her father Wednesday morning.

"He has plans and aspirations and my prayer is just that he is able to achieve some normalcy after so many years in prison, that he reaches his goals, is able to be the grandparent he's been longing to be to his grandchildren and that he finds peace with his past," she said.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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