President Obama commutes drug sentence of Deval Patrick’s first cousin
WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Thursday granted a rare commutation to the first cousin of Governor Deval Patrick, allowing the release of a man who in 1994 was given a life sentence on charges of dealing crack cocaine.
Patrick said that he does not recall ever meeting his first cousin Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr., 39 of Rockford, Ill., and had no involvement in his application for clemency, which has been a cause of national advocates for years and has been featured in the national media.
“There’s a significant age gap between the two and the governor has no recollection of having met Mr. Wintersmith,” said Patrick’s spokeswoman Jesse Mermell. “Governor Patrick had no involvement in any application for a commutation of Mr. Wintersmith.”
He was aware of Wintersmith’s imprisonment, she said, but did not know the specifics of his case or the request for a commutation.
Patrick, who declined requests for an interview, has a close relationship with President Obama, dining with him at the White House and Martha’s Vineyard. Mermell said the White House did not alert the governor about the commutation, and that Patrick learned of it only through the news media.
A White House spokesman would not say whether Obama knew that Wintersmith was related to Patrick when he signed off on the commutation.
Wintersmith was one of eight convicts who received presidential commutations Thursday. He is expected to be released by April. Obama also granted 13 pardons.
Obama said he was granting the commutations because they were unduly harsh. The president in 2010 signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a statement. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
Wintersmith’s case has been featured in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, and advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union have taken up his cause. He joined a drug ring when he was 17, and he was arrested when he was 19. Advocates for his release said he was the only juvenile, first-time offender in the country serving a mandatory federal life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.
“I have spent over half of my life in federal prison,” Wintersmith wrote in a blog post put on the ACLU website on Monday. “I have been gone from a world that witnessed the advent of smartphones, digital cameras, and GPS technology. More personally, I have been gone from my family. I have missed 20 years of graduations, funerals, and carved turkeys for the holidays. For my very first conviction, I paid with the entire balance of my freedom.”
MiAngel Cody, a staff attorney with the federal defenders office in Chicago who spoke to Wintersmith Thursday, said Wintersmith would remain in prison no later than April 17, 2014, when his sentence will expire. The Bureau of Prisons could release him before then.
“He is very grateful for this second chance,” said Cody, who spoke to Wintersmith Thursday. “He would like people to know that he intends to make President Obama proud.”
She added that he spent the last decade teaching fellow prisoners nearing the end of their sentences how to re-enter society.
When Wintersmith was sentenced, it came during the crack epidemic and a time when federal sentencing guidelines were mandatory. Because he was a gang leader and pushing large amounts of cocaine and crack to the streets, the judge at the time said he had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison.
“There is not another alternative available,” US District Judge Philip Reinhard said during the sentencing hearing, according to the Chicago Tribune. “It gives me pause to think that that was the intent of Congress, to put somebody away for the rest of their life, but in any event, it’s there.”
The laws, though, have changed since then, particularly as prisons have grown more crowded.
Advocates pushing Wintersmith’s release emphasized that he was raised in a home where most of his family was using or dealing drugs. Both of his parents were drug addicts, and he said he found his mother dead from a heroin overdose when he was 11.
“I was raised in a crack and prostitution house where adult family members taught me how to cook, package and sell cocaine,” Wintersmith wrote on the ACLU post. “My childhood does not excuse my crime. It only explains the road I have traveled.”
Wintersmith’s father and Patrick’s mother are siblings and, while Patrick was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, they all lived under the same roof.
In his 2011 book “A Reason to Believe; Lessons from an Improbable Life,” Patrick writes about his Wintersmith’s father, who at times lived in his grandparents home, where Patrick also stayed.
“The environment was perpetually tense, with Uncle Sonny often serving as the flashpoint,” Patrick writes. “He was older than my mother, a handsome, charming, but irresponsible character addicted to heroine who careened between drug binges, jail, and his parents’ apartment.”
Patrick recalls walking into the living room as his uncle was shooting up. After he told his mother, asking her what he was doing, she went into a rage, threw him out of the house, and double-locked the door.
Wintersmith’s sister, Rashonda, told the Globe last night that she probably met Patrick as a young girl but does not remember.
“He’s my first cousin. I’m sure I’ve met him,” she said. “We shared the same grandmother.”
Rashonda Wintersmith said she had yet to speak to her brother last night but was trying to put money on his phone card so he could call her from prison.
“I probably won’t be able to say anything to him. Just tears. Thank you, Jesus. That’s what I’ll be saying,” she said. “Words can’t explain.”
Patrick in the past has taken on causes of those who have been convicted.
Before he ran for governor in 2006, Patrick wrote two letters to the Parole Board on behalf of Benjamin LaGuer, a man convicted of rape who also drew support from activists who insisted he was wrongly convicted. Patrick also donated $5,000 in 2001 to a legal fund to pay for DNA tests.
Patrick’s contribution became an issue and the subject of provocative attack ad during his initial run for governor, prompting him to review more evidence in the case and “the right outcome has been achieved and that justice has been served.”Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.