Charceil was serving life without parole – reduced from two life sentences plus 30 years – for conspiracy to distribute, distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base. Judge Glen E. Conrad said the mandatory sentence was “out of proportion” to the circumstances of her case. On August 3, 2016, President Obama commuted Charceil’s sentence. She is now in a halfway house.
“To me, it’s over the top. I know it’s more than I would have sentenced you to if I had been left to my own discretion and devices. It’s been taken out of my hands.” – Judge Conrad
When Charceil Kellam was arrested in September of 2006, her family assumed that she wouldn’t spend much time in prison. She had a history of arrests, related to her decades-long addiction issues, but even when convicted, she never spent much time locked up. This time, however, Charceil was indicted on federal crack cocaine conspiracy charges and held accountable for 50 to 500 grams of the drug. Unfathomably, she was facing two life sentences, plus 30 years, for a nonviolent drug offense.
Charceil had dealt with addiction since her teen years—her father struggled with alcoholism and after her parents divorced as a result, her experimentation with drugs began. She dropped out of high school at 16. By 19, she had made a turnaround—she was living on her own and earned a high school diploma. But she began using cocaine at 23 and, shortly after that, turned to crack.
“My choice of man played a role, they were all drug dealers,” she says. “They took care of my addiction.”
Still, even at her lowest moment, Charceil never imagined she’d be sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison. But, on Sept. 6, 2006, she was charged, and the prosecution sought to enhance her sentence. Without that enhancement, she would’ve faced 235-293 months—still an extremely long amount of time, but enough time for her to gain her sobriety and become rehabilitated without ripping apart her family.
Instead, Charceil received the longest sentence of anyone in the conspiracy. The next longest sentence handed down was 20 years. No one else received life, let alone two life sentences, plus 30 years. And half of her codefendants are already free.
At the time of her sentencing, Charceil’s son, Perry Davis, was shocked by the punishment she received. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he told a local newspaper.
Charceil wasn’t even heavily involved in the conspiracy. At a 2010 resentencing hearing, during which her original sentence was reduced to life without parole, Judge Glen E. Conrad lamented not being able to reduce Charceil’s sentence further.
While Judge Conrad did not deem the punishment a violation of Charceil’s eighth amendment rights, as her defense attorney argued, he did say, “I agree it’s cruel and perhaps it’s out of proportion to the seriousness of your prior offenses and the offense on this occasion.
“To me, it’s over the top,” Conrad continued. “I know it’s more than I would have sentenced you to if I had been left to my own discretion and devices. It’s been taken out of my hands. I can assure you that if the law permits it, I will reduce your sentence because […] I think the period of life imprisonment that is mandated by the statute is somewhat out of proportion to the circumstances of your case.”
Charceil’s family continues to stand by her and fight for her release, but she says this ordeal has been a nightmare for them. “This has been a hardship on my family,” she says. “Not only has my mother adopted responsibility for my two younger children, she also has my grandmother….” Charceil’s grandmother is 104 years old and says she’s “not going anywhere” until her granddaughter finally comes home.
Charceil spends her time focusing not on her sentence, but on programming. She has taken a variety of classes on addiction and maintaining sobriety. She has also taken soldering, Spanish, yoga, conflict resolution, and computer courses, in the hopes that she will one day be free and able to put those skills to use.
“This has been a wakeup call for me,” she says. “I take responsibility for the role I played, but my part does not fit the punishment.”
The Facts: Charceil Kellam
Sentence: Life without parole (reduced from two life sentences, plus 30 years) (commuted 2016)
Offense: Conspiracy to distribute, distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base
Priors: Possession of cocaine, possession of marijuana, shoplifting, resisting arrest, receiving stolen property, obtaining public assistance by false statement, and other minor priors related to her addiction.
Year sentenced: 2007
Age at sentencing: 43