Post Date: April 27, 2014
(The Denver Post) — A hasty signature in a yellowed paper ledger and the single snip of blue-handled scissors to remove his ankle monitoring device gave Billy Ray Wheelock his freedom.
It took less than 60 seconds — an unceremonious end to a 21-year haul in prison governed by self-discipline and personal advocacy that moved the president to grant him clemency.
Wheelock, 51, shook the hands of the staff at a Denver halfway house where he spent the last few months of his captivity. Buoyed by two decades of pent-up dreams, he walked through the rusty front gate the morning of April 17, to where his fiancée awaited him to begin their new life together.
“I refuse to be free and unhappy,” Wheelock said.
Wheelock was 29 years old when he got life in prison for possession of and conspiracy to distribute 99.62 grams of crack cocaine.
His sentence was handed down by a Texas court in 1993, during the heyday of the war on drugs.
Crack was perceived as more addictive and dangerous then, and sentences for crack-related offenses were sometimes 100 times greater than for crimes involving the same amount of powder cocaine.
On Dec. 19, in a clemency order that acknowledged “a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust,” President Barack Obama shortened the sentences of Wheelock and seven other men and women serving long prison terms for cocaine-related crimes.
“Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Obama wrote. “But it must not be the last.”
Wheelock and the others now are poised to become the faces of work to reform the federal clemency process that has stranded perhaps thousands of other non-violent drug offenders sent to prison in the late 1980s and 1990s under harsh mandatory sentencing laws.
“Someday this (sentencing disparity) will be remembered as one of the most horrific things we’ve done in American history,” said University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert, a U.S. drug policy scholar who became friends with Wheelock’s fiancée while both were working on campus.
Changes to the sentencing system have begun. In 2010, severe mandatory minimums enacted in 1986 for crack offenders were reduced.
And on Wednesday, just days after Wheelock and some of the others walked free, the U.S. Department of Justice, under a directive from the Obama administration, announced major changes to the clemency process because of cases like theirs. Read more