Reynolds Wintersmith has spent his entire adult life (and nearly half of his entire life) in federal prison. In 1994, he was sentenced to life without parole for his role in a crack cocaine conspiracy – his first conviction. Reynolds was a minor when he got involved in the conspiracy and still a teenager when he was arrested. He was only 20-years-old when he learned he would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Reynolds grew up surrounded by drugs and addiction. Both of his parents were drug addicts and he grew up around family members and family friends who would cook, package and sell crack cocaine. After Reynolds’ mother died of a drug overdose, he went to live with his grandmother who sold drugs out of her home. Reynolds, a child himself, frequently had to take care of his younger siblings.
During one of his grandmother’s stints in prison, Reynolds lived with family friends who were affiliated with a Rockford, Illinois area gang. It was during this time that 16-year-old Reynolds started selling cocaine for them. In 1992, when he was 17, Reynolds was brought into the leadership of the drug ring by the adult leaders. A year later he and 19 other people were indicted in federal court.
Reynolds went to trial, unaware that he was facing a mandatory life sentence. He was convicted of two counts: conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute crack and powder cocaine; and possession of just over five grams of crack cocaine.
At sentencing, Reynolds was held accountable for the entire amount of cocaine sold in the conspiracy during his involvement. He received sentencing enhancements for possessing a firearm and for being a leader in the conspiracy. Reynolds’ sentencing judge remarked that Reynolds’ youth made him more susceptible to the influences of older members of the conspiracy. Under the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines the judge was forced to give 20-year-old Reynolds a life sentence for his first offense.
Under the federal law I have no discretion in my sentencing. Usually a life sentence is imposed in state courts when somebody has been killed or severely hurt, or you got a recidivist, that is, a defendant who’s been convicted time and time again. This is your first conviction. Although you’ve had some charges dismissed, this is your first conviction, and here you face life imprisonment. I think it gives me pause to think that that was the intent of Congress, to put somebody away for the rest of their life.
Reynolds has spent virtually his entire adult life behind bars. Nevertheless, he has taken great steps to reform himself and to help others while in prison. Reynolds has completed multiple vocation and educational programs, tutored fellow prisoners and is a certified Teacher’s Aid. Reynolds is also a certified victim impact counsel and has participated as a companion for the inmate suicide prevention program. Despite his own life sentence, Reynolds leads a BOP reentry program that helps prisoners prepare for their release.
Unless he is granted executive clemency, Reynolds will spend the rest of his life in prison for a mistake he made as a teenager.
Update: On December 19, 2013, President Obama granted Reynolds a commutation (reduction of sentence). He will be released on April 17, 2014.
The Facts: Reynolds Wintersmith
Offense: Conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute crack and powder cocaine; possession of crack cocaine
Year sentenced: 1994
Age at sentencing: 20 years old
Projected release date: None