Sentenced to Life in Prison, Man Hopes New Clemency Rules Will Get Him Out

Post Date: April 28, 2014

(CNN) — Timothy Tyler says his life ended when he was 23-years-old. That was two decades ago, when he was arrested and later sentenced to a mandatory double-life term in prison without the possibility of parole for conspiracy to possess LSD with intent to distribute. A self-described “Deadhead,” Tyler was busted after mailing five grams of the hallucinogenic drug to a friend who was working as an informant for the federal government.

He’s had more than 20 years to fixate on that moment, years of “what ifs” and “whys.” More than 20 years of feeling like he died, until now.

Changes on the horizon

Though the Obama administration has been campaigning for prison reform for some time, it has recently begun to take concrete steps to alleviate overcrowded federal prisons that are flooded with non-violent offenders.

The Justice Department announced changes to its clemency criteria this week, a move that will likely lead to a wave of sentence commutation requests being sent to President Barack Obama by thousands of prisoners who’ve been convicted of non-violent drug crimes.

“We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said at a news conference Wednesday.

The clemency changes would be open to prisoners who have met a set of specific conditions: they must be low-level, non-violent offenders without a significant criminal history and must be serving a federal sentence that would likely be shorter if they were convicted today. They must have served at least 10 years of their sentence and have demonstrated good conduct in prison, with no history of violence before or during their prison term.

The pending changes are the latest step in an ongoing effort Attorney General Eric Holder calls “Smart on Crime,” which also seeks to remedy the once-common wide disparity in sentences handed down over powder versus crack cocaine, based on guidelines first enacted by Congress more than 25 years ago.

In January, Holder urged Congress to pass the bipartisan “Smarter Sentencing Act,” which would allow judicial leniency in the sentencing of those convicted of federal non-violent drug crimes.

And in April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to back a Justice Department proposal to change the sentencing formula for drug offenders that could shorten prison stays for as many as 70% of federal drug defendants. “This reduction in the federal sentencing guidelines, while modest, sends a strong message about the need to reserve the harshest penalties for the most serious crimes,” Holder commented.

Of the more than 200,000 inmates in the federal prison system, some estimates show the new clemency criteria could apply to about 2,000 prisoners. But the number is likely to fall to perhaps hundreds after government lawyers review the applications.

Sentencing guidelines

The history of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses dates back to the 1950s, when a mandatory 10-year sentence could be imposed for crimes such as selling heroin to a juvenile. In the 60s, then-President Richard Nixon proposed sentencing reforms that would eventually result in nearly all mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses being repealed. But the alarming rise of cocaine use, particularly crack cocaine, in the 1980s sent Congress scrambling to react to the epidemic and prompted the hasty revival of the laws that had been viewed so unfavorably two decades before.

Though the primary goal of legislation such as The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was to target and successfully prosecute “kingpins” or major drug traffickers, thousands of low-level offenders, like Tyler, have been swept up and imprisoned based on outdated guidelines.

While he understands why some may have trouble sympathizing with a three-time drug offender, Tyler offers perspective.

“A life sentence, people don’t really understand it. A man raped his daughter, got probation. A man killed people with his car, got probation. They don’t understand. If they did 10 days in jail they would understand… they can’t comprehend.”

In 1991, Tyler was a fixture in the Grateful Dead fan community. His days were often spent crisscrossing the country alongside fellow “Deadheads.” Now, his days are spent alongside convicted murderers and rapists, his nights locked down at 9:45 p.m. “I actually thought that I would get 262 months-327 months, which is a lot of time, but it had a release date,” he explained.

Tyler was arrested on his way to a Grateful Dead concert in California and was eventually extradited back to Florida, the state in which he mailed his LSD delivery. On the day he was sentenced, he tried his best to conceal his emotions for the sake of his sister, who was present in the courtroom. But “once I walked out of the courtroom while seeing my sister’s eyes tearing up, I could not hold back my own,” he remembered.

Wouldn’t take plea deal

Tyler was initially offered a plea bargain with a 10-year sentence in exchange for testimony against his co-defendants. Had he accepted the deal, he would have been released about 10 years ago. But the decision wasn’t that easy. One of his co-defendants was his own father. Tyler maintains that his father had never ingested LSD, but like his son, was only assisting a friend in obtaining the drug. Tyler did not testify against his father, who was convicted on a lesser offense.

“My dad was just helping his friend acquire some because he knew I was able to get it,” Tyler told CNN over the phone from Canaan Federal Prison in Pennsylvania. “He certainly did not think he could get 10 years for a simple envelope.”

Admittedly, Tyler was an avid user of LSD and was often called upon by friends to procure the illegal drug, which was often in abundance at Grateful Dead concerts. “When I was arrested, me and my friends considered LSD to be sacred or a sacrament,” he said.

And though his two previous encounters with law enforcement for similar crimes had resulted only in probation, his third offense triggered the federal government’s mandatory sentencing guidelines that would ensure he never spends another day as a free man. Read more