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 a ton of time locked up. This time, however, Charceil was indicted on federal crack cocaine conspiracy charges and held accountable for more than 500 grams of the drug. And because she had two minor drug priors on her record, she was facing a mandatory federal life sentence.
Charceil had dealt with addiction since her teen years—her father struggled with alcoholism and, after her parents divorced as a result, she herself began drinking. She dropped out of high school at 16. By 18, she was living on her own and experimenting with hard drugs—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 facing a life sentence. But, on Sept. 6, 2006, she was charged and the prosecution sought to enhance her sentence to mandatory life. Without that enhancement, she would’ve faced 235-293 months—still a long sentence, 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—life in prison, plus 30 additional years. The next longest sentence handed down was 20 years. No one else received life. 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.
Unfathomably, Charceil wasn’t even heavily involved in the conspiracy. At a 2010 resentencing hearing, during which her original sentence of life plus 30 years was reduced to life, 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 who is [more than] 100 years old.”
She spends her time focusing not on her sentence, but on programming, including soldering, Spanish, 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 wake up call for me,” Charceil 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
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, in addition to minor priors related to her addiction.
Year sentenced: 2007
Age at sentencing: 43
Projected release date: None