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STEVE ELLIOTT

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President Obama Grants Clemency to 330 More Drug Prisoners, Including Nine Pot-Only Prisoners and One LSD Prisoner, in Final Round of Commutations

 Marijuana Lifers James Tranmer and Eric Walton, and Pot POW Paul Fields Among Commutations

President Barack Obama on Thursday, January 19, his last day in office, commuted the sentences of 330 more people incarcerated in federal prison for drug offenses. This brings the number of prisoners who have been granted clemency under President Obama to 1,715.

president obama signing papers
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[White House]

“He wanted to do it. He wanted the opportunity to look at as many as he could to provide relief,” said Neil Eggleston, Obama’s White House counsel, in an interview in his West Wing office, reports Josh Lederman at AP. “He saw the injustice of the sentences that were imposed in many situations, and he has a strong view that people deserve a second chance.”

Nine of the commutations were either for marijuana only, or for weed plus “money laundering” or weapons charges, sentence enhancements which are often added when prosecutors pile on the charges.

A young James Tranmer with his son, Daniel, in happier days
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A young James Tranmer with his son, Daniel

Marijuana Lifer James Tranmer, who was serving a de facto life sentence of 35 years for a nonviolent cannabis offense, was among the commutations. One year ago, Tranmer was featured as the January 2016 Cananbis POW of the Month on Toke Signals.

 

A true hero of the movement, Tranmer never wavered from his convictions, despite having the full weight of the federal government thrown at him. Unlike most defendants who are hauled into court and try to disavow their involvement with the thing that brought them there, James Tranmer proudly and defiantly admitted to his marijuana use.

“I am an unrepentant ganja man,” Tranmer said. “I refuse to accept any criminality regarding marijuana.”

Also included in the commutations was Tennessee dad Paul Fields, who got 15 years as a “career offender” for growing his own weed, because it was his third offense. (He’d gotten probation the first time, and 100 days in jail the second time.)

Fields never hurt anyone and never even got to sell any of the marijuana from the 256 plants police found at his home in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He would have faced a five-year sentence, the mandatory minimum for growing 100 or more plants, if it weren’t for a federal sentencing provision aimed at “career offenders,” defined as people with two prior convictions for felonies involving drugs or violence.

In another case sure to bring joy to the hearts of drug policy reformers, Bob Riley, a gentle Deadhead sentenced to life in prison for mailing LSD and mushrooms to a friend in Iowa. He was sentenced to life without parole in 1993, reports The Clemency Project.

Biggest Single Day of Commutations in History

The final batch of commutations — more in a single day than on any other day in U.S. history — was the culmination of Obama’s second-term effort to try to remedy the consequences of decades of harsh sentencing requirements that he said had imprisoned thousands of nonviolent drug offenders for too long. Obama repeatedly called on Congress to pass a broader criminal justice fix, but tremulous lawmakers never acted.

The commutations and pardons represent the Obama Administration’s push to overhaul the criminal justice system, making it fairer while saving the government money.  President Obama has been pushed to do more to release those serving time in prison under harsh drug laws that have imprisoned an enormous amount of individuals. Just last week, President Obama wrote an article in the Harvard Law Review outlining his Administration’s work on criminal justice reform.

President Obama personally reviewed the case of every inmate who received a commutation, often poring over case files in the evenings or calling his attorneys into his office to discuss specifics, according to White House staff. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said the administration reviewed every application that came in by an end-of-August deadline — more than 16,000 in all.

“The President has done a great job on clemencies, but now Congress should pick up where he left off,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “There is a bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform, so both chambers should take action quickly to pass important sentencing reform legislation.”

Tony Papa of Drug Policy Alliance
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Tony Papa, Drug Policy Alliance: “There are thousands of people in prison who should also be granted their freedom”
[DPA]

Advocates fear that Donald Trump will take a tougher approach to criminal justice, but many were heartened when House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) recently committed to moving sentencing reform in this Congress.

“There are thousands of people in prison who should also be granted their freedom,” said Tony Papa, media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws for a first-time nonviolent drug offense.

Papa, who recently received a pardon from the state of New York, just released his new book, This Side of Freedom: Life after Clemency, which highlights the roadblocks he faced after he was released. “I am praying that the new president builds on Obama’s work and grants every single one of them clemency so they can have second chances in their lives.”

 

Nine Marijuana-Only Commutations

  • Keith Edgerson – Ann Arbor, MI
    Offense: Felon in possession of a firearm; possession of a stolen firearm; possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; Eastern District of Michigan
    Sentence: 294 months’ imprisonment; four years’ supervised release (June 6, 2006)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on January 19, 2019, conditioned upon enrollment in residential drug treatment.

 

  • Christopher Demetrius Elliott – Brandon, FL
    Offense: Possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon; possession of marijuana; Northern District of Florida
    Sentence: 180 months’ imprisonment; five years’ supervised release (May 14, 2007)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on May 19, 2017.

 

  • Paul S. Fields – Emmalena, KY
    Offense: Manufacture of over 100 marijuana plants; Eastern District of Tennessee
    Sentence: 188 months’ imprisonment; five years’ supervised release (July 26, 2010)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to a term of 10 years’ imprisonment, conditioned upon enrollment in residential drug treatment.

 

  • Juan Garcia – Tyler, TX
    Offense: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana; aiding and abetting the possession with intent to distribute marijuana; witness tampering; Eastern District of Tennessee
    Sentence: 300 months’ imprisonment; eight years’ supervised release (September 28, 1999)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on May 19, 2017.

 

  • Robert Raymond Garza – Harlingen, TX
    Offense: Conspiracy to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana; Eastern District of Tennessee
    Sentence: 262 months’ imprisonment; eight years’ supervised release (January 30, 2006)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to a term of 188 months’ imprisonment.

 

  • Jeffrey Preston McClung – Harrisonburg, VA
    Offense: Conspiracy to distribute marijuana; distribution of marijuana; carry a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense; money laundering; Western District of Virginia
    Sentence: 410 months’ imprisonment; 48 months’ supervised release (July 10, 1998); amended to 387 months’ imprisonment (March 23, 2015)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on May 19, 2017.

 

  • Richard Ruiz Montes ─ Escalon, CA
    Offense: Conducting a continuing criminal enterprise; manufacture of marijuana and aiding and abetting; possession with intent to distribute marijuana and aiding and abetting; possession with intent to distribute marijuana (two counts); Eastern District of California
    Sentence: 240 months’ imprisonment; 60 months’ supervised release (November 21, 2008)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence to expire on May 19, 2017.

 

  • James Tranmer and his wife Judith Kay
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    James Tranmer and his wife Judith Kay

    James Tranmer – Hackensack, NJ
    Offense: Conspiracy to import marijuana; conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana; Northern District of Florida
    Sentence: 420 months’ imprisonment; eight years’ supervised release (August 3, 1994)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on May 19, 2017.

 

  • Eric Arthur Walton – Wheeling, WV
    Offense:
    1. Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute marijuana; conspiracy to launder monetary instruments; interstate transportation in aid of racketeering (2 counts); laundering of monetary instruments; aiding and abetting in the possession with intent to distribute marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school; Northern District of West Virginia
    2. Conspiracy to defraud U.S., to wit: corruptly endeavor to influence, intimidate, or impede a petit juror; attempt to influence a petit juror and aiding and abetting; Northern District of West Virginia
    Sentence:
    1. Life imprisonment; 10 years’ supervised release; $20,000 fine (July 26, 1994)
    2. 60 months’ imprisonment (consecutive); three years’ supervised release (June 2, 1997)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to a term of 387 months’ imprisonment.

 

Also worth celebrating is one commutation for an LSD lifer:

  • Robert James Riley – Clackamas, OR
    Offense: Conspiracy to distribute LSD; Southern District of Iowa
    Sentence: Life imprisonment (November 4, 1993)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on January 19, 2018.
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