In light of John Legend’s moving open letter to President Obama, this week Rolling Stone is highlighting the stories of several prisoners who have petitioned the president to commute their sentences.
In 2002, Bernard Smith got a call from his brother asking for a favor. Smith was in his third year of work at a local restaurant near his home in Waldorf, Maryland, where he lived with his then girlfriend Anita. His brother Lamont asked if he could get him some marijuana, which he intended to sell. Smith, who was 28 at the time, agreed to work with his brother, and is now 13 years into a 22-year federal prison sentence.
“Prison has helped me grow into a better man, but it’s taken a lot away from me as well,” Smith says in a phone call from prison in West Virginia. “I lost all of my 30s. I’ve been in here long enough … these drug laws are just too harsh.”
In his clemency petition to President Obama and the Office of the Pardon Attorney, filed in July, Smith says he didn’t know the details of the plan to sell the marijuana alongside a quantity of crack cocaine. Smith and Lamont ultimately sold the marijuana and crack to two undercover officers, and the brothers were charged with conspiracy to distribute the drugs. Although Smith didn’t organize, lead or even sell the drugs himself, a string of prior low-level offenses on his record, along with the crack cocaine, drove up his sentence, per federal guidelines in place at the time of his sentencing. His lawyer, Michelle Curth, argues that under today’s laws his sentence likely would have been 11 years shorter.
“This entire clemency initiative is developed specifically for cases like this – a nonviolent individual who got caught up in something illegal, and fell into the crack of the statutory scheme in place at the time of his arrest,” Curth tells Rolling Stone, referring to the Clemency Project 2014.
In 2012, Smith married Anita, who has stayed with him throughout his incarceration.
“His release date never took a toll on how we felt about each other,” Anita Smith tells Rolling Stone. “We were going to be together whether he was going to come home soon or not.”
Smith is eager to get home to Anita and their two sons, and to start rebuilding his life.
“My family is waiting, my friends are waiting, job opportunities waiting,” says Smith. “I just don’t know if I’m going to be home within the next four or five months, or the next five or six years.”