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.
Many federal prisoners waiting for President Obama to review their petitions for an early release will ultimately gain their freedom whether or not he approves their petition. For Trenton Copeland, a nonviolent drug offender, Obama’s clemency power is likely his last shot at not spending the rest of his life behind bars.
“Trent has essentially been condemned to die in prison,” Brittany K. Byrd, Copeland’s lawyer, tells Rolling Stone. “Clemency from President Obama would literally save his life.”
At 33 years old, Copeland is serving the fifth year of a life sentence without the possibility of parole for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. Prosecutors in his case filed an 851 sentencing enhancement to notify the judge of two prior nonviolent felony drug convictions on his record, both of which occurred when he was 18 years old. The notification of two prior offenses triggered an automatic life without parole sentence.
“I ended up in prison because of the choices I made to engage in the drug trade,” Copeland says by email. “I do feel a sentence was warranted for my actions, [but] no person should serve a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.”
Of the more than 3,000 people serving life without parole sentences in the U.S. for nonviolent crimes, roughly 79 percent are incarcerated for drug crimes, according to a 2013 investigation by the ACLU; in the federal prison system, where Copeland is, it’s 96 percent.
Copeland takes full responsibility for his actions, and even calls his experience in prison “a blessing in disguise … that gave me a great appreciation for life.” But if sentenced under today’s laws, Byrd argues, it’s unlikely he’d be serving life in prison, thanks to a 2014 memo from former Attorney General Eric Holder that encouraged prosecutors not to file 851 sentencing enhancements – thereby giving judges greater discretion to consider each individual’s case. The fate of that memo’s power is unlikely to remain under the Trump administration, putting greater pressure on Obama to grant commutations for people like Copeland before he leaves office.
“It’s a scary feeling as the days wind down until the President leaves office,” writes Copeland. “It’s hard to even look at a calendar.”