Evans Ray knew he’d made a horrible mistake when he was caught distributing some 60 grams of crack cocaine. He also didn’t believe that the punishment should have been life in prison. But two prior low-level drug convictions ensured that in 2004, Ray would get the max with no possibility of parole.
Even the judge called the thought of sentencing Ray to life “cruel and unusual,” and attempted to give him 324 months. However, at the end of the day, the judge’s hands were tied because of the mandatory-minimum law.
“That was a death sentence. I was good in the daytime on the compounds where I was incarcerated, when you get to go to the law library, rec yard, go eat, be around people. But when they lock that door at 8:45 and you’re locked in your cell, you can feel that life sentence eating through you and killing you,” Ray tells The Root. “You know that you’re going to die in prison.”
What Evans Ray didn’t know was that much like the judge, President Barack Obama also thought his sentence was unfair.
One of Obama’s biggest legacies that cannot be undone is his robust use of his clemency power.
During his eight years in office, Obama commuted the prison sentences of some 1,715 people, more than any other president in history. He was insistent on correcting what he considered the systemic injustices of mandatory minimums—the lengthy sentences imposed on small-time, first-time and/or nonviolent drug offenders—and ultimately changed the lives of many suffering Americans who were given “death sentences” for little more than having drugs on their person.
One of the lives that Obama irrevocably changed was Ray’s. Ray spent more than 12 years behind bars for his offense before receiving clemency from Obama in August 2016.
“It was hard to believe,” Ray said, recalling the day he was notified of his pending freedom. “I went in my cell, put my sign up, and got on my knees and cried and I prayed. And I thanked God for allowing me another privilege of freedom.”
Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), tells The Root that part of the problem with mandatory-minimum laws is that they “treat everybody the same.”
Price explains, “So you may have somebody who is responsible for all those drugs and directing everybody else in all those drugs, being subjected to the very same sentence that the ‘underling,’ low-level person who has very little relationship to those drugs except to carry them across the border, for example, and get a few bucks in exchange.
“Mandatory minimums blur the distinction dramatically in terms of culpability and just in terms of individual justice. What they mean is that judges cannot waive the mandatory minimum and take account of a person’s actual conduct, actual role, any kind of mitigating factors such as terrible upbringing,” she adds. “It means that judges don’t get to impose the sentence; rather, members of Congress do when they establish the mandatory minimum.”
As the Obama administration started to throw around its weight in the clemency arena, Ray saw a sliver of hope. Gathering all his resources, he applied for clemency, noting that he met all the criteria for being considered. He reached out to District Judge Alexander Williams Jr., who had once attempted to refuse to impose the life sentence, to write a letter to Obama on his behalf.
Ray also reached out to Obama himself, telling the president how proud he was of his accomplishments and noting, “I might not receive commutation, but just the thought of knowing I am in the loop has been an uplifting experience for me. Two years ago, I thought I would die in prison, however, it is the truth now, I can honestly say that prayers go up and blessings come down because I have been praying someone would shine a light on these unfair sentences.”
Much to Ray’s surprise, in July 2016 he received a letter from Obama himself, who thanked Ray for his letter, writing in part, “I believe that all people, including those who have made mistakes—even significant mistakes—have the capacity to make the right choices and to have a positive impact on others.”
It was amazing enough that Obama reached out to him, but Ray’s surprise doubled when in less than a month, he received another letter from the president, personally reaching out to tell Ray that he was granting his application for commutation.
Fast-forward to today and Evans Ray is now a free man. He was able to spend Halloween with his kids and other family members, taking his grandchild trick-or-treating.
But his mind is still with the people who are left on the inside serving unjustly long sentences. He hopes to start a nonprofit for re-entry, working with other individuals who have gotten clemency.
“I have to be an advocate for the guys that I left behind. I have a passion of speaking and helping people, and I can’t forget those good men that have unfair sentences like mine,” he says. “And there are some good people in prison. Everybody’s not blackhearted.”
For now he’s working for Community Empowerment Leadership Community, which provides job training and other services for inner-city Washington, D.C., youths, along with mentoring.
And he’s looking forward to an overall sweeping change in the law that doesn’t just depend on the clemency power of the president, even if future holders of the office happen to be as generous as Obama.
“Congress needs to take this mandatory-minimum law and give the judges more access to making a decision about an individual,” he says. “Let the judges make the decision. They wouldn’t have gotten [their seats] if they were making bad decisions.
“If Congress looks at a whole picture and not just part of the picture, then they would see that the death-sentence mandatory minimum that they have is just so unfair, so cruel,” he adds. “You have to believe in second chances. ... You don’t hear too much from any guys that receive clemency coming back to jail ’cause everybody doing the right thing.”