The case sounds like small potatoes, but the sentence lasted for decades. In the 1990s, federal prosecutors from the Northern District of Texas said they had evidence that Donel Marcus Clark was part of a group that cooked cocaine powder into crack and then weighed and packaged the drug. Clark also bought marijuana, the feds said, and had a telephone call with a co-conspirator about staples, something more sinister than it sounds. Court documents explain: "The government counters that the jury could have reasonably concluded that the staples to be purchased and the packaging discussed related to crack cocaine even though the conversation did not expressly refer to the controlled substance."
In 1992, that evidence was used against Clark in a crack conspiracy case. He was indicted along with seven other people. Authorities also found a gun at the convenience store that one of Clark's co-defendants owned, leading to a firearm enhancement on the sentence for everyone. Clark was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison for 35 years, under drug laws that have since been reformed. Late Tuesday, after serving over two decades of his sentence, Clark was one of 22 drug offenders granted clemency by President Obama. Clark will be out of prison by late July.
Clark is represented by Brittany Byrd, a Dallas corporate attorney. After hours, she works for nonviolent drug offenders pro-bono, a passion she fell into after hearing about a friend who got a life sentence on his first-time crack offense years ago. Among Byrd's pro-bono clients is Sharanda Jones, a woman from Terrell who also got a life sentence in the 1990s for being part of a crack conspiracy. Jones, the subject of an Observer cover story last July, has a story similar to Clark's. Both grew up poor and got lengthy sentences on their first drug convictions. Neither was convicted of any violent crime. Byrd has also been trying to get clemency for Jones, but so far Jones remains imprisoned at FMC Carswell in Fort Worth.
See also: Cruel and Unusual Punishment
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"Sharanda's case is still under review," Byrd says in an email. "We are elated at the news about Donel and hope the president continues to grants commutations to many others like Sharanda who are more than deserving to be given a second chance."
Clark's sentence was much longer than it would be had he been convicted of the same offense today. Under old drug sentencing guidelines, possessing 5 grams of crack earned offenders a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, with sentences increasing gradually for larger amounts, up to a maximum life sentence. In 2010, Congress passed a law to lower crack sentence minimums, but the law wasn't retroactive, leaving thousands of offenders with clemency petitions as their only hope of getting out early.
Sharanda Jones got her life sentence in part because she refused to give the government the names of anyone else who sold crack, including a friend who was a police officer, according to a source close to the investigation.
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein