Mitchell: Man’s life sentence for drug offense commuted
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Even though Jesse Webster prayed.
The former South Side man was in shock Wednesday when his lawyer told him he was among the 61 people whose prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses were commuted by President Barack Obama.
“He didn’t know what to say,” said his attorney, Jessica Ring Amunson, who made the call to the federal prison in downstate Greenville to tell Webster that his prayers had finally been answered.
“It was really a thrill to call him with this news. He was excited but also stunned,” Amunson said.
Twenty-one years ago the Chicago man was convicted of attempting to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and two counts of filing a false income tax return.
Although Webster was a first-time offender, had no weapon, no drugs and no money when he was caught up in aborted drug deal, he qualified for a life sentence under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in place at the time.
Murderers have received less time.
Webster’s sentence was commuted to Sept. 26, 2016.
“We are real excited. It means so much. Twenty-one years have passed,” Webster’s mother, Robin Noble, told me.
“I just always knew this day would come even though I did not know when.”
In an eight-page “Open Letter to the Young Generation” that Webster wrote and the Chicago Sun-Times published in 2014, he talked about the realities of growing up in a neighborhood that was full of pitfalls but had few opportunities.
“I was only 15 years old when I was introduced to the hustling (drug selling) world. On the South Side of Chicago, drug dealing was prevalent and was seen as a way to put food on the table. Selling drugs was a way of survival,” Webster wrote.
In 2013, Amunson approached her firm, Jenner & Block, about representing Webster pro bono and filed the application for commutation. At that time, the possibility of Webster going free was considered a “real long shot,” Amunson told me.
But then came word from the U.S. attorney general of a new clemency initiative targeting nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy prison terms.
By then, Webster had exhausted all of his appeals. The only thing left was to ask President Obama to commute his sentence.
“When we saw the administration focusing on clemency, we were thrilled and stepped up our effort. Jesse was the poster child for this criteria,” the lawyer said.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel had no discretion when sentencing Webster because of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Later he wrote a letter on Webster’s behalf basically saying the 20 years he had already served was a more appropriate sentence.
The prosecutor also wrote on Webster’s behalf. He said the life sentence was “driven by the severity of the mandatory sentencing guidelines at the time, and not driven by the U.S. attorney’s office, Judge Zagel or the needs of justice.”
Still, Webster remained behind bars watching as others, including a former cellmate, had their lengthy sentences commuted.
“We kept the faith,” said his younger brother, Lee Noble, on Wednesday.
“Me personally, I am a planner. I’m making plans for him to come out and hit the ground running and build from there,” Noble said.
He described his brother’s demeanor on Wednesday as “emotional.”
“We are eight years apart. I was probably in high school when this happened. But I never gave up on him coming out,” he said.
Amunson said Webster was “incredibly grateful” to the president and had kind words for her and Jenner & Block.
“We are so grateful to the president for commuting Jesse’s sentence and recognizing that life imprisonment is not a punishment that fits the crime for a nonviolent drug offense,” Amunson said.
There’s only one damper on this good news.
There are thousands more Jesse Websters still waiting to come home.