Evans Ray knew only too well that he was in deep trouble when he was caught distributing 60 grams of crack cocaine. What he didn’t know, though, is that he would be given a life sentence.
Ray had two prior low-level drug convictions, and this guaranteed him life with no parole. The judge handling his case thought that sentencing Ray to life seemed “cruel and unusual,” but because of the mandatory minimum law, his hands were tied.
The Washington Post reported that Judge Alexander Williams Jr. was just as devastated with the sentence as was Evans Ray.
In 2007, when Evans Ray stood before Judge Alexander Williams Jr., the judge explained that he didn’t want to hand down the mandatory life sentence.
“It is my desire not to sentence you to life. I believe that the circumstances justify a sentence shorter than life. I further believe that there is some disproportionality between what you’ve done and the sentence of life.”
After his sentencing, Evans Ray thanked the judge. He knew his conviction was a “third strike,” and he knew that a third strike could trigger a mandatory life sentence. And that’s what he got – a life sentence.
“I have to own up to my own responsibility. The law says life. I’m not in agreement with it, not at all, and I know you weren’t. But I just want to thank you and the courts for at least trying.”
Evans Ray was a barber with a wife and four children. He also had two prior drug convictions. He was a middleman who was pushed into a drug transaction by a friend, who happened to be a government informant.
Initially, he refused to arrange the sale, and he never profited from the deal. Judge Williams tried his best to sentence Ray to a shorter prison term, but prosecutors appealed.
And then, in 2016, after 12 years in prison, Evans Ray was granted clemency by President Barack Obama.
Now 57-years-old, Ray lives with his parents in Prince George’s County. He’s still getting to know his children, and he’s holding down a job. More importantly, he’s speaking out against the law that put him behind bars for life.
Mandatory minimum sentences were first instituted by Congress in the 1980s during the war on drugs, but they’ve long troubled drug reform advocates because they prevent judges from taking other factors into account, such as past behavior.
And some judges are against them too. Judge Williams in Maryland said he stepped down after presiding over more than 1,000 criminal cases, with at least two hundred of them involving mandatory minimums.
“None of the judges like having their hands tied.”
Del Wright Jr., now a law professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, was a prosecutor in Ray’s case, and even he said he didn’t think Ray’s sentence was fair.
Evans Ray declined a plea agreement and was ultimately convicted at trial, so prosecutors were forced to ask for a mandatory life sentence. Wright said that the threat of a mandatory minimum is what often induces people to accept plea bargains to lesser charges.
“I use that [as an example] in my classes sometimes. It’s our role. It’s not something you necessarily want to do.”
Evans Ray was thrown into the federal prison system with a life sentence, serving hard time. He kept out of trouble, then applied for clemency in 2014.
President Obama had always made it very clear that he disliked mandatory minimums, and he eventually granted clemency to more than 1,700 people. And Evans Ray was the type of candidate Obama had in mind – a person with limited criminal history, and someone who was (arguably) pulled into a conspiracy.
Sapna Mirchandani is a Maryland federal public defender. Mirchandani learned of Ray’s case whilst reviewing hundreds of mandatory minimum sentences in search of possible clemency applicants.
“His jumped out at me.”
It was Mirchandani who put together Ray’s clemency petition, and among the referral letters submitted on his behalf was one from Judge Alexander Williams Jr.
“As I stated at the time of sentencing, and as I believe even more strongly today, imposing a life sentence on Mr. Ray for the single sale of 60 grams of cocaine amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.”
Evans Ray was granted clemency in August 2016. When the letter arrived he was so nervous about reading it that he had to ask a fellow prisoner to reader for him.
“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote.
“Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”
And that’s exactly what Evans Ray has done since leaving prison.
“It’s like a long black tunnel, but you can’t let that beacon of light go dark.”
Meanwhile, Evans Ray and other offenders granted clemency by Obama are struggling to shake off their life sentences: they’re learning to adapt to a new life, a life they thought they would never see.
Today, Ray is helping take care of his stepfather who lost both legs to diabetes, and his mother who recently had a mastectomy. And, for the first time he’s able to help his children.
“I didn’t have any memories, just pictures,” said Thea Ray, his 14-year-old daughter. Thea was just two-years-old when her father was locked up.
The Root reported that it was not only Judge Williams who thought Ray’s sentence was unfair, President Barack Obama did too.
During Obama’s eight years in office he commuted more prison sentences than any other president in history. He was determined to correct what he believed to be the systemic injustices of mandatory minimums, meaning lengthy sentences imposed on first time, small-time, or nonviolent drug offenders.
Obama ultimately changed the lives of many Americans who were given life sentences for little more than having drugs in their possession.
— India. (@IndiaaaHamilton) April 10, 2017
Recalling the day he was notified of his impending freedom, Ray said it was hard to believe.
“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.”
Today, Evans Ray still worries about people on the inside who are serving unjustly long sentences. His aim is to start a non-profit for re-entry, to work with others who have received 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. And there are some good people in prison. Everybody’s not black-hearted.”
— Kevin Bilal chatman (@Kevinchatman2) April 15, 2017
At the moment he’s working with the Community Empowerment Leadership program, providing mentoring, job training, and other services for inner-city Washington youths. What he really wants, though, is an overall sweeping change in the law, one that doesn’t rely on the President’s clemency power.
“Congress needs to take this mandatory-minimum law and give the judges more access to making a decision about an individual. Let the judges make the decision.”
Arguing that judges wouldn’t be in their positions of power if they had a history of making wrong decisions, Evans Ray said that Congress needs to look 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.”
Evans Ray is of the opinion that everyone needs to believe in second chances.
“You don’t hear too much about guys that receive clemency coming back to jail ’cause everybody’s doing the right thing.”
Drug dealer got life sentence. Obama granted him clemency after 12 years. Now former drug dealer teams up w/ judge. https://t.co/uwlQV288M0
— Shamontiel (@Maroonsista) May 5, 2017
In November 2016 the New York Magazine reported on what freedom felt like to Evans Ray.
“When I got out, we went straight to my grandmother. She’s on her deathbed, and all she ever wanted was for me to come home. I didn’t tell her or anybody I was coming. I remember going up the steps — it’s the house that I was raised in — and she was lying in the bed in the den. She could move her neck and her head, but no other parts of her body move. She’s very sharp. She says, ‘Is that my baby?’ I said, ‘Mama, it’s me.’ And that was the first time that I shed a tear. I cried like a little baby in her arms.”
Ray stayed with his grandmother for about an hour, then left to visit his mother’s house. His three daughters, son, and nieces were all there. Evans Ray described the emotional scene as “just a lot of crying, a lot of hugging.”
[Featured Image by Mel Evans/AP Images]