He had twice been convicted on drug charges, but Lewis Clay had never served time in prison. That changed when he got caught up in a federal drug sting and bought 50 grams of cocaine from an undercover agent.
Clay, who lived in College Park, was convicted of only one drug charge, but one was all it took for him to receive life in prison. Tough drug laws sent him to federal prison on May 1, 2003, though he wasn’t a violent criminal.
“It just took one,” Attorney Page Pate told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I had explained that to him a number of times because it seemed so unreal to him that he could get that much prison for that little drugs.”
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama included Clay on the list of 61 drug offenders whose sentences will be shortened because of changing laws. Clay, who lived in College Park, and Gregory Morgan, from Jonesboro, will be released July 28, as will the majority of those whose sentences Obama commuted.
Clay and Morgan are among the latest to be released under a clemency initiative the president announced in 2014 that’s designed to reduce sentences that were much stiffer than what would likely be given now. Drug offenders who had already served 10 years were eligible to apply for clemency.
Attorney Victoria Brunner, who handled Clay’s petition to be released early, filed a request with the Justice Department in November. She called Clay being granted clemency a win-win for the justice system.
“He was a low-level crack addict who was dealing to support his habit,” Brunner said Wednesday. “Today, Lewis would only have a 5-year minimum mandatory and a 40-year maximum sentence. Had he been sentenced today, he would have received less time than he’s served.”
Morgan had already served about 14 months in state prison and was released in March 1997, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. When he was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base in March 2003, he was sentenced to 225 months in federal prison, or nearly 19 years. Morgan had tried to sell 77 grams (about two and a half ounces) of crack cocaine, federal court documents state.
After his attorney died in 2007, Morgan represented himself when he filed a motion in April 2008 asking for his sentence to be reduced. He argued that the law now allowed for a lesser sentence, and that the law should retroactively be applied to his case. He said he had focused on his faith and education while incarcerated.
“Mr. Morgan only advanced to the 10th grade before dropping out of school,” the motion states. “During his incarceration, Mr. Morgan has realized the importance of his education and has been continually pressing to overcome his past to obtain his G.E.D. diploma. Mr. Morgan is striving to make a better life for himself and his children…”
Five months later, Morgan’s motion was denied, and he has remained behind bars.
Like Morgan, 49-year-old Clay has also worked to better himself while in prison. His mother died while he was incarcerated, but his father is currently in an assisted-living home, Pate said.
“His first exposure to prison was, ‘You’re going and you’re not coming back out,’” Pate said. “He’s not the same guy who was arrested 13 years ago.”
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