The ‘Obama Eight’ Adjust to Life After President Grants Them Life Sentence Commutations

Billy Ray Wheelock (Photo: Nathan Armes for USA TODAY)
Billy Ray Wheelock
(Photo: Nathan Armes for USA TODAY)

One is a high school counselor. Two or three work in restaurants. Some can’t find a job. Others have slipped into obscurity.

The Obama Eight, as they call themselves, don’t fit into easy categories, except for this: They were all convicted of drug crimes, and they were among the first to have their sentences commuted by President Obama.

And as Obama prepares to issue even more commutations in the last months of his presidency — part of an aggressive attempt to use his pardon power to shorten long drug sentences — many of them say they feel the weight of criminal justice reform on their shoulders. If any one of them returns to prison, it could taint the clemency initiative and make it harder for other deserving inmates to be released, they say.

They’ve become leading voices for leniency, especially for drug crimes. Last year, many of them came to Washington to lobby members of Congress and meet with Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff, the Justice Department official whose job it is to make clemency recommendations to the president.

After nearly three years without commuting a single sentence, Obama has now issued 89 commutations as president. It’s a record that still ranks as one of the “least merciful” in presidential history, said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who blogs about the president’s pardon power.

Of those 89, one died shortly after her release. 47 have yet to be released, while 21 were released Tuesday. The 46 sentences Obama commuted this month won’t be completed until Nov. 10. (As recently as the Clinton administration, people whose sentences were commuted were released the same day.)

The other 20 are free. The Obama Eight have been out the longest, most of them a little more than a year.

In many ways, the challenges they face are not unlike anyone else released from prison after a long sentence. Finding a job, reuniting with relatives, getting a driver’s license and adjusting to the speed of an Internet-driven world that barely existed when they were sent away.

“They have won the lottery of commutation from the president,” said Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has encouraged the president to use his clemency power to shorten long sentences. “I think clemency is an unbelievably random act that is a huge gift when you get it, and an utter devastation when you’re denied.”


Clarence Aaron’s case did more to highlight problems in the pardon system than any other single case since President Clinton’s midnight pardons of 2001.

An inspector general’s investigation also found that former Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers had misrepresented key facts of the Aaron case to President George W. Bush. White House officials told The Washington Post that had they known the sentencing judge and prosecutor both supported his application, they would have supported clemency.

President Obama later commuted Aaron’s sentence — five years after Bush had denied it — and replaced Rodgers.

“Do I have hard feelings? I don’t. I’m glad the situation came about, because it opened up a light for other people,” he said. “More cases are now being reviewed.”

Aaron says the publicity around his case has also helped him to readjust to life after prison. “Actually I think it benefited me more, because a lot of people kept up with my case, and to find out that the president commuted my sentence — it kind of gave people hope. And it helped my transition back into society because people knew where I was coming from and what I endured.”

He now works at a restaurant and mentors middle-schoolers in his hometown of Mobile, Ala.

“I’m very remorseful for the decisions I made, and every day I work to prove I was a better person than my sentence said I was,” he said. “It’s like I’m starting my life over again.”


When Helen Alexander Gray went to prison, her 18-year-old was left to watch over her 16-year-old. By the time she got out, she was a great-grandmother.

“They were by themselves,” she said. “They never spend a night without me. When they took me, they took everything from me. Then, in 20 years, your children get grown and go about their business.”

Gray denies she dealt drugs, but she got more time than her boyfriend and co-conspirator. “He qualified for the drug program,” she said, referring to a program that gives time off for drug treatment. “I never sold any drugs. I never smoked a cigarette, I didn’t drink beer. Never touched liquor.”

In her clemency petition, she claimed sexual harassment by prison officials. She said she was delighted when President Obama visited a prison, and she hopes he can root out the problems in the system. “I really feel this president here is going to make a difference,” she said.

But the commutation hasn’t helped her find a job outside of prison. In her petition, she said she wanted to work in a mortuary or a restaurant. “I need a job and I want a job. I’m not going to lie. I have a convicted felony,” she said. “I want to come in your door straight and tell you from the get-go.”

Potential employers, she said, tell her they’ll keep her résumé on file.

But her bills are few. She lives in a paid-for house in rural Georgia, and her only bills are for insurance and utilities. Her sons help her out.


Stephanie George was released from prison at 8 a.m. April 17, 2014. By 9 a.m., she was taking the state licensing exam to regain her cosmetology license.

Before serving 17 years of a life sentence, George worked in her mom’s beauty shop and did hair out of her home. That’s where she was in 1996 when police raided her place and found 500 grams of cocaine. Because of her record selling smaller amounts of drugs — always for her drug-dealing boyfriends — she received a life sentence.

“She was a victim of what we call ‘the girlfriend problem,’ ” said Thomas Means, her Washington attorney. “There’s these cases and then there’s a billion others with very appealing facts that cry out to you, ‘This is an injustice.’ You just can’t take them all.”

While she was in prison, she says, someone stole her identity to get a loan and, when the loan went into default, told the bank she was dead. Now, she’s struggling to sort out her credit so she can get a student loan.

She’s working 25 hours a week at a buffet restaurant but has had trouble getting anything more.

“I can honestly say I’ve probably filled out some 400 applications. I’ve had a lot of people calling me for interviews once they see my résumé,” she said. But once they ask her about her criminal conviction, “everything goes downhill from there.”


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SOURCE: USA Today – Gregory Korte

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