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Drayton Curry, age 92, the oldest inmate in federal prison, could die there waiting as he has for the past seven months for President Obama to decide on his clemency petition.
Wheelchair-bound and in poor health, Curry, who was born when Woodrow Wilson was president, is currently in a federal prison in North Carolina having served 20 years for a non-violent drug conviction. He filed a request for commutation of his sentence in February with Obama’s pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers. Seven months later, with an increasing sense of urgency, Curry and his lawyers are hoping to hear something from Rodgers’ office soon.
“He is a physically decrepit old man whose only desire in life is to be united with his family,” his New York City-based lawyer Alex Eisemann writes. “Whatever danger he posed to the United States has long passed.”
President Obama has pardoned just 17 people in his tenure, and has rejected every request to reduce prison sentences–a record of inaction that has brought him sharp criticism over the past year.
The Drayton Curry story, in some ways, is a melancholy epic: born in 1919, raised in the Great Depression, a World War 2 veteran, a career federal employee who retired in the Lyndon Johnson administration, a man sucked into the drug trade, which put him in prison for most the latter part of his life.
Nineteen years ago, when he was 73 years old, Curry was convicted of involvement in a drug trafficking conspiracy in 1991 and sentenced to life in prison under the nation’s often controversial “three strikes” sentencing laws, even though he had never been accused of committing any violent acts. (He had been convicted twice previously in connection with drug conspiracies, although the second of those convictions in New York was essentially for agreeing to pay someone’s phone bill.)
While clemency applicants can wait years for a decision, Curry’s lawyer is hoping that President Obama will take his age and poor health into account and grant him an expedited release so he can live out his last days in freedom, and spend some time with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“Curry’s advanced age and frailty, the inflexibility of the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines, and the wrenching misery his sentence has inflicted on four generations of his family can be rectified only by executive clemency,” his lawyer Alex Eisemann writes.
Curry is afflicted with lung ailments, recently had a prostate tumor removed, and is being held in a prison medical ward. Despite his age, however, Curry still has an alert, active mind, Eisemann says. In some senses, he has been punished worse because he has lived such an unusually long life.
“I’m not excusing anything, but he’s served his time, and it serves no purpose at all to keep him locked up,” says Reginald Brown, Curry’s 61-year-old son who works as a train mechanic in Maryland. “I think it’s ridiculous that he’s still in prison. I’ve seen people who commit murder get out in less time. How much more life does he have left?”
Brown says he last made the 8-hour trip to North Carolina to see Curry earlier this summer. He says Curry was in “good spirits,” spending a lot of time in the prison library and counseling younger offenders about going straight once they are released.
“He’s a truly lovely person; I’ve never even seen him really angry at anyone,” Brown says. “I’m asking for the president’s mercy. I want him to ask himself if he thinks in his heart that Drayton should still be incarcerated.”
Tanique Brown-Keene, a granddaughter, writes, “Drayton does not have many years left of his life. I am sincerely requesting a chance for me and my children to get to know my grandfather and their great grandfather.”
So far, Obama has issued just 17 pardons over 32 months in office, which puts him behind both Presidents Bush and Clinton over the same period. He waited nearly two years before making the first of two rounds of pardons last December. He has also denied all 3,104 people who have asked their sentences to be commuted.
“Obama appears to have no interest in his clemency power, and the Justice Department doesn’t seem interested either,” says Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardon attorney who now represents people seeking clemency. “It’s a terrible shame.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the pardon attorney’s office, confirmed that Curry’s clemency petition was received in March, and said it was being reviewed. She declined to comment on exactly where in the process the petition was.
Joanna Rosholm, a spokeswoman for the Obama administration, meanwhile, declined to comment, and ignored Voice general questions about the president’s clemency record.
Drayton Curry was born in 1919 in a small town in Pennsylvania. His dad left the family early on, and his mother, a hair dresser, fell ill. So Curry had to support her and his siblings in the midst of the Great Depression. He did so by visiting slaughterhouses and gathering discarded pig carcasses, and getting coal for heat from passing trains. He left school at age 15, and went to work for the railroad.
After he turned 16, Curry reconnected with his father, and moved to Washington, D.C. where he found work with the government. In 1942, he got married, and signed up for the army. He was sent to Europe, where he served until the war ended. He got divorced shortly after the war, fathered a son, and went back to work for the government. In all, he worked for the federal government for 30 years, as a messenger, a soldier, a teletype operator and a communications specialist. He retired in 1967 at age 48.
He had remarried in 1950, and fathered a daughter, Diane Willis, who described him in a letter to the clemency attorney as a “gentleman, good natured, and generous.” “My father is without a doubt a true hero to me, and to anyone who measures good in people,” Willis wrote.
After his retirement from the government, Curry formed an import/export company to do business with government agencies. He also met and befriended a drug trafficker named Leslie Atkinson. Curry got involved in Atkinson’s criminal operation, and was eventually arrested. In 1973, Curry took his first federal drug conviction in North Carolina, and was sentenced to two concurrent 15 year sentences.
Shortly after his release, in 1987, he was arrested again in New York City and pleaded guilty to using a phone as part of a second drug conspiracy. He was sentenced to five years probation.
The thing is that he never “used a phone as part of a drug conspiracy.” All he did was agree to pay the phone bill of Atkinson’s nephew. Moreover, he only pleaded guilty because his lawyer at the time advised him that if he went to trial, the conduct of the other defendants would prejudice his case. In the end, though, there was no trial.
“The specific facts of the case barely make out a crime,” Eisemann writes. “He didn’t know about the alleged conspiracy.”
Now, Curry was close to 70 years old, and all he had to support himself was a $1,500 monthly pension. Curry once again allowed himself to fall back into the drug trade, and he was arrested again in 1991.
In 1992, Curry was sentenced to life in prison as a “career offender.” and the judge was obligated to impose the life sentence. The two prior convictions played a key role at sentencing. His appeals were rejected, though at least one judge expressed some sympathy for Curry over the life sentence.
In November, 2007, Curry asked the Bureau of Prisons for “compassionate relief,” based on his age and health. That request, too, was denied. The warden noted that the sentencing judge “intended for you to remain in prison regardless of any personal circumstances…”
“Curry retired from government service during the Johnson administration,” Eisemann wrote. “For nearly all the long decades since, he has become virtually fossilized in federal custody.”
In many ways, the clemency petition is Drayton Curry’s last hope to spend the however small amount of time that he has left back in the world.