Drayton Curry, Nation’s Oldest Federal Prisoner, Dies Without Obama Deciding on His Two-Year-Old Clemency Request


Drayton Curry, at 92 the nation’s oldest federal prisoner, died in prison last month before the Obama administration acted on his nearly two year old plea for clemency.

As the Voice reported in September, 2011, Curry had been petitioning the government to grant him release from nearly 20 years of imprisonment for a fairly thin non violent drug conspiracy conviction so he could spend whatever time he had left with his family.

He passed away of heart and kidney ailments on Oct. 16 at the Buckner federal prison in North Carolina before the Obama administration’s pardons office could get itself together to even make a decision on his case.

And it was not for having a lack of time. Curry began petitioning for his release in 2007. Most recently, his lawyer Alex Eisemann filed a clemency petition in February, 2011, saying that Curry was a “physically decrepit old man whose only desire was to be reunited with his family. Whatever danger he posed to the United States has long passed.”

The pardons office, which is part of the Department of Justice, did nothing.

This does not sit well with his devoted family who had been hoping for years that he would be released. “It’s really difficult to fathom,” says his granddaughter Mignonne Willis-Gray, of Washington, D.C. “After 20 years, his voice still hadn’t been heard. The process should not have taken as long as it did, even to get a ‘no.’ I’m not excusing the offenses that he was convicted of. But i do believe we need to look at the fairness of that whole process. Was it because it was election time, and would have looked bad?”

Eisemann offered this statement: “The sorry state of the pardon and clemency process in this country, and the politics that underlies it, is simply unacceptable and in this case was nothing less than tragic.”

“Over a year and a half ago, this ninety-one year old veteran applied for clemency to spend some of the precious time he had remaining with his children and grandchildren. He’d been sentenced to life for a fleeting involvement in a drug transaction.”

“He was frail and a model inmate and his strong application for clemency stressed the need for a quick decision because of his advanced age.  Instead of acting on it, the Pardon Office simply did nothing.”

“I had hoped a particularly compelling case like this would have prompted responsible action by the Pardon Office and the President but, instead, my poor client became just another example of justice delayed being justice denied.  It’s even more disturbing that there seems to be no end in sight for this type of inaction concerning the President’s exercise of a fundamental power granted him by the constitution.”

Curry was born in 1919, served in Europe with the army in World War II, and had a career in the federal government retiring during the Lyndon Johnson administration. In 1973, he was convicted of drug conspiracy and served 15 years in prison. In 1987, shortly after his release, he was arrested in New York and pleaded guilty to using a phone as part of a drug conspiracy. That case seemed very thin, but he got five years probation.

In 1991, he was convicted again of involvement in a drug conspiracy, and was given life in prison as a “career offender.” In 2007, he applied to the Bureau of Prisons for “compassionate relief.” That request was rejected.

But Curry kept trying to convince the government to release him, and never lost a sense of optimism, his family says. His last email to his granddaughter carried that same optimistic view.

“He was very excited and thought he would be coming home,” says Willis-Gray who owns a human resources company. “He was eager to see his grandchildren. He always stayed upbeat about coming home. I don’t ever remember getting a ‘woe is me’ email.”

With his passing, the family is remembering the good in Curry’s life. He had two children, five grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. While in prison, he was known for counseling younger prisoners about their life choices.

“Although he was not with us, he impacted a lot of lives in a positive way,” Willis-Gray says, adding that Curry taught her life lessons that helped her in her career. “He had a motto: always make it happen. Never wait for someone to do for you. You make your own opportunities.”

Curry was cremated and left no will. A memorial for him is scheduled for Friday in the Spirit of Faith Christian Center in Temple Hills, Md. His remains will be interred in the Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery.