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'I Always Believed' Justice System Would Change, Says Prisoner Granted Clemency

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to someone who has gotten a second chance. Antwon Rogers is 44 years old. By the time President Obama granted him clemency this past March, Rogers had spent half his life in prison. His crime...

ANTWON ROGERS: It was conspiracy to possess 139.8 grams of crack cocaine.

CORNISH: Because Rogers had two prior drug felonies on his record, he was given a life sentence. That was the mandatory minimum back in 1995. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act. It lowered the mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug offenses, but it didn't apply to Rogers and to many others who were sentenced before the law took effect. I spoke with Antwon Rogers and his lawyer, Jeff Lazarus this week. I asked Rogers what went through his mind when he first heard his sentence.

ROGERS: I was like, I have to better myself and prepare myself for if I get released in the future because I believe the justice system was unfair at the time, and I always that that would change.

CORNISH: Jeff Lazarus, help us understand how things would be different for Antwon Rogers had he been sentenced today. We know there's been a lot of changes through the Obama administration and laws rolling back kind of mandatory minimums that would affect a case like this.

JEFF LAZARUS: Well, when Antwon was sentenced, the statute said that if you have 50 grams of crack cocaine and you have two prior drug convictions, then you're subject to a mandatory life sentence. Life means life, which means no possibility of parole. In 2010, Congress and the president passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which raised the threshold from 50 grams of crack cocaine to 280 grams.

So because Antwon had 139.8 grams, today, he would get ten year mandatory, minimum. And even under the Sentencing guidelines, he would have probably only served about - had to have served about 10 years. Now, Antwon served 22, and you know, that's a function of the fact that the Fair Sentencing Act has not been made retroactive. Had it been made retroactive, guys like Antwon who were serving sentences before 2010 would be able to have bailed themselves with this new law, and that hasn't happened.

CORNISH: Antwon, can you remember, or can you describe the day you found out the president was going to commute your sentence? How'd you hear about it?

ROGERS: My counselor and my case manager - they called me to the back. They called Mr. Lazarus. He asked me, like, are you sitting down? I'm like, yeah. He was like, the president just commuted your sentence. You're coming home. First thing I said was, when? He was like, in July. I'm like, what day of July? He said, I don't know; we're trying to get you house arrest. I believe that was March 31. Then the next day, they told me, you're going to the halfway house April 10.

Then I called my family. I called my brother. And he was like, you're lying; you're lying. And then I was like, no, I'm not lying. When have I ever called you in 22 years and told you I was coming home? And then he said, you didn't, and he started crying and then had to - told me that I had to call him back 'cause he was shook up.

Then I called my daughter and everybody else. And everybody else was just excited. (Crying). And now everybody else is in jail, waiting to get out. But Congress is playing games when they just go on and make the law retroactive, where Barack Obama, the president, won't have to do it all by his self and apart an attorney and a clemency committee. All they have to do is make that law retroactive.

CORNISH: The president signed letters to you and others with commuted sentences. Can you tell me anything about what that letter said?

ROGERS: The letter said that you have a second chance. I believe you can make it. Don't let no one discourage you. And then it was a stamp, and he said, you know, congratulations. And then I actually handed the letter over to Mr. Lazarus to put on his wall.

CORNISH: How did that make you feel? Do you really feel like you have a second chance?

ROGERS: Yes. I know I have it.

LAZARUS: I don't think anyone will deny that, after talking to Antwon for five minutes, that he's been fully rehabilitated. And the benefit of this clemency initiative is that Antwon who were basically sent away for the rest of their life can demonstrate their rehabilitation and show that they've earned the right to come home.

CORNISH: Antwon, how are you moving forward? What're you doing these days?

ROGERS: I work for maintenance and repair. I'm waiting. This weekend, I'm supposed to get a laptop. I'm going to sign up online at Maryland University for business and information technology and pursue a bachelor's and master's degree.

CORNISH: What message would you like to send your friends who are still behind bars and who also are applying for clemency?

ROGERS: Just always believe that it'll work its way out. It's taking time, but it's going to work. It took 22 years, four months for me, but I made it. I do not believe that they will be left behind, not in America. It's the land of second chances.

CORNISH: That's Antwon Rogers. His life sentence was commuted earlier this year. His lawyer, Jeff Lazarus, also spoke to us. Thank you both.

ROGERS: Thank you.

LAZARUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.