The Tragic Story of Eugenia Jennings ( Sentence Commuted by Obama)
President Obama has decided to pardon more than a White House turkey this Thanksgiving. Yesterday, he issued 5 pardons and commuted one sentence.
The pardons are unimpressive. Three of the pardons were issued to people who had received probation more than a decade ago. The other two pardons were issued to people who finished serving their sentences 20 years ago.
On the other hand, the commutation deserves praise: Obama commuted the sentence of a woman named Eugenia Jennings, who was sentenced in 2001 to 22 years (262 months) for distributing crack cocaine in the Southern District of Illinois. It was her third felony crack conviction. Under Obama's order, she'll be released next week, after serving 10 years. She'll still have to serve 8 years of supervised release.
I just finished reading her 2001 sentencing transcript and her rejected 2008 motion to reduce her sentence under the Sentencing Commission's two level reduction in crack cocaine guidelines that year. Both are available on PACER. It's a very interesting story, one the sentencing judge, G. Patrick Murphy, called a tragedy.
Here's the tragedy of Eugenia Jennings:[More...]
First, why did she get 262 months? She pleaded guilty and was sentenced for 13.9 grams of crack cocaine. But because she was a career offender (two prior drug convictions), her criminal history category was bumped up from Level IV to VI and her offense level was substantially increased under the career offender guidelines. Had President Obama not commuted her sentence, she would have had to serve 17.9 years.
At age 18, she was charged with delivery of a controlled substance (1.5 grams of crack.) A year later, while on bond for that offense, she was charged with delivery of less than a gram of crack. She pleaded guilty to both offenses on the same day and was sentenced to 6 years in prison for the first offense, and 3 years probation (to follow the prison term) on the second. She was then indicted in federal court for trading crack for designer clothing with a government informant on two occasions while she was still on probation and supervised release for the state offenses. The informant had represented to her that the clothing was stolen. On one occasion, she traded 1.3 grams and on the other, which was videotaped, she traded 12.6 grams.
The sentencing judge called her story "as grim a one as I've ever read, and I've read a lot of them." Her life has been one of "tragedy, abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, abandonment."
Ms. Jennings tells the court she's a drug addict and been around drugs, alcohol and abuse all her life. She says she just relapsed, overwhelmed by her bills and other problems.
The judge tells her he's not mad at her. He tells her no one has ever stood up for her and all the Government has done for her is "to kick her behind." He says when she was a child and she had been abused, the Government wasn't there. When her stepfather abused her, the Government wasn't there. When her stepbrother abused her, the Government wasn't there. When she she gets a little bit of crack, the government's there.
The judge says,
"Now is that fair? No. It's not. Have you been punished? You bet. Your whole life has been a life of deprivation, misery, and whippin's and it's not fair "
But, he adds, "it's not in my hands."
"Congress has decided that the best way to handle people who are troublesome is we just lock 'em up. Congress passed the laws."
He says she has been a "pain in the rear end to authorities" and the drug laws being what they are, "you have no chance. None whatsoever. And they arrest you and here you are are. And you had no chance. And you still don't."
The Judge says he expects her to be back after she's released from prison because the chance of her staying out of trouble during her 8 years of supervised release "is so remote it's just not going to happen."
Ms. Jennings had three young children at the time of sentencing. The youngest was born while she was in prison. The Judge tells her it's an awful thing to separate a mother from her children, "and the only person who had the opportunity to avoid that was you."
He says he is genuinely empathetic to her position,
"because at every turn in the road we failed you. And we didn't come to you until it was time to kick your butt. That's what the Government has done for Eugenia Jennings."
He then sentences her to 262 months, and says he will "say to the world at large" there is no way she will be able to do 8 years of supervised release after so much prison time. She's already ill-equipped to handle civilian life. But that's the law."
He imposes a fine, calling it "silly" since she has no money now and won't have any when she gets out of prison, "but that's the law."
He then recites to her the standard conditions of supervised release (drug tests, treatment) and says:
But after this woman does over 20 years in federal prison, if she has any mind left at all, do you really think any of this will be of use to her? I don't.
He ends by saying he's not happy with the sentence, he's not proud of it. He just doesn't know what else to do about it. He has empathy for her.
I don't know how you can be a human being and observe this and know her life story and not have empathy for her. It's truly a tragedy.
He ends with:
Mrs. Jennings, I hope that you, if nothing else, have some love and comfort in your life and find some peace. There being nothing else before the court, the court stands in recess...."
In 2008, Ms. Jennings filed a pro se motion to reduce her sentence under the change in crack guidelines. The federal defender was appointed to represent her but withdrew, saying she wasn't eligible because she was a career offender and sentenced under the career offender guideline rather than the crack guideline. Since the career offender guidelines weren't lowered, her guidelines range remained unchanged, and she was ineligible for a sentence reduction. The court lacked jurisdiction to grant any relief.
According to her motion, she was abused by prison guards while in pre-trial detention. She's done well in prison: she stopped smoking, took a 100 hour residential drug treatment program, earned a diploma as an electrician, is a trainer at the Unicor data call center, and was picked by her unit team to speak to local youth. She has maintained contact with her children, sending them money from her prison earnings.
Ms. Jennings also filed a habeas action in 2003, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. She claimed her lawyer had coerced her into pleading guilty, promising she would receive a lesser sentence for her cooperation in an investigation into prisoner abuse at the detention facility. But she pleaded guilty without a plea agreement. She acknowledged when pleading guilty that no promises were made to her. Had she not pleaded guilty and received the three point reduction for acceptance of responsibility, her guidelines would have been 30 years to life and the statutory maximum was 30 years. So by pleading guilty, she cut 8 years off her sentence. All of this was explained to her and confirmed by her when she pleaded guilty.
She also alleged that the Government failed to prove the cocaine base she delivered to the informant was crack cocaine. The Judge, in denying her petition, remarked, "Jennings has extensive experience with crack cocaine as both a seller and a user of the drug."
As to why she didn't cooperate with the Government for a lesser sentence, the prosecutor at the time of her guilty plea hearing said she had come in to make a proffer, but refused to talk about the drug activities of her family members and wasn't being truthful about other things.
Judge Murphy denied her habeas petition in 2006. She was denied a certificate of appealability to appeal the habeas ruling. Out of legal recourse once her 2008 motion for sentence reduction was denied, she applied for clemency and President Obama commuted her sentence to essentially time served.
The saddest part of Ms. Jenning's case to me is that it's not that unique. Hundreds, if not thousands like her, with similar histories, are languishing in our prisons because they are ineligible for sentence reductions under either the 2008 or 2010 changes to crack cocaine guidelines -- either because they were sentenced as career offenders, even though their prior offenses were minor drug offenses, or because other enhancements imposed at sentencing result in their guidelines not being lowered by the changes.
Now that the guidelines are no longer mandatory, many of these defendants with prior criminal records might not get such a harsh sentence today. The judge could impose a lower, non-guideline sentence, although unless the defendant cooperates with the government, the judge cannot sentence below the mandatory 5 or 10 year minimum dictated by Congress. (These defendants are not eligible for the "safety valve" exception to mandatory minimum sentencing laws because they have more than 1 criminal history point.)
This is a good reminder that the recent change in the crack cocaine penalties from 100:1 to 18:1 in comparison to powder cocaine should be considered a beginning. It cannot be the end.
Ms. Jennings deserved a commutation. President Obama should be praised for issuing it. She just shouldn't be the only one.
[Added: According to FAMM, Ms. Jennings was diagnosed with cancer this year. She received chemo and is showing positive signs of recovery. She also has strong backing:
Jennings has a wide network of supporters and advocates, including Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), who learned of her case when her brother, Cedric Parker, testified before Congress. Senator Durbin and Jennings’s lawyers, Thomas Means, Alexander Schaefer and Timothy Foden of the Washington, DC law firm of Crowell & Moring, advocat
Her brother's testimony describing Ms. Jenning's tragic life and crimes is here.
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