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updated: 12/19/2013 8:09 PM

Obama commutes Rockford man's life sentence

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Associated Press

After a federal defender told her client Thursday that President Barack Obama had just commuted his life drug sentence and he'd be out of prison by spring, he told her the president would not regret it.

Reynolds A. Wintersmith Jr., 39, of Rockford, has spent more than half his life behind bars. He found out that he and 20 others had been granted clemency hours before the White House's public announcement thanks to his attorney, MiAngel Cody.

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"I intend to make President Obama proud," he told Cody upon learning he'd be released April 17.

Wintersmith was a teenager at the time he was convicted for his role in a Rockford-based drug conspiracy, which included selling crack cocaine, and sentenced in 1994 to life in prison under then-mandatory federal guidelines. He had no prior criminal record and wasn't charged with acts of violence.

Obama commuted the sentences of Wintersmith and seven others because they received unduly harsh sentences under a system that treated convictions for crack cocaine harsher than for powder cocaine. The 13 others were pardoned for various crimes.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Cody said Wintersmith has worked hard during his decades in prison to become a better person -- something staff at his Greenville prison, just east of St. Louis, attested to in his clemency application.

For someone who's spent his entire adult life inside prison, Cody said it was ironic that one of Wintersmith's prison jobs has been to counsel inmates about to be released about how to cope on the outside, how to properly conduct themselves and how to look for steady jobs.

"Who he has become is his way of apologizing to all the people he ever wronged," Cody said.

Cody took on Wintersmith's clemency application after a friend of his family called her in 2011. At first, Cody couldn't believe that his case could be as egregiously unfair as the friend explained it. Then, she went through his court transcripts.

"Even the judge himself said that giving a life sentence to a first-time offender gave him pause," said Cody. "But then he said, `I have no choice."'

The application process took more than a year, Cody said. And there was no way to assess if it would succeed -- until she received a call Thursday morning from a U.S. Justice Department official.

"You apply and you hope for the best," she said. "It was just fabulous to get word."

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