Timothy Tyler has spent more than 20 years of his life in federal prison for a nonviolent drug crime.
And there’s a decent chance he’ll die there.
Tyler — a Grateful Dead fan with a history of mental illness — was sentenced to life in prison for selling LSD to a police informant. Because there’s no federal parole, Tyler must get the president of the United States himself to sign off on his early release through a process known as commutation.
In June, the Innocence Project Clinic & Clemency Project at the Catholic University of America’s law school filed a petition for commutation on his behalf, giving him a shot at liberty in his lifetime.
His case was brought to the clinic’s attention by a group called Families against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which works to reform the kind of extreme sentencing laws that landed Tyler behind bars for life.
“Tim Tyler’s case has bothered me for two decades. I’ve been doing this since 1991,” Julie Stewart, the president of FAMM, told me in a recent phone interview. “His case bothered me because he’s such a peacenik.”
“We put this peacenik deadhead in prison for the rest of his life,” she added, “and to me, it just shows how off-the-charts crazy we became about drug sentencing in the ’80s and ’90s.”
‘Three strikes and you’re out’
Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws in response to the 1980s crack epidemic, and many states followed suit with similar laws.
These so-called “three strikes and you’re out” laws force judges to impose strict sentences based on the amount of drugs and sold and number of previous convictions — without regard for mitigating factors like drug addiction, mental illness, and abuse.
Tyler, whom we first profiled in July 2013, has reported having a history of psychosis and drug addiction, according to a pre-sentence memorandum reviewed by Business Insider. He was also terrorised as a child by his stepfather, his mother and sister previously told Business Insider.
When he was about 17, Tyler went to his first Dead show and attached himself to the loving hippies he met there, his sister, Carrie Tyler-Stoafer, told me.
One of the people he met at a Grateful Dead show gave him LSD for free, Tyler-Stoafer told me.
Tyler ended up selling the drug to his friends for less than a dollar a hit, he previously told me.
He was arrested twice for drug offenses, though he received probation both times. Then he got arrested a third time after selling larger quantities of the drug to a friend who turned out to be an informant.
To be clear, Tyler got busted for selling a lot of acid — 13,045 hits, according to a pre-sentence memorandum.
But that memo doesn’t make him and the men with whom he was busted look like career criminals, either. Tyler only netted about $US3,000 from “a very loosely woven conspiracy” that involved selling acid to “friends, family and business acquaintances,” according to the memo prepared by his probation officer.
“I wouldn’t do it again,” Tyler told Business Insider on the phone from the federal prison in Waymart, Pennsylvania, back in 2013, when we first reported on his case. “I wouldn’t have done it if I had known I could have gotten this kind of time.”
A major shift in America’s drug policy
A few weeks after we first reported on Tyler’s case in 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in America’s policy of putting nonviolent criminals away for decades.
Though Holder didn’t have the power to do away with mandatory minimums — only Congress can change that law — he instituted a policy that dramatically reduces their effect.
Under Holder’s new guidelines, federal prosecutors don’t charge defendants with dealing a specific amount of drugs if those defendants have committed “low-level, nonviolent drug offenses” and aren’t a part of large organisations, gangs, or drug cartels.
This means judges won’t be forced to mete out harsh sentences for many nonviolent offenders.
Though this new policy wouldn’t affect people like Tyler who had already been sentenced, Holder’s announcement gave Tyler renewed hope that his more than 20-year-long stint in prison would actually end.
“At one point, I couldn’t see myself becoming free,” Tyler told Business Insider from prison when I called to get his reaction to Holder’s announcement. “The tide might be changing. My mother used to say she didn’t have a child [for him] to spend [his] whole life in prison.”
Tyler was right about the changing tide.
In April 2014, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to prioritise applications from people who would have been gotten much shorter sentences if they were convicted today, among other criteria. Overall attitudes on mandatory minimums have been shifting, too.
Bipartisan negotiators in Congress look set to introduce a bill soon that would reform sentencing laws. Even Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who up to even this year opposed reforming sentencing laws — has said he is open to the new proposals.
Considering that President Barack Obama commuted just one person’s sentence in his first term, the clemency initiative has significantly increased Tyler’s previously slim chances of getting out. Tyler’s case would almost surely be prioritised under this initiative.
‘A waiting game’
Sandy Ogilvy, the professor who runs the project in which law students at Catholic University work on clemency petitions, seemed particularly struck by Tyler’s case.
“The reason Timothy ended up with a life sentence is he had two prior convictions … It’s just crazy. There’s no nice way to put it,” Ogilvy told me.
Tyler’s petition for clemency argued that if he were charged today prosecutors probably wouldn’t have used his prior convictions against him. They might not have charged him with a specific amount of drugs, either, Ogilvy said.
He’d definitely be out of prison by now if today’s policies were in place back when he was sentenced. It’s hard to argue there’s much to gain from keeping him in prison any longer. However, there’s no guarantee he’ll receive a commutation — even with the president’s latest imitative.
More than 30,000 federal inmates submitted petitions after the clemency initiative was announced, and only a few have been advanced, The New York Times reported in July.
“I think they are overwhelmed,” Julie Stewart of FAMM told me. “They do not have enough staff to go through the thousands of cases they have.”
Even if his case does get reviewed in a timely fashion, his bid for clemency could still be turned down. While he fits the criteria for release, that’s no guarantee his petition will be granted.
“His petition has been filed, so it’s really now just a waiting game,” Stewart told me.
“He’s such a poster child for our excessive punishments of drug offenders during the past 30 years,” she added. “I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t get released, but so far that hasn’t happened.”
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