DENVER, Colo. — Billy Ray Wheelock was supposed to spend the rest of his life in a federal prison.
In the early 90s, when Wheelock was 29-years-old, he sold crack cocaine to a man who then sold it to an undercover cop.
Federal prosecutors in Texas offered Wheelock a plea deal, but looking down the barrel of a 20-year sentence, Wheelock rolled the dice and went to trial.
“I broke down when they did give me the life sentence,” recalled Wheelock.
In 1993, at the time of Wheelock’s conviction, federal sentencing guidelines treated one gram of crack cocaine as the equivalent of 100 grams of power.
The Drug Policy Alliance put their weight behind the Fair Sentencing Act that changed all that in 2010.
“Ninety percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine were African-American,” said Art Way, a Senior Director at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Denver office. “Really when you say tough on crime and tough on drugs, that’s code for tough on certain people, tough on poor people, tough on African-Americans, tough on Latinos.”
Way believes the Fair Sentencing Act was a step in the right direction.
It changed that ratio to 1-18, a ratio that still doesn’t sound right to Wheelock.
“If you murder one person, you don’t get charged for 18,” Wheelock pointed out.
In any case, the reforms didn’t seem to do Wheelock much good because they could not be applied retroactively.
“I’d seen the worst of the worst got out in my twenty-one years and I still remained in prison with no hope.”
Wheelock made the most of his time, taking advantage of every educational and vocational opportunity that came his way.
He even married a woman he met on a Muslim dating site.
“I didn’t want him to feel by himself,” said Berna Lang.
She told him,”I promise to give you my life. I’ll stick it out with you.”
The two had one glimmer of hope – the Clemency Project initiated in 2014.
“I’d been denied all my appeals. The clemency was my Hail Mary pass,” said Wheelock.
Then, one day in December 2014, Wheelock was called into the warden’s office.
“I’ll never forget it was on a Wednesday, fried chicken day… she said ‘It happened.’ ‘What happened?’ She said ‘You’ve been granted executive clemency by the President,” Wheelock recalled.
Four months later, he walked out of the federal correctional institution in Florence a free man.
He was among the original group of federal inmates granted clemency by the former president, known as the Obama Eight.
Since then, 1,707 more inmates were either released or saw their sentences reduced dramatically.
Six of them – Alvin Green, Walter Jenkins, Willie Small, Christian Jones, Erenio Perez, and Sammy Lee Woods – were convicted in Colorado.
“We think that was a good correction,” said U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer about the Clemency Initiative.
Troyer personally prosecuted Jenkins and Jones, both of Colorado Springs.
“In both of those cases I’m happy to see, and surprised to see, not a single bureau of prisons infraction, any violence or any misconduct, which is unusual and very hard to do,” said Troyer.
Eleven federal inmates convicted in Colorado applied for clemency. Of the 6 who were granted clemency, Troyer said his office agreed that four of them deserved it.
He recommended two of them see a reduction in sentence, but not as drastic as the pardon attorney ultimately determined.
“Frankly, my reaction was ‘this is great,” said Troyer. “We have the opportunity to have that history that we didn’t have at the time of sentencing to evaluate if this person the same danger to the community he was.”
Colorado ranks number 11 out of all the states and U.S. territories for the lowest number of commutations per capita. *The list excludes the U.S. Virgin Islands, which saw zero commutations.
“From the beginning, in this office, even on these older cases we charged cases through the lens of community safety. We always tried to look at how much harm are they doing to their community. Are they using violence or using guns? Do they have a criminal history of violence? Is the organization keeping people from using the parks, from being able to walk to school, from being able to live safely in their community?” Troyer said.
Troyer understands that there is some risk of allowing 1,715 inmates back into the community, but believes it’s a risk worth taking.
“It’s impossible to have a system in which, because of some risk, you incarcerate people until they die.”
If Wheelock is any indication, the future looks bright.
“As long as I can look out the window at freedom, I ain’t never had a bad day since I left prison,” he said.
His criminal history hasn’t held him back.
Billy is an HVAC technician. He works security at Broncos games and he’s a cook at a restaurant called the Island. He also parks cars.
On top of all that, he’s writing a book, hoping it will give other inmates hope.
Wheelock truly believes for him, the best is yet to come.
“If you just did 21 years in hell, everyday is heaven,” he said.