Opinion

How Trump Can Show Mercy Isn’t Reserved for the Rich and Famous

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Posted: Aug 25, 2018 12:01 AM
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How Trump Can Show Mercy Isn’t Reserved for the Rich and Famous

Was President Trump willing to commute the prison sentence of Alice Marie Johnson only because he was asked to do so by Kim Kardashian, who is rich and famous? Naomi Tharpe sure hopes not.  She isn’t a TV star. She doesn’t have 60 million Twitter followers. Naomi works for a large healthcare company. She is neither rich, nor famous.

But Naomi is like Kim Kardashian in at least one way: She is a passionate advocate for justice with a righteous cause. Naomi is on a mission to free her boyfriend, Matthew Charles.

In his 20s, Matthew was an admittedly bad guy who didn’t care much for the rules. He dealt drugs and abused women, behavior he saw growing up in his parents’ home. He spent five years in state prison for various crimes and still couldn’t get his act together. He was busted again for selling crack cocaine and procuring guns under an assumed name. He was prosecuted in federal court, convicted, and sentenced in 1996 to 35 years in prison without parole.

While waiting to be shipped to federal prison, a friend in county jail gave Matthew a Bible. As Matthew told Nashville NPR’s Julieta Martinelli, he began reading it and had what can only be described as a spiritual awakening. His hard shell began to soften. He began to look inward at the roots of his rage and outward with sorrow to those he had wronged.

Once in prison, Matthew charted a new path for his life. Within the first five years, he completed more than 30 Bible correspondence courses. He taught GED classes, worked on a college degree, and became a law clerk. Over the years, he monitored changes in the law and helped other prisoners file appeals when it appeared they deserved relief. Twenty years into his sentence, Matthew had not received a single disciplinary infraction. 

Then, in 2010, a federal judge ruled that Matthew was eligible for a sentence reduction after Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce penalties for crack cocaine. The judge recalculated Matthew’s sentence based on the new law, and Matthew left prison in early 2016, 10 years before he expected.

He was ready. All the hard work he had put into rehabilitation served him well as a free man. He went home to Nashville and found a job, rented an apartment, and bought a car. He reconnected with his children and grandchildren. He became a weekly volunteer at a local food pantry. Best of all, he met Naomi. 

Naomi liked Matthew right away but was understandably reserved. She was impressed that he was so honest and forthcoming about his past and all the mistakes he had made. They went to church together and she watched him closely. She came to see that this once-troubled kid had turned himself into a good man.

As Naomi and Matthew began to consider a life together, the Obama Department of Justice interrupted. It turns out that the judge who shortened Matthew’s sentence made a mistake. Because Matthew qualified as a “career criminal” under federal law, he was not eligible for a sentence reduction. The Justice Department said that Matthew, after nearly two years of freedom, should go back to prison. A federal appeals court agreed and directed a new judge to carry out the order.

By this time, Jeff Sessions was in control of the Justice Department. The judge tasked with sending Matthew back to prison for a decade was clearly troubled. She was moved by Matthew’s amazing rehabilitation inside and outside of prison and suggested that Sessions’ new lead prosecutor reconsider the Obama team’s decision to return Matthew to prison. Sessions’ prosecutors refused.

Today, Matthew sits in a Tennessee county jail, waiting to be transferred to a federal prison in South Carolina. His only hope is a grant of clemency from President Trump. Naomi visits him every weekend and recently flew to Washington, D.C., to build support for his release and to lobby Congress to pass President Trump’s prison reform bill. 

Over the past few months, dozens of conservative and liberal intellectuals, advocates, and writers have urged the president to commute Matthew’s sentence. More than 133,000 people have signed a petition I created asking for the same. Will it be enough? Naomi isn’t sure. She might not be Kim Kardashian, but she has heard President Trump say he believes in second chances, and she knows that Matthew Charles sure deserves one.