WASHINGTON — President Obama granted a commutation Thursday to the first cousin of Governor Deval Patrick, allowing the release of a man who in 1994 was given a life sentence on charges of dealing crack cocaine.
Patrick said that he does not recall ever meeting his first cousin Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr., 39, of Rockford, Ill., and that he had no involvement in his application for clemency, which has been a cause of national advocates for years and has been featured in the national media.
“There’s a significant age gap between the two, and the governor has no recollection of having met Mr. Wintersmith,” said Patrick’s spokeswoman, Jesse Mermell. “Governor Patrick had no involvement in any application for a commutation of Mr. Wintersmith.”
He was aware of Wintersmith’s imprisonment, she said, but did not know the specifics of his case, or of the request for a commutation.
Patrick, who declined requests for an interview, has a close relationship with Obama, dining with him at the White House and on Martha’s Vineyard. Mermell said that the White House did not alert the governor about the commutation, and that Patrick learned of it only through the news media.
A White House spokesman would not say whether Obama knew that Wintersmith was related to Patrick when he signed off on the commutation.
Wintersmith was one of eight convicts who received presidential commutations Thursday. He is expected to be released by April. Obama also granted 13 pardons.
Obama said he was granting the commutations because the sentences were unduly harsh. The president in 2010 signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a statement. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
Wintersmith’s case has been featured in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. T he American Civil Liberties Union has taken up his cause. Wintersmith joined a drug ring when he was 17 and was arrested when he was 19. Advocates for his release said he was the only juvenile first-time offender in the country serving a mandatory federal life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.
“I have spent over half of my life in federal prison,” Wintersmith wrote in a blog post put on the ACLU website Monday. “I have been gone from a world that witnessed the advent of smartphones, digital cameras, and GPS technology. More personally, I have been gone from my family. I have missed 20 years of graduations, funerals, and carved turkeys for the holidays. For my very first conviction, I paid with the entire balance of my freedom.”
MiAngel Cody, a staff lawyer with the federal defenders office in Chicago who spoke to Wintersmith on Thursday, said Wintersmith would remain in prison no later than April 17, 2014. The Bureau of Prisons could release him before then.
“He is very grateful for this second chance,” Cody said. “He would like people to know that he intends to make President Obama proud.”
Wintersmith was convicted during the crack epidemic, at a time when federal sentencing guidelines included mandatory sentences. Because he was a gang leader pushing large amounts of cocaine and crack to the streets, the judge said he had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison.
“There is not another alternative available,” US District Judge Philip Reinhard said during Wintersmith’s sentencing hearing, according to the Chicago Tribune. “It gives me pause to think that that was the intent of Congress, to put somebody away for the rest of their life, but in any event, it’s there.”
The laws, though, have changed, particularly as prisons have grown more crowded.
Advocates pushing for Wintersmith’s release emphasized that he was raised in a home where most of his family was using or dealing drugs. Both of his parents were drug addicts, and he said he found his mother dead from a heroin overdose when he was 11.
“I was raised in a crack and prostitution house, where adult family members taught me how to cook, package, and sell cocaine,” Wintersmith wrote on the ACLU post. “My childhood does not excuse my crime. It only explains the road I have traveled.”
Wintersmith’s father and Patrick’s mother are siblings, and while Patrick was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, they all lived under the same roof. In his 2011 book “A Reason to Believe; Lessons from an Improbable Life,” Patrick writes about Wintersmith’s father, who at times lived in his grandparents home, where Patrick also stayed.
“The environment was perpetually tense, with Uncle Sonny often serving as the flashpoint,” Patrick writes. “He was older than my mother, a handsome, charming, but irresponsible character addicted to heroin who careened between drug binges, jail, and his parents’ apartment.”
Wintersmith’s sister, Rashonda, told the Globe Thursday night that she probably met Patrick as a young girl but does not remember.
“He’s my first cousin,’’ she said. “I’m sure I’ve met him. We shared the same grandmother.”
Rashonda Wintersmith said she had yet to speak to her brother since the commutation was announced but was trying to put money on his phone card so that he could call her from prison.
“I probably won’t be able to say anything to him,’’ she said. “Just tears. Thank you, Jesus. That’s what I’ll be saying. Words can’t explain.”
Patrick in the past has taken on causes of those who have been convicted.
Before he ran for governor in 2006, Patrick wrote two letters to the Massachusetts Parole Board on behalf of Benjamin LaGuer, a man convicted of rape. Patrick also donated $5,000 in 2001 to a legal fund to pay for DNA tests.
Patrick’s contribution became an issue and the subject of provocative attack ad during his initial run for governor, prompting him to review more evidence in the case. He later said, “The right outcome has been achieved, and justice has been served.”