(CNN) — For nearly a decade, Chris Young was told the only way he’d ever leave federal prison is with his death certificate. Handed two life sentences without the possibility of parole after his conviction in a federal drug conspiracy case, Young’s only real shot at freedom would have to be a rare presidential pardon.
That rare shot became a reality January 20, when Young, now 32, was granted executive clemency In the final hours of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Getting off his flight back home to Tennessee, Young had a long embrace with an unlikely supporter and someone he hadn’t seen since the day he was sentenced — the judge who ordered him to serve life behind bars.
“This is Judge (Kevin) Sharp. This is the man that had to give me two life sentences,” Young told CNN. “But I knew it was not something that he wanted to do. He wasn’t choosing for me to have two life sentences. America and its judicial systems chose that. … It’s called a mandatory minimum and it means exactly that — it is mandatory. So I knew he had no choice.”
‘There’s there’s no justice happening here today’
The two men first met in 2014, when Young wore an orange jumpsuit in Sharp’s courtroom. Though Sharp was in a position of authority, in reality the judge had no authority to decide Young’s fate.
Young was arrested when he was 22 and was one of dozens prosecuted in a 2010 drug trafficking investigation in Clarksville, Tennessee. Unlike most of the other defendants, Young didn’t take a deal; he said he requested a trial and pleaded not guilty in federal court because, in his mind, he was a “low-level” participant.
But with two minor drug convictions on his record from his teenage years, this was his third strike — triggering federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, a result of a knee-jerk reaction by Congress to deal with the so-called crack epidemic of the 1980s.
It meant that instead of the five- or six-year sentence Sharp said he would have handed down, Young was set to spend the rest of his life in prison.
“There’s no justice happening here today,” Sharp recalled thinking about the sentencing. “I’m doing what they tell me to do. But in no way shape or form is this justice.”
Young wasn’t the first person Sharp had sentenced under mandatory minimum guidelines, or the last. But Young’s case was the one he couldn’t shake.
“It wasn’t just Chris’s case, although Chris’s case … became the poster child for everything that I thought was wrong with the criminal justice system. And if they wanted a messenger, then someone else could do that,” explained Sharp.
Sharp didn’t have a choice when it came to Young’s future, but he did have one when it came to his own.
“I had to decide, am I more valuable on the bench or off the bench,” Sharp said.
A new path
Sharp stepped down from his lifetime appointment as a US district court judge in 2017.
Nominated by former President Barack Obama in 2011, Sharp noted the frustration of jumping through hoops just to get on the bench, only to have the powerful tools of a judge stymied by the system.
“The White House has done their work to decide whether or not I have those qualities to perform this job. The FBI investigates you, it goes to the Senate, they do their own investigations. You have a confirmation hearing, then it goes to the Senate floor. All of this to do one thing, and that’s to make sure that you have the temperament, the judgment, the intellect, all of these qualities to be a judge,” Sharp said.
“And now I’m there, and I’ve got a lifetime appointment, and then they say, except for the most important thing, which is someone’s liberty as it relates to a mandatory sentence. We’re going to take that from you. And you’re going to be an errand boy, sent by the grocer to collect the bill.”
News of Sharp’s retirement made its way to Young’s prison email inbox. Young said he never blamed the judge for his sentence, understanding the legal handcuffs imposed by mandatory minimums, but he was blown away by Sharp’s reasons for stepping down.
“He chose a courageous act of leaving the stage and said, ‘I don’t want to play in this play anymore. This theater, this act that y’all have going on, it’s inhumane, and it’s wrong.’ And I always will respect and admire him for that,” said Young.
Sharp joined a law firm that gave him the chance to tackle civil rights cases. But it was an interview with The Tennessean newspaper about his retirement in April 2017 that put him on the other end of that hug from Young in the airport last month. In the interview, Sharp denounced mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and discussed Young’s case — the one that tore at his conscience the most.
“I don’t realize really what to even do about Chris until I hear from Brittany,” Kevin says of Young’s lawyer, Brittany K. Barnett, who called him after reading the article and told him she was going to be taking on Young’s case.
A former corporate lawyer who is now a powerhouse civil rights attorney, Barnett is the co-founder of the Buried Alive Project, a group of lawyers and criminal justice advocates that works to get people released from prison who are serving sentences under outdated federal drug laws.
“She flew to town and we sat down at a coffee shop around here and she just kind of laid it out,” Sharp said.
They found nothing to warrant an appeal of Young’s case. So Barnett — who had successfully represented defendants serving life in prison for nonviolent offenses who then received a presidential clemency or commutation — knew the last avenue for Young’s freedom was through executive action by the President.
But his chances were slim. “He would go in line behind 14,000 other people who filed clemency petitions,” Sharp said.
‘I focused on changing their perspective’
While Barnett and Sharp pored over paperwork and dwindling opportunities, Young said he never lost hope. He spent his days working out his body and mind, learning to code and helping other prisoners with their cases in the law library.
Young’s determination to learn from his mistakes and forge a positive future was evident even during his pre-sentencing allocution to the court, even though he knew at the time his fate was sealed.
An allocution is a courtroom formality usually reserved for a defendant’s apologies or continued declarations of innocence, but Sharp said he still remembers Young’s impassioned, nearly hourlong speech in which he took responsibility for his actions, displaying his potential to be a productive member of society if given another chance at freedom.
Said Young: “I didn’t focus on the life sentence, I focused on changing their perspective, changing their feelings of me, hoping I could touch into their heart and change their mentality and make them see me as a human being. I didn’t know at the time that I had accomplished that.”
Sharp said Young’s hope for the future made the fact he couldn’t take anything about his past or potential into consideration even more difficult. The former judge noted these types of sentences impact Black and brown communities at a disproportionate rate.
“The system is set up to see certain groups as ‘less than.’ Some people would say it’s less than human, but at the very least, it’s less than White. And so they are treated differently,” Sharp said. “And that has got to change. Until we start seeing each other as human beings and recognizing that Chris has the same worth as me or anybody else who was in that courtroom, we’re going to have this problem.”
Adding a little star power
Barnett said she knew from experience that getting a client’s case before President Trump was possible, but it often required a little something extra to grab his attention: star power.
Her previous client, Alice Johnson, had her sentence commuted by Trump after reality star and criminal justice advocate Kim Kardashian West lobbied the President.
Still, Sharp said he was surprised when he received a call from Barnett asking whether he would speak with West about the case. And in September 2018, he attended a White House meeting with West, Barnett and others in which he pushed for Young’s release.
Though grateful for the advocacy of West and other high-profile supporters, Barnett said a person’s freedom shouldn’t depend on a celebrity’s influence. She said she believes the clemency system itself is broken there should be another way to draw attention to unjust prison sentences.
“You should not have to have a celebrity to get your name to the president. I am grateful that people like Kim Kardashian West and many other celebrities use their platform to raise awareness about this crucial issue. But it shouldn’t take a celebrity,” Barnett said.
Under the Biden administration, Barnett said, she intends to push for systemic change in the pardon, clemency and commutation process, specifically what she calls out as the “obvious” conflict of interest rooted in the core of the process.
“Typically, the way it works is the clemency petition goes through multiple levels of review within the Department of Justice before it gets to the White House, before it lands on the president’s desk. And that part should just be completely transformed,” Barnett said.
“There should be no way under the universe that clemency petition should go through the Department of Justice at all (because) you are asking career prosecutors to overturn their own decisions. And so there’s a way to make the clemency process much more efficient than it is now.”
‘And then, nothing’
After the White House meeting, Sharp said he was invigorated. He said President Trump appeared to listen to Young’s case. They waited.
“It was all very exciting. There was a great lineup. And then, nothing. There was nothing. Occasionally, I would check on it. And anytime I had the opportunity, I would speak about it. But I’m not hearing anything back from the White House on that,” recalled Sharp. He admitted he thought it was over for Young.
Barnett said she was frustrated, but not discouraged. She chipped away at all other avenues, eventually winning Young a sentence reduction in September 2020.
Because Young was no longer serving a life sentence, but still had years left behind bars for a nonviolent conviction, he was set to be transferred out of the maximum security prison he’d been living in for six years. But Young said he never got to celebrate.
In order to stop the spread of Covid-19, the Bureau of Prisons paused most inmate transfers in March. Since Young couldn’t be moved to a new location, but needed to be transferred out of maximum security, he was instead tossed “the hole” and put in solitary confinement.
“It’s called the hole for reason. It’s like a dungeon. You can’t see outside, you have no radios, no TVs, no emails, no nothing. And I did four months there,” Young explained, before a smile crept over his face. “So the morning that they came and got me and told me I was getting released, it was unbelievable.”
A second chance
Young was one of 143 people to receive last-minute clemency from President Trump on January 20. In the statement from the White House about Young’s commutation, Sharp’s support is mentioned first.
“Mr. Young’s many supporters describe him as an intelligent, positive person who takes full responsibility for his actions and who lacked a meaningful first chance in life due to what another Federal judge called an ‘undeniably tragic childhood,'” the statement says.
But for Young — and Sharp — it’s the last sentence in the statement that means the most.
“With this commutation, President Trump provides Mr. Young with a second chance.”
Barnett said she is hopeful thousands more will one day get to read similar life-changing words. She admitted Young’s case was special for her and she’s letting others in her organization handle new cases for a little while. Barnett said she plans to focus on freedom for the remainder of her clients and turn toward improving the support system for people in their lives after incarceration.
“There are still people serving life sentences today under yesterday’s drug laws, and so we have a lot more work to do,” she said.
Meanwhile, Young said he is ready to take full advantage of his second chance, using the computer science and coding skills he learned in prison.
“I want to bridge the gap between the streets and innovative technology,” Young said. “So hopefully you can see more faces like me in Silicon Valley and Wall Street.”
He also plans to bring those skills with him to work with the Buried Alive Project, so he can pay it forward and help those who are in the position he was in.
“Unfortunately, it’s hundreds of thousands of Chris Youngs and Alice Johnsons still sitting in cages and we need to get them free some kind of way,” he said.
Freeing them would take monumental changes to our criminal justice system, but Young and Sharp note they have already beaten the odds once — and are committed to continue fighting for reform together.
“As for me and him,” Young said, “he will always be in my life. This is a surrogate uncle, surrogate father, business partner, business adviser. You will see more of Judge Sharp and Chris Young.”
Responded Sharp, “However we are moving forward, I’m sticking close to this guy because he’s going to do much more important things than I ever did.”
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