Timothy Tyler has spent more than 20 years of his life in federal prison for selling LSD to a police informant.
And there was a decent chance he would have died there, until President Obama on Tuesday granted sentence commutations to Tyler and 110 other nonviolent drug offenders in federal custody.
Tyler — a Grateful Dead fan with a history of mental illness — was sentenced to life in prison for his nonviolent drug offense. Because there's no federal parole, Tyler had to get Obama himself to sign off on his early release.
Last 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.
Sandy Ogilvy, the professor who runs the project, broke the news to Tyler by phone on Tuesday. Tyler’s reaction seemed subdued, at first — likely because the call was done over speakerphone in front of prison officials, Ogilvy said.
“I’ll probably break down later, but thank you very much,” Tyler said, according to Ogilvy.
His release is scheduled for August 30, 2018, on condition that he complete a nine-month residential drug treatment program, Ogilvy said.
Tyler’s case had first been brought to the project’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 Business Insider last year. “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 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. He was also terrorized 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, said.
One of the people he met at a Grateful Dead show gave him LSD for free, Tyler-Stoafer said.
Tyler ended up selling the drug to his friends for less than a dollar a hit, he previously said.
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 $3,000 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.”
Ogilvy said the president’s decision to grant Tyler clemency wasn’t entirely unexpected — Ogilvy believed Tyler had an exceptionally strong case from the beginning. The petition for Tyler’s commutation hinged upon the argument that were he being sentenced today, he would likely have received a maximum of 10 years — a far cry from the life sentence imposed on him in 1994, when he was just 24.
“There’s no reason that Tim should have ever been facing a sentence like this,” Ogilvy said. “A 10-year-sentence would have been harsh, but reasonable. A life sentence was totally unreasonable.“
A major shift in America’s drug policy
A few weeks after Business Insider 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 organizations, 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. "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 prioritize 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.
Ogilvy called the clemency initiative “wonderful,” but said it doesn’t do nearly enough to address the overwhelming amount of people in federal custody with overly harsh sentences.
“Even if [Obama] does 100 commutations a month until he leaves office in January, 2017, he’s only going to scratch the surface,” he said.
“What’s really going to have to take place is for Congress to finally get it together and enact real sentencing reform that gets rid of some of the harsh sentences that we have on the books now.”
After Tyler’s release
Tyler has been planning his future outside prison for quite some time, Ogilvy said. His sister has invited him to live with her and her husband in Reno, Nevada, until he finds his footing, and has even offered him employment at her business.
Tyler knew even from his Deadhead days that he had a passion for food and cooking — he used to earn a living making fried dough while he following the Grateful Dead on tour. He hopes to potentially expand his sister’s business to open a small restaurant or offer catering services, Ogilvy said.
“He’s got some realistic plans, and he’s got a wonderful support network in his mother and his sister. So I’m confident he’s going to do well once he’s released,” he said.
As for the future of federal sentencing, criminal justice reform advocates are holding out hope that congressional action will replace the need for presidential commutations.
“There’s lots of people that are not going to be reached by the president. And who knows what the next president is going to do?” Ogilvy said.
More than 30,000 federal inmates submitted applications for assistance in clemency petitions, and just 1,600 have been filed to the Office of the Pardon Attorney as of August, The Atlantic reported.
“I think they are overwhelmed,” Julie Stewart of FAMM told Business Insider last year. “They do not have enough staff to go through the thousands of cases they have.”