Small-Time Coke Dealer Jesse Webster Pleads For Clemency, 18 Years into Life Sentence

| by Allison Geller

Jesse Webster is serving life in prison with no possibility of parole for a nonviolent, drug-related crime he committed 18 years ago. Webster is just another victim of the harsh mandatory sentencing laws of the 90s, which condemned him and others like him to a punishment just shy of execution.

“I should have done time,” Webster told The New York Times. “But a living death sentence?”

Webster, 46, was charged with participating in a drug conspiracy and filing false tax returns in 1996.

“I thought I’d have to hurt somebody, do bodily harm,” Webster said of the shock of receiving life without parole.

Even the judge thought the sentence was too harsh. But he had to stick to the letter of the law.

“To put it in simple terms,” said federal judge James B. Zagel at the time, “it’s too high.”

Webster fell into a life of cocaine dealing in Chicago when he dropped out of school in ninth grade to help support his family of seven. He began working at a car wash, where he met a dealer who offered him $200 a week to work as his driver. He began dealing coke and living a decent, though not extravagant, life. 

According to his friends, Wesbter says, he had “moved up in low places.”

He was never charged with any other crime before his life-changing trial. In 1995, Webster found out that he was wanted by the police for questioning and decided to turn himself in and accept his sentence in lieu of becoming an informant. 

Now, Webster is writing to President Obama to ask for a pardon. He has little other possibility of ever again seeing the world outside the medium-security prison in Greenville, Ill.

“You are my final hope,” he wrote to the president before signing off.

Wesbster’s lawyer, Jessica Ring Amunson, sent off his letter with a packet of other documents to the Office of the Pardon Attorney to the Justice Department. The documents included appeals from the prosecutors and judge of his case asking for a commutation of his sentence.

“I didn’t want a lot of mumbo jumbo,” Webster said. “I know he’s a busy man.”

The American Civil Liberties Union recently released a report about the 3,278 inmates serving life without parole for nonviolent sentences, the vast majority of whom are black or other minorities. According to Think Progress, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that life without parole is inhuman and degrading, as prisoners have no hope of rehabilitation or a second chance.

Even so, President Obama has issued fewer pardons than any other president in recent history. A great shift will need to occur if Webster’s request for a pardon, along with 2,800 like it, have any chance of being considered.

Sources: New York Times, Think Progress, ACLU