Society uses the word redemption a lot. We root for redemption stories in sports, cinema, and life. The reason we cheer for stories of redemption is because all of us intuitively understand that people can change, and we all benefit when someone turns their life around.
Please let me tell you the amazing redemption story about Matthew Charles. I’m representing Matthew in his quest to obtain a commutation of his sentence from President Trump, who could send Matthew home to his family and faith community in Nashville, Tennessee who desperately want him back.
As a young man in his twenties, Matthew was reckless and violent and wild. He was convicted of several violent crimes before he was ultimately sentenced to 35 years for a conspiracy to sell crack cocaine. Facing a long sentence where he’d have to spend at least over 30 years in federal sentence, the story could have ended there; Matthew could have remained the incalcitrant youth who never turned the corner on that part of his life.
But Matthew worked hard to change. And after serving 21 years in federal prison, a federal judge resentenced him to time served. While Matthew was out of prison for two years, he was finally able to show the world the progress he made in prison. The Department of Justice, however, successfully appealed the sentence reduction. As a result, a federal judge said that “her hands were tied” and reluctantly resentenced Matthew to the full 35 years, forcing him back into federal prison for another decade.
This is an unjust result crying out for executive clemency. There are many reasons why Matthew is deserving of mercy, but these are just a few of them:
Matthew is not the same man he was 23 years ago. I often say that people make profound change from their twenties to middle age (the social science bears this out because people tend to “age-out” of crime). So why do we think people in prison can’t change? If the answer is that they are in federal prison, then that necessarily says something about our prison system but not necessarily about the individuals who reside there.
Few federal prisoners can point to the same degree of progress and rehabilitation that Matthew has shown. That isn’t to say Matthew did not make mistakes. He’d be the first to admit he has. But at the same time, what 50-something-year-old man doesn’t regret a decision he made in his twenties? Matthew’s mistake cost him his freedom. Yet knowing he had a long sentence ahead, Matthew didn’t give up but rather focused on becoming a better person. He worked hard to improve himself, obtaining a GED, taking college courses, and completing numerous other courses offered through the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Matthew also became a law clerk and used his training to help other incarcerated men. Character is not static, and Matthew has worked hard to transform his.
While Matthew served over 21 straight years in federal prison, he has not had even one disciplinary issue. Not a single infraction where he has gotten into trouble. I have never heard of that happening. To put it into context, I’m often held up as the poster child for rehabilitation, but I received two incident reports while serving 11 years in federal prison—half the amount of time Matthew has served.
Anytime a President grants clemency giving someone a second chance, the public worries whether the person receiving this act of mercy is worthy or whether the person released will commit a new crime. That is especially true for someone like Matthew—although Matthew is currently serving time for a nonviolent drug offense, he has prior convictions for violence. But this fear is no reason to keep Matthew in prison. His own actions outside of prison demonstrate that he is deserving of a second chance. He is not a danger to the community but rather an asset. During his two years out of prison, he earned a job, created a home, developed a community of friends through his church, and started a serious relationship with his girlfriend.
Most importantly, Matthew has no record of violence or crime (or even a minor disciplinary infraction) for the past 23 years.
Putting your life back together after serving a long prison sentence is exceedingly difficult. Despite the personal hurdles, Matthew continued to focus on helping others. Although he was not required to perform any community service, he did so every Saturday by volunteering at a soup kitchen for the homeless. As people who know Matthew will attest, he has a servant’s heart and his Nashville community directly benefited from it.
Even the U.S. Attorney’s Office recognizes that Matthew presents a compelling case for clemency. In a recently filed brief before the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Donald Q. Cochran, the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, wrote: “As the government has previously noted, Charles’s evident rehabilitation is commendable, and may well provide a compelling basis for executive clemency.”
If Matthew were to be released soon, I’m told by his friends and family in Nashville that he could get his job back and resume his good works in the community.
Rarely has a case like this caught the attention of people from all political stripes. Over the past week there have been countless conservatives and liberals publicly calling for Matthew to be given clemency. Everyone understands that it would be unjust and counterproductive for him to serve an additional 10 years in prison when he could be contributing to society as a law-abiding and successful citizen. People identify with Matthew’s redemption story, and if he is released, it will represent both an inspiration and a tangible goal that other prisoners may work to achieve.
A few weeks ago, I was at the White House when President Trump spoke in favor of the First Step Act, a federal prison reform bill. He explained why America needs to be the land of second and even third chances. Matthew Charles has earned that second chance. He has earned his freedom. And I pray that President Trump gives it to him.
Please sign and widely share Matthew’s change.org petition, which can be found here.
Shon Hopwood is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. He represents Matthew Charles.