Granted clemency, man begins new life after prison

By Kristen Leigh Painter

The Denver Post

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Newlyweds, Berna and Billy Wheelock, enjoy their first dance together as Mr. and Mrs. Wheelock to Etta James song, "At Last“ during their wedding reception in Englewood, Colo. Saturday, April 19, 2014. Wheelock was granted clemency by President Obama December 19, 2013 and was eventually released from a Denver halfway house in Denver Thursday, April 17, 2014 after serving 21-years of a life sentence in prisons in Texas, Indiana and Colorado for drug charges that occurred in Texas.

The Denver Post, Andy Cross, Associated Press

DENVER — A hasty signature in a yellowed paper ledger and the single snip of blue-handled scissors to remove his ankle monitoring device gave Billy Ray Wheelock his freedom.

It took less than 60 seconds — an unceremonious end to a 21-year haul in prison governed by self-discipline and personal advocacy that moved the president to grant him clemency.

Wheelock, 51, shook the hands of the staff at a Denver halfway house where he spent the last few months of his captivity. Buoyed by two decades of pent-up dreams, he walked through the rusty front gate the morning of April 17, to where his fiancée awaited him to begin their new life together.

"I refuse to be free and unhappy," Wheelock said.

Wheelock was 29 years old when he got life in prison for possession of and conspiracy to distribute 99.62 grams of crack cocaine.

His sentence was handed down by a Texas court in 1993, during the heyday of the war on drugs.

Crack was perceived as more addictive and dangerous then, and sentences for crack-related offenses were sometimes 100 times greater than for crimes involving the same amount of powder cocaine.

On Dec. 19, in a clemency order that acknowledged "a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust," President Barack Obama shortened the sentences of Wheelock and seven other men and women serving long prison terms for cocaine-related crimes.

"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," Obama wrote. "But it must not be the last."

Wheelock and the others now are poised to become the faces of work to reform the federal clemency process that has stranded perhaps thousands of other non-violent drug offenders sent to prison in the late 1980s and 1990s under harsh mandatory sentencing laws.

"Someday this (sentencing disparity) will be remembered as one of the most horrific things we've done in American history," said University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert, a U.S. drug policy scholar who became friends with Wheelock's fiancée while both were working on campus.

Changes to the sentencing system have begun. In 2010, severe mandatory minimums enacted in 1986 for crack offenders were reduced.

And on Wednesday, just days after Wheelock and some of the others walked free, the U.S. Department of Justice, under a directive from the Obama administration, announced major changes to the clemency process because of cases like theirs.

— "She won my heart"

Two days after being freed, Wheelock married Berna Lang — the woman he fell in love with in prison, before he knew if he would ever taste freedom again.

They met on a Muslim dating website. On April 25, 2013, Wheelock was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence from FCI Yazoo City, Miss.

He and Berna had been engaged for a year.

"She won my heart because she accepted life means life sentence," Wheelock said.

Between her jobs running a coffee shop at the University of Denver and bartending at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Berna works from 50 to 70 hours a week.

She also runs a cheesecake-making business and continues her practice of Islam.

Berna, 64, has two grown daughters living in Denver. One is a counselor who has been helping her mother and Wheelock adjust to life together in a small southeast Denver apartment.

Wheelock left prison with only the clothes on his back and a limp in his leg, the result of an injury in a prison football game years ago.

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