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Granted clemency, man begins new life after prison

By Kristen Leigh Painter

The Denver Post

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 4:53 p.m. MDT

The Justice Department estimates there are thousands of men and women who may be eligible for early release — nonviolent, low-level drug offenders who have no ties to gangs or organized crime, in or out of prison, and who have served at least a decade of their sentences.

DOJ has enlisted the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to help find eligible candidates and has asked non-profits and private attorneys to help review inmates' clemency petitions.

The new resources being offered highlight Wheelock's solo struggle.

"I didn't even know I could apply for clemency and that they had applications right there at the prison until 2005, when someone just mentioned it in passing," Wheelock said.

Wheelock did his research and began shaping himself for clemency, enrolling in classes and avoiding trouble. In August 2011, when he felt his case was strong enough, he submitted his petition to the president.

Everything Wheelock figured out on his own is now being systematically rolled out in the DOJ's new clemency project.

As Washington toyed with concepts of equity before the law, Wheelock waited two years for a response from the U.S. pardon attorney.

At 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 19, 2013, Wheelock was called into the lieutenant's office at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence.

The warden opened his file, commended him for being a model inmate, and then she began to read.

"Be it known that I, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America ... do hereby grant the said application and commute the prison sentence imposed upon the said Billy Ray Wheelock."

For decades, showing any sort of emotion was a liability. Now, sitting in the prison office, Wheelock's pressure valve burst.

"I couldn't hear her anymore. I couldn't talk, I couldn't regain my composure, the tears just kept coming," Wheelock said, "When you've been waiting for something for 21 years, you don't know what to do when it comes."

His wife, Berna, says "we've all got something to learn from this man," and prays that the community support will make the transition to freedom easy.

"I want to share my experience so people don't make the same mistakes," Wheelock said. "I asked God, 'Why me?' But, then, he showed me. It's like one life that was taken, but there is life that (I hope will be) saved because of my story."

Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

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