President Obama commutes 50-year sentence for leader of historic Baton Rouge cocaine distribution ring _lowres

President Barack Obama meets with people who were formerly incarcerated and have previously received commutations, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, at Busboys and Poets restaurant in northwest Washington. From left are, Serena Nunn, Ramona Brant, the president and Phillip Emmert. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the 50-year federal prison sentence of a Baton Rouge man accused of being the ringleader of one of the city’s largest crack cocaine distribution rings.

John E. “Boo” Milton III, 50, will be released on July 28 under the president’s order. He has served 19 years of that sentence and is being held at a federal prison in Alabama.

A federal probation officer had estimated that Milton was responsible for bringing 210 pounds of powder and crack cocaine to Baton Rouge from 1992 to 1996, but the judge who sentenced Milton in 1997 said the actual amount surely topped that estimate.

“I thought at the time the sentence was way, way too harsh,” lawyer Michele Fournet, who represented Milton, said Wednesday. “We are finally realizing that we can’t arrest and jail our way out of the drug problem in America. I’m very proud of our president.”

Attempts to get in touch with Milton’s family members were not successful Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney Walt Green declined comment on the story, adding that the “White House is the one who comments on those actions.”

Former U.S. Attorney L.J. Hymel, in an email response, says: “As U.S. Attorney, my obligation under the law was to prosecute persons who violated federal laws in a fair and impartial manner. That’s what our office did in this case. It was the Judge’s duty to impose sentence and that is what he did. Likewise, the President has the authority to pardon under our law. This is what the separation of powers under our Constitution is all about. Our system has worked for nearly 250 years. I am not one to criticize it.”

Milton’s term was one of 61 drug offenders’ sentences that Obama commuted Wednesday. A New Orleans man, Kevin County, and Roy Lee Debose, of Shreveport, also received commutations. Both were serving 20-year prison terms — County for heroin and cocaine distribution, and Debose for cocaine distribution.

Obama has long called for eliminating strict sentences for drug offenses that critics say lead to excessive punishment and high incarceration rates. The U.S. Department of Justice in recent years has directed federal prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimum sentences and expand criteria for inmates seeking clemency.

The presidential power to grant commutations and pardons “embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” the president said in a letter to the inmates receiving commutations.

Milton pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess and distribute powder cocaine and crack cocaine in a deal with prosecutors in exchange for his cooperation.

Witnesses at Milton’s 1997 sentencing hearing recounted how he lived in a posh Houston hotel and brazenly sent cocaine shipments back to Baton Rouge even after his March 1996 indictment here. A convicted drug dealer testified Milton drove a Porsche and bought a BMW and diamond-studded gold jewelry with cash.

The late U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola, who sentenced Milton, called the amount of drugs in the case “astonishing.”

Milton told the judge he felt controlled by evil while dealing cocaine and came to deeply regret his criminal actions.

“It was like I was living a dream. Then I woke up and saw all the things I had done,” a tearful Milton told Polozola. “It seemed like every time I’d make a dollar, Satan would take it and keep me working, like a yo-yo.”

In 1999, Milton tried, unsuccessfully, to have his plea and sentence overturned. He claimed government officials were responsible for creating the drug market trade. Polozola deemed his allegations “outrageous.”

Milton’s sister, Tangi Milton Williams, started a petition on Change.org to have her brother’s sentence lessened. In that petition, she said her brother had children after graduating from high school and was later introduced to drugs “as a way out” of his financial difficulties.

While in prison, Williams said, Milton has worked with inmates who have little or no education to help them obtain basic reading and writing skills. Milton also obtained degrees in Christian education and Christian counseling, she said, and the prison chaplain allowed him to serve as a prison facility minister.

“He wants to put his education and personal life struggles to use and help keep young men and women out of the justice system while helping them to find a better way of life,” Williams said in the petition.

Federal prosecutors have said the drug ring run by Milton used a house on Wisteria Street, fortified against police and thieves with heavy bars, and several other places to make and sell crack cocaine. Members of the ring used a microwave oven to cook powder cocaine into crack — a hard, rock-like substance that is smoked.

Some 18 people associated with the drug organization were convicted of drug-trafficking crimes. Fifteen of them pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. One of Milton’s partners, Ernest E. Robertson Jr., of Baton Rouge, received two life sentences after he refused to sign a plea agreement with prosecutors, then fought the charges at trial and lost.

Some of the cocaine shipped from Houston was carried by female couriers who drove behind decoy cars sent to distract police, according to the testimony of one of the defendants. The traffickers sometimes packed the cocaine in plastic wrap, surrounded by layers of peanut butter and fabric softener, in an effort to keep drug dogs from smelling the cocaine if the traffickers were stopped by law enforcement, prosecutors said.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to attribute the description of Milton’s plea agreement to the judge in the case.