When he pleaded guilty to LSD distribution in 1993, Timothy Tyler, a 24-year-old Deadhead, had no idea he would be going to federal prison for the rest of his life. As his sister, Carrie Tyler-Stoafer, observes in a new video about the case, there is no rational reason for a defendant in Tyler's position to accept a plea deal that calls for a life sentence. Based on advice from his inexperienced public defender, Tyler thought pleading guilty would reduce his sentence to 21 years. If that had been true, he would be free by now. But because of two prior convictions for selling small amounts of LSD, pleading guilty to mailing a confidential informant more than 10 grams (including the weight of the paper) on two different occasions triggered not one but two mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.
"I was in shock that someone who was a nonviolent person, who didn't hurt people, who was real peaceful and honest…could get life without the possibility of parole," says Tyler-Stoafer. "Murderers get 20 years…You could rob a bank and get 10 years…You could kidnap someone and get 10, 12 years….[You can] do all kinds of evil things and still get out of prison someday….I was devastated." Federal prosecutors had a different reaction, she recalls. "I walked down the hall and down the stairs," she says, "and the prosecutor was high-fiving [the] other attorneys."
Tyler, whose story was included in a 2013 ACLU report on life sentences for nonviolent offenders, has been behind bars since 1993. His only hope of going free seems to lie with President Barack Obama, who has used his clemency power to shorten just 10 sentences so far but reportedly plans to issue "hundreds, perhaps thousands" more commutations by the end of his second term. The video about Tyler, produced and directed by Phil Lee, is part of planned documentary, Locked Up, focusing on Tyler and five other nonviolent drug offenders who are serving life sentences. Lee, who is raising money on Kickstarter for the project, is about halfway toward his goal of $45,000.
Until he read about Tyler's case last fall, Lee says, he did not realize you could receive a life sentence for a "crime" that violates no one's rights. "I had no idea that was even possible in our society!" he says. "I am afraid much of the public has no idea as well….Everything we can do to generate publicity on this issue can help sway opinion and raise awareness."