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This Man Was Released From Prison and Rebuilt His Life; Two Years Later He Got Sent Back Because of an 'Error'

Now writers, activists, and thousands of readers are calling on Trump to commute Matthew Charles' sentence.

FacebookFacebookWhat do Kim Kardashian, Joy Reid, and The Federalist have in common?

They're all aghast at the case of Matthew Charles, a Tennessee man who was recently sent back to federal prison after two years of freedom when an appeals court ruled he had been released in error. Now criminal justice reformers and thousands of others are calling on President Donald Trump to commute Charles' sentence.

Charles was released early from federal prison in 2016, having served 21 years of a 35-year sentence for selling crack to a police informant. Federal prosecutors then appealed, arguing that, because Charles had been originally been classified as a "career offender," he was ineligible for the retroactive sentencing reductions put into place during the Obama presidency.

Despite a request from a federal judge asking prosecutors to drop their appeal, citing Charles' "undisputed rehabilitation," the U.S. Attorney's Office pressed on. A federal appeals court ruled that, by the letter of the law, Charles should never have been released from prison.

A widely-read story published Friday by Nashville Public Radio reported in stomach-wrenching detail Charles' last days of freedom, as family and friends said goodbye and Charles boxed up the small life he had managed to build on the outside. Earlier this month, he turned himself in to the U.S. Marshals and was sent back to a cage for another decade.

Charles was not a model citizen when he first arrived at prison. By his own account, he was right where he deserved to be. He had a serious criminal record including attempted murder and kidnapping. His crack cocaine sentence included an enhancement for illegally purchasing guns.

But as the article details, Charles found religion in prison, became a law clerk and GED instructor, helped illiterate inmates decipher court documents, and served 21 years of hard time without a single disciplinary infraction. After his release, he held down a steady job, volunteered every Saturday at a food pantry, reconnected with his family, and found a serious girlfriend.

Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and a prominent criminal justice reform advocate, says Charles' case demonstrates the problem with mandatory minimum sentences.

"These one-size-fits-all approaches don't work in society, generally, and don't work in the criminal justice system, either," Holden says. "This case in so many ways sheds a light on it. You talk about a guy who did everything he was supposed to do while in prison, he turned his life around. Then he gets out, and he's been leading a great life and just doing all the things you want to see someone do, but now he's heading back to prison. It doesn't make any sense. By the letter of the law, they got it right, but it's completely unjust."

Charles' return to prison is so outrageously cruel and stupid that it has spurred condemnation across the political spectrum, from MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid to the conservative website The Federalist. Even Kim Kardashian tweeted about it.

Criminal justice reformers have been pushing the story to the White House in hopes of catching the attention of Jared Kushner, the adviser and Trump son-in-law who has made prison reform one of his top priorities.

A Change.org petition started by Families Against Mandatory Minimums is calling on Trump to commute Charles' sentence; it now has more than 10,000 signatures.

As it happens, Trump is holding a rally in Nashville tonight, and local supporters of Charles' are trying to catch Trump's attention.

"As President Trump visits Nashville this evening, I hope he will review the case of Nashville resident Matthew Charles who, after serving over 20 years in prison, was released," Republican state Sen. Steve Dickerson said in a statement today. "After living in Nashville as a model citizen, Mr. Charles is now being sent back to prison through no fault of his own. In no way is this justice, and I urge President Trump to commute Mr. Charles' sentence so he may continue to move forward with rebuilding his life."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Charles is hardly the only prisoner who has been rehabilitated and is a good candidate for commutation. In fact, federal prosecutors argued that Charles' case wasn't unjust or unique enough to warrant relief, because there were roughly 5,000 other federal inmates whose status as "career offenders" had led to them being denied early release.

"Indeed, the only thing that appears to distinguish Mr. Charles from others who were found to be Career Offenders years ago and who now show evidence of rehabilitation is that the vast majority of these individuals are still incarcerated while Mr. Charles was released from prison and, thus, had the opportunity to interact with society outside of prison," U.S. Attorney Donald Cochran wrote.

He may not have been making the point he intended to.

Photo Credit: Facebook

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  • StackOfCoins||

    It would just be a lawless world without the federal government jailing people for things like selling drugs.

  • Chipper Jones||

    When I scanned and saw 21 years of a 35 year sentence I figured he must have been some cold-blooded killer. Turns out it was much worse: crack dealer.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Crack dealer who admits to being a kidnapper and trying to kill people.

    Likely means that he actually did kill people. Or had them killed.

  • Chipper Jones||

    Except that he was only doing 35 years for a crack sentence, plus an enhancement for an illegal gun purchase.

    Also we don't put people in prison and throw away the key for things they may have done.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Yes. We do. Things are admissible in sentencing that are not at trial.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    We do; was his admission though brought up at sentencing or was this after the fact admissions that he gave as an interview? I think the 35 years was for the sale of crack cocaine plus the multiplier of the illegal weapons charge which going back to 1995 seems like the standard max-min sentence.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    We do; was his admission though brought up at sentencing or was this after the fact admissions that he gave as an interview? I think the 35 years was for the sale of crack cocaine plus the multiplier of the illegal weapons charge which going back to 1995 seems like the standard max-min sentence.

  • Eidde||

    True. And That's A Problem.

  • MarkLastname||

    "You're honor, even though we can't prove this man murdered his wife with a shovel, we can prove he bought the shovel!"

    Judge: "25 to life!"

    Sounds fair.

  • BYODB||

    Bizarrely, I've heard that the difference between crack and cocaine possession was at the direct request of black community even though it's now used as an example of how the system is rigged against the black community.

    'Justice' is a curious term for this kind of thing.

  • BYODB||

    *black community leaders

  • Eidde||

    At first the criminal justice system was racist because it was just letting drug-dealers back on the streets where they preyed on children in black neighborhoods.

    Now the criminal justice system is racist because it imposes excessive and cruel sentences to defendants f color.

    You need to keep up with the story of today. And memory-hole the narrative from yesterday.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Look, you don't have to push me too hard to admit that many of the leaders of the black community have led people astray.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>the U.S. Attorney's Office pressed on

    time to lean? time to oppress.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    The overzealous prosecutor is all the rage these day.

  • tkamenick||

    Nevertheless they persisted?

  • Hugh Akston||

    Despite a request from a federal judge asking prosecutors to drop their appeal, citing Charles' "undisputed rehabilitation," the U.S. Attorney's Office pressed on.

    So is it just a coincidence, or is "being a huge asshole" an actual bullet point on the job description for government attorneys?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    If they'd admitted this one mistake, they'd have to see how many of those 5000 others were also mistakes. Why should they spend resources freeing criminals which would be better used locking people up?

  • markm23||

    I can't think of one Attorney General that wasn't a huge asshole, and I remember most of them back to Bobby Kennedy. So I don't know if it's a requirement for the peons, but it certainly is for the top position.

  • Dillinger||

    >>by the letter of the law, Charles should never have been released from prison.

    letter of law should include "too bad so sad" provision for government idiocy.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    After his release, he held down a steady job, volunteered every Saturday at a food pantry, reconnected with his family, and found a serious girlfriend.

    NONE OF WHICH CAN BE PUT ON A PROSECUTOR'S RESUME.

    Also, you quoted the Kochtopus in this article, so I assume there's some sinsiter ulterior motive in any push for criminal justice reform. Prison industrial complex deregulation, perhaps?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Also, you quoted the Kochtopus in this article, so I assume there's some sinsiter ulterior motive in any push for criminal justice reform. Prison industrial complex deregulation, perhaps?

    Prison industrial complex deregulation, prison privatization, and ex-cons are probably much more willing to work for less than a "living wage" than people who aren't ex-cons. /sarc

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Ok, Fist, that was a great comment. You are, indeed, capable of greatness. Only your love of the Penguins is holding you back.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I still think they have a chance at the Threepeat this year.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Misleading headline. His release was the error.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Right. The 'error' is why they sent him back, like it says in the headline. It's only misleading if you don't read the article.

  • Bubba Jones||

    "He got sent back because of an error"

    No. He was released because of an error. The error is not why they sent him back. He got sent back because he had not completed his sentence.

    If an error had sent him back, then correcting the error would result in his release. That is not the case.

  • Hugh Akston||

    They sent him back because his release was an error. If he had not been released in error, they would not have sent him back, therefore he was was sent back because of the error.

  • Hail Rataxes||

    You don't understand. He's a criminal and thug. Can't you see that?

  • gormadoc||

    Here in the angry comment section we use the version of causality that says that events only depend on the state immediately before; states further back had no effect. Just ignore the fact that this would make it all deterministic and therefore best blamed on the creation of the universe.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Come on Trump, pardon this nice man. Do the right thing.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Maybe he'll get lucky and die in prison. Trump will definitely pardon him posthumously.

  • Bubba Jones||

    This man may very well deserve commutation but let's not pretend that the sentencing reform was intended to include men who attempted murder and kidnapping.

  • Hugh Akston||

    He wasn't serving a sentence for kidnapping or attempted murder. He was serving a sentence for selling crack.

  • Bubba Jones||

    He was sentenced as a "career offender" which by definition means he was being punished for more than that single event.

  • Hugh Akston||

    So what you originally meant to say was "let's not pretend that sentencing reform was intended to include people who already served their sentences for previous convictions" or "let's not pretend that sentencing reform was intended to include people who are being sentenced for offenses they aren't being convicted of."

  • BYODB||


    "...By the letter of the law, they got it right, but it's completely unjust."


    So, is this Mark Holden guy brand new to the law or what? Our legal system doesn't really give a fuck about what's just.

  • Longtobefree||

    Police informant - - - -
    Entrapment?
    Drug war collateral damage?
    Why commutation and not pardon?
    Sending him back is sexist because it will leave his 'serious girlfriend' all alone without a man to support her.

  • Old Mexican - Mostly Harmless||

    Charles found religion in prison, became a law clerk and GED instructor, helped illiterate inmates decipher court documents, and served 21 years of hard time without a single disciplinary infraction.


    You know, a trouble-maker.

    Federal prosecutors then appealed[..]


    "Because," replied the scorpion-State, while the frog was slowly sinking into the water, "that is my nature".

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    Does hard time mean you have the time to study to become a law clerk and teach other inmates?

    I'm sure some students these days would think having to do homework is the equivalent of hard time.

  • chipper me timbers||

    DA are the biggest scum on earth.

    I'd rather my kid turns out to be a repo man or an ATF agent than a goddman DA.

    Also, no one should be serving 35 years for anything non violent. That's insane.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Or worse, a vampire DA........

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=bvL2OgGHFbk

  • PaulTheBeav||

    We should legalize most (most) drugs and expunge the sentences of everyone with non violent drug convictions. If we could purge drugs from the world, there might be an argument to be made that it would be a good thing to do, but we can't. We're wasting time, money, and lives trying to do something we have no possibility of achieving.

  • DenverJ||

    Well. Nowhere does the constitution grant the federal government the power to ban drugs. This is why an amendment had to be passed to prohibit alcohol. Therefore, the law he was sentenced for breaking is unconstitutional. He, and all others imprisoned for drug offenses, should immediately be released and given restitution.

  • perlchpr||

    This. Seriously, why does (almost) no one ever bring this up?

  • LamarPye||

    Absolutely this

  • TSTB||

    Selling crack, attempted murder and kidnapping, career offender on one side. A model prisoner and 21 years into his 35 year hard sentence on the other side.
    Uncountable crack-ruined lives and completely destroyed communities on one side. Mandatory sentencing as a response to unreliable judges on the other.
    It's a mean old world.
    Don't smoke crack and you won't get addicted. Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.

  • MarkLastname||

    So you don't have a point then.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.""

    The 70s wants it's catch phrase back.

  • gormadoc||

    I'd love to see the evidence that suggests this man "destroyed communities". Even if he did, he did not force these people to purchase drugs from him and then get them arrested by the police, unable to find jobs once they were back on the streets.

  • jm15xy||

    You can't simply assume that the purpose of prison is rehabilitation, claim that a man is rehabilitated and then when he is sent back to prison pronounce a failure in the system. There are other reasons for prison. One is deterrence. Deterrence only works if the threat of punishment is credible. If all of a sudden you review every case on the merits the threat becomes empty and the deterrent effect of the sanctions is gone. The man had a prior conviction. Here the purpose is to deter people who have already been convicted of a crime. Who's to say that is not a worthy social goal, to deter people who have already committed a crime from committing another?

    Finally, there is the pure punishment component, the retributive component of prison. A crime was committed and justice demands that a punishment be inflicted to level the scales.

  • Don't look at me.||

    You would be the first to scream when you get a traffic ticket or you kid gets caught with a doobie.

  • Eidde||

    "If all of a sudden you review every case on the merits the threat becomes empty and the deterrent effect of the sanctions is gone."

    This is a case of 21 years versus 35 years.

    21 years would deter me from selling crack, that's for sure, you wouldn't even have to threaten an additional 14 years.

  • gormadoc||

    Too bad; go directly to jail. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

  • IceTrey||

    Everyone in prison for drugs should be pardoned.

  • Penny_Worth||

    It would be one thing if they hadn't already released him, he had not kept 'clean' , and hadn't already made great strides in becoming a productive citizen. They did, and he did. This sentence should either be commuted by the Governor of Tennessee, or by President Trump. I am composing a petition on Care2 to this effect and will post the link when I have it finished.

  • Penny_Worth||

    Petition link @ care2- www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/216/558/854/ . I started this petition after reading this story, and being rather infuriated by it.

  • MonsoonMoon||

    Reason, your ads suck. "Roseanne's racist tweet..."

    Begone, lying clickbait.

  • Longtobefree||

    He found religion in prison. That is why he is being sent back. If he had been smart enough to register as a democrat - - - - - - - -

  • gormadoc||

    Yeah, all those Democrats in prison getting set free early. We wouldn't have such a high prison population then.

  • gamegame||

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  • ||

    Even if his release was a legal mistake, it turned out to be a good thing. It saved a life and turned a public liability into a public asset. Even more importantly it showed the "justice system" is not about justice. How could it be? It's based on the initiation of violence, e.g., the present worldwide political paradigm.

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