Shot. [A fight for a second chance after life sentence, MSNBC.com, June 19, 2016]:
Promising high school football player Alton Mills, who became a low-level drug courier, ended up in federal prison with a life sentence. PoliticsNation follows Mills as he fights for a second chance.
Double shot. [Alumni Help Alton Mills Secure Clemency from Obama Administration, Northwestern.edu, November 27, 2017]:
In 1994, 25-year-old Alton Mills was sentenced to life in federal prison without parole by a judge who had no choice. More than two decades later, after all his appeals had failed, he was given a second chance.
Alton Mills, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, was a promising high school football player with dreams of going pro. But when a knee injury during a game in 1984 took away his shot at a college career, his future took a turn: Mills struggled to find work after graduating high school, so from 1991 to 1993, he worked as a low-level courier carrying crack and cocaine.
“I hung out with a bunch of goldfishes that was dealing with some sharks, and the sharks caught the goldfishes up and we were the ones that ended up going to prison,” Mills said in a recent interview for MSNBC’s PoliticsNation with Reverend Al Sharpton.
In 1992, Mills was arrested twice for possession of less than five grams of crack cocaine. In both instances, he received probation from the State of Illinois. The following year, he was arrested on federal conspiracy charges as part of a larger sting targeting the ringleaders and suppliers of the operation he was involved in. Prosecutors filed a Section 851 enhancement, which meant that Mills’s previous two convictions would count against him in sentencing.
Mills was convicted, and, even though higher-ranking members of his drug operation received lesser sentences, District Court Judge Marvin Aspen (JD ’58) had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison without parole. The two prior possession charges counted against Mills, and laws at the time mandated a life sentence for the “third strike,” even though he had never before spent a single day in prison.
At the time of the 1994 sentencing, Aspen told the courtroom that this application of the sentencing guidelines was “cruel and unusual” and said he would have sentenced Mills to “something other than life.”
Aspen — for whom Aspen Hall at the Law School is named — still feels that way today.
“I had been a critic of the sentencing guidelines when they were first enacted,” he says. “They were sold to the public, to law enforcement, and to the courts on the notion that disparities in sentencing would disappear, that there would be honesty in sentencing, and that everyone involved in a particular criminal activity would be punished proportionally with other people involved in that activity. I think we can see by this case how farcical that notion is in its application at times.”
“The problem I saw right from the beginning is that discretion never goes away in sentencing,” Aspen explains. “It was shifted away from the court, to prosecutors, who have discretion in how they charge.”
A Chance for Clemency
Two decades after Aspen sentenced Mills to life in prison, the Obama administration announced a clemency initiative for federal inmates. They were especially interested in non-violent, low-level offenders like Mills who were sentenced at the height of the war on drugs and would likely receive substantially lower sentences today.
Kimberly-Claire Seymour (JD-LLM IHR ’16) was doing multiple practicums and externships with the Federal Defenders Program in Chicago in 2014 and 2015, as requests from inmates and their families poured in.
“The team here reviewed hundreds of cases that came from our district, and pulled out a select few folks who were serving the longest terms of incarceration and whose circumstances were particularly shocking,” she says. “Alton Mills was one of those individuals.”
The Federal Defenders prepared Mills’s clemency application, which included a letter of support from Judge Aspen to President Obama. In December 2015, President Obama commuted Mills’s sentence and he was released in early 2016, after spending 22 years behind bars.
“I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong and change your life for the better,” President Obama wrote in a letter informing Mills he was commuting his sentence. “So good luck, and Godspeed.”
Seymour, who received a Jay A. Pritzker Fellowship that allowed her to work for the Federal Defenders upon graduating and has since been hired as a staff attorney, continued to work on Mills’s case, finding there was much to do even after his release.
“As someone who had spent over two decades in federal prison, [Mills] was struggling to adjust to day-to-day life,” she says. “He couldn’t get a driver’s license for months because he had unpaid parking tickets from twenty years ago, and those had accrued interest. So we were fighting with the city to figure out his payment plan and how he could get his driver’s license back, making sure he’s getting into job training programs. We got such a wonderful, rare result for him, but the challenges continued and were still very significant for him after his release. […] It’s been really incredible seeing how Alton has returned to the world as a free man, and seeing his humanity restored and trying to get back on his feet and establish a life with his family.”
Last year, Mills secured a job detailing buses overnight with the Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA)’s Second Chance Program, an initiative aimed at offering full-time employment and training for future careers for individuals facing barriers to employment. Mills hopes to become a certified diesel mechanic for the CTA.
CBS Chicago, May 19, 2023]:
Alton Mills, a 54-year-old man whose federal life sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2015, now faces the potential of another life sentence after officials accused him of shooting and gravely wounding a woman on an expressway in suburban Chicago this week.
Mills was held without bail by Judge Thomas Carroll during a bond hearing on Tuesday. Prosecutors told Carroll that the woman Mills allegedly shot was brain dead. She was not expected to survive.
In 1994, Mills received a life sentence for trafficking cocaine because the crime was his third felony conviction, even though neither of his previous convictions resulted in prison time. After Obama commuted his sentence, his defense attorney said this week, Mills went to work for the Chicago Transit Authority. He also campaigned to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing.
Shortly after receiving clemency, Mills spoke at a U.S. Senate criminal justice forum at the invitation of Sen. Dick Durbin. At the time, Durbin said Mills was “an overlooked casualty in our ‘war on drugs.’”
“The life story of Chicagoan Alton Mills shows why we need to pass the #FirstStepAct,” Durbin tweeted three years after Mills’ release. “Alton, who received a pardon from President Obama in 2015, was destined to spend his life in prison. He’s now a contributing member of society. #cjreform”
Early Sunday morning, May 14, three friends left a nightclub in south suburban Harvey, and one of them drove the group home. As their Ford Explorer neared the ramp to I-57, the driver pulled up behind Mills’ SUV at a red light, Assistant State’s Attorney Kathryn Morrissey said during Mills’ bail hearing this week.
Mills’ car didn’t move when the light turned green, so the Explorer’s driver pulled around and passed without screaming or honking, according to Morrissey. She said Mills sped to catch up to the Explorer, pulled up next to them, and fired shots from his driver’s window.
A bullet struck a woman sleeping in the Explorer’s back seat in the head, Morrissey said. The Explorer’s front passenger told police that the shooter was an older Black man with a salt and pepper beard. She also took a blurry picture of the gunman’s license plate and recorded a video in which she read the license plate number out loud.
The Explorer’s driver sped to a Chicago Fire Department station near 79th and Michigan and called the police.
Morrissey explained that Illinois State Police investigators focused on Mills’ vehicle after reviewing license plate reader data from the area of the shooting. Police executed search warrants on his home and car Monday. They found loose 40-caliber bullets in his bedroom, the same caliber used in the shooting, and his car tested positive for gunshot residue, according to Morrissey.
She told Judge Carroll that Mills “made admissions that he did the shooting.” Mills, she said, is responsible for inflicting “great bodily harm and soon death” on the victim.
He is charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder.
A second chance
When Durbin encouraged Obama to commute Mills’ sentence in December 2015, the veteran senator said it was only the second time he had sent Obama a clemency request.
Mills was little more than a low-level drug courier who made $300 a week, Durbin wrote.
“I hung out with a bunch of goldfishes that was dealing with some sharks, and the sharks caught the goldfishes up and we were the ones that ended up going to prison,” Mills said in an MSNBC interview after his release.
“Mr. Mills is now 46 years old, and studies demonstrate that ex-offenders ‘age-out’ of crime and that recidivism rates decline dramatically with age,” Durbin argued in his letter to Obama. Mills had bettered himself in prison and had strong community support waiting for him in Chicago, the senator wrote.
Even the federal judge who sentenced Mills to life didn’t think he deserved it, Durbin wrote in the letter he sent to Obama.
At Mills’ 1994 sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Aspen said, “If I were free to sentence [Mr. Mills] … it would be for something other than life.”
Aspen wrote a letter that accompanied Durbin’s clemency request.
We sacrificed our country to the idea black people are perpetually innocent of any crime they’ve committed because of the terrible legacy of Jim Crow/Slavery/White Supremacy/Omnipresent power of White privilege.
Meanwhile, the collective actions of individual black people help provide ample evidence why Sundown Towns/Jim Crow/Restrictive Covenants/Segregation existed.
Our society will never advance until we admit individual black people are incarcerated because they committed a crime, and collectively, blacks have higher incarceration rates because individual black people commit more crime than non-whites.