“Proud to make this one of my final actions as President,” Obama tweeted. “America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot.”
For Trenton Copeland, who had been pleading for clemency from a life sentence for conspiring to deal cocaine, that final list of names was his last chance.
“I am Trenton Copeland. I am 33 years old,” he wrote last October, in an essay from an Indiana penitentiary.
“I have been fundamentally condemned to die in prison.”
He recalled the year of his sentencing. He was just a name among many in a thick news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2012, hailing the results of a Florida drug conspiracy investigation.
Copeland received a life sentence because he had two prior convictions for marijuana and cocaine possession.
Three strikes, he was out.
“I couldn’t really process it,” he wrote in Revolt, after five years in a cell. “And I still can’t, to be honest.”
He described his life in high-security prison: He went to church, exercised and read what there was to read.
He also got his GED, his mother told The Washington Post, making up for years spent chasing fast money on the streets of Pensacola.
Prison is nothing but time. When the Bible, class and gym couldn’t fill it all, Copeland planned an alternate future.
“I want to become a youth counselor,” he wrote. “My goal is to prevent every young kid I can from taking the wrong path that I did.”
He concluded his essay with the idea of facing “the grim reality of dying in prison.”
And a faint hope: “clemency from President Obama or some major changes in our criminal justice system.”
The justice system didn’t change.
In Obama’s eight years in office, Congress has never heeded his calls to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders.
So, then, clemency.
A week after Copeland’s essay published, Obama commuted the sentences of nearly 100 prisoners. Copeland’s name was not on the list.
In November, his mother saved up for her first trip to Indiana in three years, for her birthday. A poster of a fake mountain stream was stuck to a wall. Copeland gripped his mom’s shoulders and grinned for the camera.
Good news came to dozens more federal inmates across the United States that month, bringing Obama’s total number of commutations above 1,000 — more than the previous 11 presidents combined.
Copeland kept waiting.
“It’s a scary feeling,” he wrote to Rolling Stone in December, as the administration’s last days dwindled. “It’s hard to even look at a calendar.”
On Tuesday, in one particularly dramatic, last-minute clemency action, Obama pardoned 64 people and commuted the sentences of 209 others, including Chelsea Manning, the Army private convicted of stealing secret diplomatic and military documents and giving them to WikiLeaks.
The president also granted a commutation Tuesday to Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican independence activist who was a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, a terrorist organization that killed and wounded people in the 1970s and 1980s with bomb attacks. In addition, Obama pardoned more than five dozen people, including baseball great Willie McCovey and retired Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright.
Copeland was not on Tuesday’s White House list.
“I am going to remain positive no matter what’s the outcome,” he wrote to his lawyer this week.
“What happens if I don’t get a answer from the Pardon Attorney Office before Thursday?”
On the last full day of Obama’s presidency, Annie Fray sat at her desk in a Pensacola marketing office.
Years earlier, she had sat numb as a judge read out her son’s sentence, forbidden to scream in a courtroom.
“I shouted so loud my head started hurting,” Fray said.
Then she finished her shift and called her son, who will now be free before he turns 40, with half his life to go.