For nearly 30 years, Antone White has spent much of his time in the federal prison system challenging a life sentence handed to him. In the most recent leg of his journey, he reached out to national organizations and the legions of Black lawyers and law students across the country.
In doing so, White said he aspires to pivot their collective attention to his case and that of other incarcerated people he said never experienced due process, as it has been defined in the U.S. Constitution. This counts as part of what’s now known as the Unjustly Sentenced Campaign.
“No judges, nor any official of the law [is] supposed to wield power to presume a person guilty of a crime to the effect to [consider] a punishment without due process when life, liberty or poverty are at stake, unless the accused has waived [their] constitutional right to face a ‘trial by jury,’ and in its stead elect to proceed a ‘trial by judge,’” White recently wrote in a letter intended for Black newspaper publishers across the United States.
In 1993, White and another man, both of whom authorities alleged to be leaders of the First Street Crew, received 26 counts in an indictment, 10 of which belonged to White. After a four-month trial, five of White’s charges, including first-degree murder and use of a firearm, were dropped. A jury, however, found White guilty of racketeering and conspiring to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, relying only on prosecution witness testimony and the mention of an obstruction of justice charge not included in the indictment.
“It is an anathema of justice when a criminal defendant faced their right to a jury, and the jury had determined the factual bases of the offense(s); only later to have those facts ignored — during sentencing,” White wrote.
“And, even worse, it is an extreme menace of justice when a judge accounts for the charges that the jury found not to be facts, to be [actually] factual, which blatantly, attributes a disregard for the purpose of a jury to stand a protector and arbiter between the government and criminal defendant.”
Since the fall of 2018, White has written two articles and three letters about the federal sentencing guidelines that prosecutors and judges use to impose harsh sentences for alleged crack cocaine dealers and users. His first letter under the Unjustly Sentenced campaign examined this issue during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. In that correspondence, White demanded fairness similar to what Kavanaugh and his supporters requested when a former classmate accused Kavanaugh of sexual abuse.
Subsequent letters have reached the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA) and online platforms on which White detailed his journey to reduce his sentence and analyzed the effects of the justice system on Black people.
Throughout this endeavor, White has been transferred to a bevy of federal facilities — including USP Hazelton in West Virginia, USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania, and USP Beaumont in Texas. Since 1998, petitions for early releases have fallen short because of what White described as the sentencing judge’s influence and a statute of limitations on the course of action he could take.
Toward the latter part of last year, a district court judge denied White’s early release under the First Step Act. Passed in 2018, the First Step Act retroactively applied the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, legislation that reduced sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and eliminated minimum sentencing requirements for possession of the former.
Shortly after learning that he wouldn’t join the nearly 5,000 other inmates who’ve either been released or had their sentences reduced since the First Step Act’s passage, White prepared for another transfer, this time to USP Florence in Colorado.
Despite a growing fervor to address racial inequities in the criminal justice system, an increasing body of research has shed light on prison inmates at the federal and state level who continue to face situations similar to White.
A study by the Council on Criminal Justice last month, for example, suggested that the sentencing gap between Black people convicted of drug and property crimes and their white counterparts increases annually at a rate of 1 percent. Researchers pointed to the type of charges levied by prosecutors, judges’ discretion in sentencing, and zoning laws as key causes.
While he declined to weigh in on White’s case, Crispus S. Gordon III, NBLSA’s national attorney general, acknowledged the severity of the sentencing guidelines born out of the War on Drugs.
“NBLSA has always been concerned about unfair sentences and the disparity between white and black defendants,” Gordon said. “This was epitomized during the ’80s as we saw different sentence guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Furthermore, we also see black politicians investigated and sentenced more harshly than white politicians.”