Inmate's life sentence commuted after law student's help

Woman was convicted of involvement with Dallas-to-Houston drug operation

By Sarah Mervosh
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS (AP) - Sharanda Jones expected to die in prison.

She had been caught as the go-between in a cocaine operation in Texas. And although she was a first-time, nonviolent offender, she had been sentenced to life in prison. No possibility of parole.

"It was like a death sentence," she told The Dallas Morning News.

A Southern Methodist University law student who came across her case while researching a paper thought the sentence seemed Draconian. So did President Barack Obama. He commuted Jones' sentence, part of efforts to make clemency a key part of his legacy.

Jones is now four months free and living in Dallas, on her own for the first time in 17 years. Her daily routine, she says, consists of work, church and family. She relishes the sound of silence, something she rarely got in prison.

"She's such a spirit of light," said her attorney, Brittany Barnett-Byrd, the former SMU student who has worked on Jones' case for seven years.

"Words can't even begin to touch how joyous it is for me to see her have another chance at life."

Barnett-Byrd said she first came across Jones' case in 2009, while doing research for a law school paper about how sentencing disparities impact people of color.

She couldn't believe that Jones got life in prison for a first-time drug offense.

So she sent Jones her card. "And the rest," Barnett-Byrd said, "was history."

The two strangers began working together - one in law school in Dallas, the other in federal prison in Fort Worth. Barnett-Byrd said she worked on the case as a law student and then pro bono as a corporate attorney.

She learned that Jones had grown up poor after her mother became a quadriplegic in a car crash. As Jones tells it, she secretly got involved in a Dallas-to-Houston drug operation to help bring in money for her family.

She was indicted, tried in federal court in Dallas, and sentenced to prison in 1999.

"I'm not denying the fact that I should have went to prison," Jones said. "But at the end of the day, the sentence just didn't weigh out."

Jones' only hope for release was a presidential pardon. So in 2013, Barnett-Byrd filed a petition for clemency.

Two years later, in December, Obama agreed that Jones had served enough time.

On the day she was let out of prison, Jones remembers eating at Pizza Hut and stopping at Target to try on non-prison clothes. But she had little time to do anything else. She had to report to a halfway house, where she'd stay until April.

Jones has become an advocate for criminal justice reform since her release. Her Twitter bio says, "A First Arrest Shouldn't Mean A Life Sentence ... THANK YOU @POTUS for literally saving my life! #ClemencyIsJustice"

At the White House, she met Piper Kerman, an author whose time in prison on a money-laundering conviction inspired the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black."

Jones is making a life for herself in Dallas. She has her own apartment, she and her attorney say, and a clerical job.

But, by far, the best part of life after prison has been spending time with her family and friends.

Jones became a grandmother in May. She was able to be there for the birth of her granddaughter, something Barnett-Byrd called "nothing short of a miracle."

And last month, Jones turned 49, her first birthday since gaining her freedom. She and Barnett-Byrd celebrated with lunch at Hattie's in the Bishop Arts District.

Barnett-Byrd, who has quit her corporate job to work on other clemency cases, said she hopes Jones' story helps humanize the toll of mass incarceration.

"We worked really hard to get her home," Barnett-Byrd said. "She did not deserve to die in prison."

Published: Mon, Aug 29, 2016