“I just want to watch my grandkids grow up,” Andre Williams recently told a friend. It’s not a lot to want, but for Andre it might be impossible. Just as impossible as it was to watch his own kids grow up. Williams is just over halfway through a forty year prison sentence. It’s not hard to understand how he got to prison, what’s hard to understand is why they won’t let him out.
Andre’s beginnings were humble. He was the last of nine children, born to a mother who struggled with addiction. She’d fallen victim to the poverty of the world she lived in. When Andre was born in 1970, he was brought into a neighborhood plagued with drugs, violence, and the hopelessness that comes with it. Gangs and dealing drugs were a way of life.
Without the stability some people take for granted, Williams struggled in school and had a hard time fitting in. There was one place he felt at home though, and that was in the care of his grandmother, Mary. She ran her home with a firm hand, but also a sense of welcome and concern. At fourteen years old, Williams lost the home she provided when she passed away. Soon after, he quit going to school. Andre wanted to support himself, and he began doing it the only way he knew how. The most successful people in his neighborhood were dealing drugs for a living.
Drug dealing may have been the way Andre made ends meet, but his mother said he had a ‘sweet heart’ like his daddy. His hard life had taught him compassion. If he could avoid hurting anybody, he would. Violence was a part of the lifestyle he lived in, but violence wasn’t a part of him. He’d seen what the streets had done to too many in his family. If somebody he cared about needed something and he could do something about it, he would. He didn’t hold grudges, and tried to see the reasons why people behaved the way they did. He would try to lift people’s spirits when he could. He was a drug dealer because that is what life dealt him, but he was a drug dealer with a heart. To this day, he is still known as a ‘good guy’.
There weren’t just drugs in the Chicago neighborhood Andre lived in. There were also crooked cops. Too often, people who were supposed to be authority figures became just as much a part of the life. Some officers would rather take their share of the profits than bring somebody in. There are unethical people everywhere, and in a neighborhood where money is flowing back and forth on the streets, a badge doesn’t mean you are immune, and some officers had a price. A drug dealer wasn’t really in a position to report a theft, and everybody knew it. So, in 1991 when one officer began a four year investigation as a dirty cop – it wasn’t hard to believe. They had seen it before.
Year in and year out, thousands of dollars and man hours later – the government had built a case. It helped when a few of those charged chose to cooperate, saying whatever they needed to say to save themselves. It happens.
Previous to this arrest, Andre had pled guilty to two unrelated drug charges in 1989 and been given probation.
When the dust settled after this case, Andre Williams was sentenced to forty years. He was not the leader of the operation, but was often in contact with the ‘dirty officer’ for that very reason. Twenty one people went to trial, and after this year, Andre will be the only one left incarcerated.
He shouldn’t be though. At sentencing, due to an error in a report, Andre was labeled a ‘career offender’. The judge who heard the original case knows about the error. The government knows about the error. The prosecutor knows about the error. They all knew about the error at sentencing. In an Order signed by Judge Robert Gettleman, the original judge, dated November 12, 2014 it states, “the court strongly recommends that the Bureau of Prisons, in classifying Andre Williams, take into consideration that he is not a ‘career offender’, and that the PSR incorrectly labeled him as such.”
There is a United States Brief, filed on January 7, 2015, outlining several of the actions taken on this case. The important issues get lost among the legal terminology, but, among other things it makes the following points:
- “Williams, along with other codefendants, stood trial and was convicted of the charges against him on June 7, 1996.”
In reference to the Presentence Investigation Report, used to determine Andre’s sentence, it states:
- “The probation officer’s determination that Williams was a career offender was incorrect…”
- “The court and parties became aware of the error several months prior to Williams’ sentencing on April 10, 1998.”
The brief goes on to say:
- “The state court transcript reflected that Williams had only one prior conviction for possession with intent to distribute, and one conviction for simple possession.”
- “The Circuit Court of Cook County later corrected it’s records to reflect the correct offense…”
- “filed a motion… on June 29, 2007, seeking a reduction in his sentence as a result of the amended crack cocaine guidelines…”
- “The motion was denied on February 25, 2009 because as a career offender, Williams was not entitled to relief.”
- “On October 31, 2012, Williams filed a motion to vacate void judgment, arguing that the sentencing judgment of April 10, 1998 should be vacated, because the court was without jurisdiction to sentence him as a career offender and because the court lacked jurisdiction to sentence him as a career offender.”
- “On July 5, 2013, the government responded that the district court did not have the jurisdiction to adjudicate William’s motion, even though he was correct that he was improperly deemed a career offender at sentencing, because it was a second or successive 2255 petition.”
- “On November 8, 2013, Williams filed a motion in this Court, seeking an order authorizing the district court to entertain a second or successive motion for collateral review.”
- “On November 15, 2013, this Court denied the motion, reasoning, ‘to obtain authorization, William’s proposed claim must rely on a new constitution rule… or new facts showing innocence… the parties knew about the mischaracterization of William’s prior conviction in 1998; it was discussed during his sentencing hearing… the scriveners’ error was discovered long before 2012 and it is therefore not a new fact.”
- “On May 7, 2014, Williams filed in the district court a ‘motion to correct record…”
- “He also sought resentencing without the career offender enhancement.”
- “The government opposed the motion as a second or successive 2255 petition for which he had failed to obtain the permission of this Court.”
- “On November 12, 2014, the district court denied Williams’ motion, stating ‘it lacks jurisdiction to hear it,’ but noted in the order that it ‘strongly recommends that the Bureau of Prisons, in classifying Andre Williams, take into consideration that [sic] he is not a ‘career offender’, and that the PSR incorrectly labeled him as such.”
Andre Williams was born into a life and neighborhood where drugs and drug dealing was a way of life. For whatever failures we have all had in contributing to that – that is the way it was. He was dealing drugs. He wasn’t a kingpin, and he wasn’t violent. An employee of the government made an error on a piece of paper, of which everyone from the judge on down is fully aware and has been from the day of sentencing.
The grandfather who was born without opportunity just wants a chance to see his grandkids play outside. He’s never wanted much, nor expected much from life. The government won’t let him go. It doesn’t matter how many papers he files or how many times the courts say he shouldn’t be there, they find reasons to not let him go.
There is a letter dated June 6, 2016 and addressed to the U.S. Pardon Attorney, written by Judge Robert Gettleman. In it, the judge states:
“Mr. Williams was sentenced to 40 years of incarceration based upon what this court and the government itself has acknowledged was an “incorrect” criminal history indicating that Mr. Williams was a ‘career offender’.
“In fact, the career offender status was the result of a scrivener’s error in the underlying state criminal proceeding, which indicated that he had pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, when in fact he had pled only to simple possession. Although both this court and the government acknowledge this serious error in computing Mr. William’s then-mandatory Guideline sentence, because the judgment had become final there was no judicial remedy to correct it.”
It went on to say:
“For these reasons, the court strongly recommends to the Pardon Attorney and the President that Mr. Williams’ sentence be reduced to reflect the fact that he is not a career offender and that the Presentence Investigation Report erroneously labeled him as such.”
Twenty three years later, Andre Williams continues to serve the forty year sentence that was the result of an error on a report that everyone is aware of. One might ask, why does the United States government not simply do the right thing and correct the error, allowing Andre the opportunity to watch his grandchildren grow up – it’s not much to ask.
Bogira, Steve. “Criminal Justice.” Chicago Reader, Chicago Reader, 19 Jan. 2018, www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/criminal-justice/Content?oid=893735.
Bogira, Steve. “Criminal Justice.” Chicago Reader, Chicago Reader, 18 Jan. 2018, www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/criminal-justice/Content?oid=893791.
United States of America v. Andre Williams. 14-3570. 21 U.S. Court of Appeals. 2015.