President commutes sentences of two area drug dealers

President Barack Obama speaks Monday in the East Room of the White House. Obama is cutting the prison sentences of 46 convicts, including two from the Charleston area, as part of a broader effort to make the criminal justice fairer and ease the punishment of those serving more time than their crimes warranted.

On Nov. 10, Donald Vanderhorst will be a free man for the first time in nine years.

He will meet four grandchildren for the first time, be able to hug his family and grieve the recent loss of one of his children outside of earshot of the roughly 1,700 other inmates at Jessup Federal Correctional Institution in Jessup, Georgia.

President Barack Obama announced Monday that he is cutting the prison sentences of 46 convicts, including Vanderhorst, another Charleston area man and one man from the Upstate, as part of a broader effort to make the criminal justice fairer and ease the punishment of those serving more time than their crimes warranted.

The president has now issued nearly 90 commutations, most of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules. A commutation leaves the conviction in place, but ends the punishment.

Vanderhorst’s daughter, Iesha Brown, 24, of North Charleston was shocked Monday and too excited for words after learning her dad would soon be released.

“He used to call and say, ‘I’ll be home soon, just be patient,’” she said in a Monday night phone interview. “He was right.”

The 44-year-old North Charleston man was sentenced in 2006 to 20 years in prison and 10 years’ supervised release for his role in a major drug-dealing operation responsible for bringing 33 pounds of cocaine worth at least $375,000 into the area. He was a member of a gang that distributed crack and powder cocaine to dealers in the Murray Hill community and along Bennett Yard Road in North Charleston.

Brown said he’s missed a lot since then, including her graduation, the birth of her now 5-month-old baby girl and the death of her older brother. She’s visited her dad, but misses seeing him out of a prison jumpsuit.

“It was hard — you really want him to be there,” she said of growing up without her father. She added that other family members stepped in to try and help, “but it wasn’t the same because it wasn’t him.”

She described Vanderhorst as a good man who learned from his mistakes. She said he’s found God and now has a calling to be a preacher in Texas.

“I just can’t wait for him to be home so he can start fresh,” Brown said, thanking Obama. “It’s a blessing for our family.”

The other two South Carolinians on the commutations list are Kevin Matthews, 43, of James Island and Douglas M. Lindsay II, 47, of Newberry.

Matthews’ records were not accessible Monday in the online federal court system. He was sentenced to 19 years and four months in prison and 10 years’ supervised release in 2004 for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine base.

Lindsay is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine and cocaine base. He was sentenced to life in prison and five years’ supervised release in 1996, which was amended earlier this year to 24 years and five months in prison.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” Obama said in a video released by the White House, noting that the overwhelming majority of the 46 had been sentenced to at least 20 years.

Several of those granted clemency Monday had been sentenced to life in prison. Obama wrote a personal letter to each of the individuals to notify them of their commutations. Their sentences all now will expire on Nov. 10.

Obama’s lawyer, White House counsel Neil Eggleston, predicted the president would issue even more commutations before leaving office in early 2017. But he also said that Obama’s powers to fix the problem were limited, adding that “clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.”

Obama is devoting considerable attention this week to the criminal justice system. He plans to lay out ideas for how to improve the fairness of the system during a speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia on Tuesday. And on Thursday, he is to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he goes to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside of Oklahoma City. While there, he will meet with law enforcement officials and inmates.

Obama said that after his commutations, there is still “a lot more we can do to restore the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system.”

The 46 sentence reductions announced Monday are the most presidential commutations in a single day since the Lyndon Johnson administration in the 1960s. Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 people, surpassing the combined number of commutations granted by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.