Onrae Williams

Onrae Williams, pictured in January 2017. S.C. Department of Corrections/Provided

He was sent to prison for life a decade ago for selling $15 worth of crack cocaine, but a Charleston man was recently handed a shot at freedom.

Onrae Williams' punishment had upset his family and critics of “three-strikes” sentencing laws. Ineligible for parole, Williams had little hope of walking free again.

But an appeal changed that.

Williams had gone to trial and lost. He had turned down a plea deal that could have netted him 10 years behind bars.

But the S.C. Supreme Court ruled this week that no one had thoroughly explained to Williams before the trial that a conviction meant a definite lifetime sentence.

The high court on Wednesday overturned his convictions and granted him a new trial.

Assistant Public Defender Jason King, who defended Williams at trial, said he was pleased with the development.

"I think it was a travesty of justice that Onrae received a life sentence at such a young age for a nonviolent drug offense," King said. "I am glad his conviction was overturned."

Williams, now 35, remained Friday in a state prison. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, the Charleston area’s chief prosecutor, said she could not comment on how her office will handle the case, which was handled by a previous solicitor, until reviewing it.

“We will assess the viability of a retrial and necessity (or not) of a plea offer,” she said.

Williams has been disciplined for offenses behind bars, mostly involving drug and cellphone possession. But he also hit a prison employee last year, records show.

Local prosecutors still seek life without parole for habitual serious offenders “from time to time, depending on the whole of their record,” and, in drug cases, on “the weight of the drugs and intel on their dealing," Wilson said.

Three years ago, Elliot Jerome Judon, 36, got life after North Charleston police found crack cocaine in his car and his underwear. He had 23 past convictions, two of which were labeled serious under state law.

He, too, has appealed.

For Williams, family members condemned his behavior but argued that the punishment was too harsh, particularly for a man trying to find a better way in life after straying from that path at a young age.

But Charleston police described him as an unrepentant criminal whose drug dealing had helped fuel violence in the city. He had also been shot in the head during a 2001 confrontation.

By the time of the 2004 arrest that became his undoing, the middle school dropout had amassed two other convictions for selling drugs near schools, a serious offense. He also lived near a school.

His sale of two pebbles of crack to a police informant near Burke High School brought two more charges of drug distribution. It was his third serious offense in just four years — his third strike, qualifying him for life under the law.

Prosecutors at the time issued a notice that they intended to send him to prison for life if he went to trial. They offered plea deals, but Williams rejected them.

He gambled and went to trial, where a jury convicted him in January 2007. A judge handed down the mandatory lifetime penalty.

The American Civil Liberties Union highlighted his case in a 2013 report titled "A Living Death," which examined sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes.

“I don’t deserve to be in a situation like this," he told the ACLU. "It’s just not right. They locked me up for half a gram."

In a filing for post-conviction relief, Williams' appellate attorneys, Elizabeth Moise and Matthew Brown of Charleston, said his lawyers at the trial level had not thoroughly informed him of the gravity of his situation if he rejected the plea offers and lost at trial. The judge also didn't make it clear, they argued.

"Williams did not understand that the charges against him carried a mandatory minimum sentence," and his attorney only implied that he could receive up to a lifetime behind bars, the court filings stated.

But the S.C. Attorney General's Office, which fights appeals, argued that Williams was in the courtroom when the judge told his lawyers that the lifetime sentence would be mandatory.

"(Williams) indicated he did not think his family understood what was happening," Assistant Attorney General Lindsey McCallister said in a filing, "but never stated he did not understand."

Two lower courts discarded Williams' argument until the Supreme Court ultimately came down in his favor.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.