When a Life Sentence Turns Into Time Served

They told Onrae Williams he would die behind bars.

In 2007, the Charleston, SC, man was convicted of distributing $15 worth of crack cocaine and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Williams served almost 12 years of that sentence before the SC Supreme Court granted him a new trial. After agreeing to a new plea deal, Williams is now a free man.

I wish I could say Williams’ story is a sign of comprehensive changes coming to the nation’s and the state’s draconian drug laws. But the court’s decision to grant Williams a new trial was based on the specifics of his case, and there is no indication that SC’s courts have begun to rethink how drug offenders are charged, prosecuted, and sentenced.

Why Did Williams Get Such A Harsh Sentence?

When he was charged, Williams turned down a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for a decade, so he went to trial. Williams had multiple convictions on his record for simple possession, distribution, and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana.

Prosecutors used South Carolina’s “three-strikes” laws to impose the harshest penalty possible even though Williams’ crimes were nonviolent and one of his “strikes” occurred when he was a juvenile.

Charleston police characterized Williams, who had been shot in the head in during a confrontation in 2001, as a hardened criminal with no remorse. Although he wasn’t accused of violent crimes, they said his behavior exemplified the way drug dealing sparks violence that affects the whole community.

Williams appealed in 2008, but the SC Court of Appeals upheld his conviction, dismissing his claim that a life sentence for selling less than half a gram of cocaine was cruel and unusual punishment.

Williams later filed a post-conviction relief (PCR) action, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney had not fully explained how refusing the plea deal offered by prosecutors would affect him. Again, two lower courts rejected his claims.

Then, earlier this year, the SC Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision in his PCR claim and granted Williams, now 36, a new trial. After new plea negotiations, Williams pleaded guilty earlier this month. He agreed to a 15-year sentence with credit for time served, and last week he was released from the Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston.

What Does This Mean for Others with Harsh Drug Sentences?

South Carolina’s three-strikes life without parole law often results in life sentences for drug users and dealers, including Elliot Jerome Judon and others like him.

Williams’ case, however, offers no relief for others sentenced to life without parole because the Court reversed his sentence based on his attorney’s ineffective assistance of counsel and not because the 3-strikes law is unconstitutional.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC

Although winning your appeal and seeing life sentence turn into time served is an incredible victory, it doesn’t happen often – if you find yourself facing serious drug offenses, your best bet is to get your case dismissed, win it at trial, or negotiate a fair sentence before you are convicted.

If you need help with drug charges, including drug trafficking, distribution, or possession, or if you have been convicted and need to file an appeal or post-conviction relief (PCR) action, contact Charleston criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone now at (843) 808-2100 or through our website to talk to an experienced defense lawyer today.


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