How this man landed a life sentence in a US prison for selling less than $30 worth of drugs

United States

The first emotion that swept over Onrae Williams as he heard his prison sentence was not anger or disappointment or fear. It was confusion.

Key points:

  • The US state of South Carolina will hold its Democratic presidential primary on March 1
  • South Carolina’s population is 27 per cent African-American, the majority of whom vote Democrat
  • The primary is seen as the first major test of African-American support for the candidates

He was only 23 years old.

The South Carolina man received life without parole for selling less than 0.3 grams of crack cocaine to an undercover police informant near a school.

“I had a life sentence. I had more time than probably 80 per cent of the people in prison,” Mr Williams said.

“Unjust, unfair, not right. It didn’t make sense to me. Literally $US20 ($30) worth of drugs ended me up in prison for a life sentence,” he said.

Mr Williams had fallen victim to South Carolina’s three-strikes law, which can hand you life in prison without parole if you are found guilty by a jury.

“You might have a man in there for murder doing 15 years, and you might have a man right here with distribution with a proximity to a school, trafficking maybe 10 grams, he got 20 years,” he said.

“There’s no balance. He’s going to get out on murder before he gets out on having possession of a drug. That ain’t fair.”


Onrae’s three minor, non-violent crimes landed him in prison for life under South Carolina’s harsh three-strikes law. (ABC News: Emily Olson)

The harsh sentencing laws came into play with the 1994 US Federal Crime Bill, enacted to deter violent offences, which had been rising in part due to the crack cocaine epidemic wracking the United States.

The law, written by former US vice-president and Democratic contender Joe Biden, imposed tougher prison sentences at the federal level and suggested states do the same.

The changes also swept up those on minor drug possession offences.

Minority communities were disproportionately convicted and prison populations ballooned.

It is just one of the reasons African-Americans are feeling overlooked by politicians as they head to the polls to pick a Democratic nominee to take on President Donald Trump.

‘Most young boys got pulled towards the street’

Mr Williams could have pleaded guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.

His lawyer at the time neglected to point out that if he was convicted by a jury, the mandated sentence was life without parole.

Refusing to accept he would die in prison and never get the chance to raise his daughter, who he left on the outside at the age of three, Mr Williams researched the law and filed an appeal.

Lawyer Mark Peper took on his case.

“Our position was that if he had been informed … he would have accepted the plea offer,” Mr Peper said.


Mark Peper appealed Onrae’s sentence by arguing his lawyer at the time didn’t inform him of his rights during the trial. (ABC News: John Mees)

“No sane person would subject themselves to life without parole over 12 votes.”

Mr Peper said the three strikes law was not designed to deter people from a life of crime.

“It is not to rehabilitate people but to simply remove people from society,” he said.

Mr Williams had already served two short sentences for drug possession, including one as a juvenile.

He said he was never offered a rehabilitation program or access to a drug counsellor.

“Growing up in the neighbourhood I grew up in, that’s all there was,” he said of his decision to sell drugs.

“You either get lucky and find a way out or get sucked into the streets. Most young boys got pulled towards the street.”


Now a free man, Onrae is training to be a welder and is making a fresh start. (ABC News: John Mees)

Mr Williams was released from his life sentence after serving 12 years, spending his savings on legal fees and finding a bit of luck with a pro bono lawyer who won the case in South Carolina’s Supreme Court.

Not all prisoners find the same fate.

For African-Americans, criminal justice is a top issue

In 2019, over 2.3 million Americans were kept behind bars.

Shirene Hansotia, a former public defender who now works with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that number is far higher than other developed countries.


Shirene Hansotia from the American Civil Liberties Union says African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the US prison population. (ABC News: John Mees )

“We have close to 5 per cent of the world’s population and we incarcerate 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. That’s astounding,” she said.

African-Americans make up just 12 per cent of the country’s adult population, and yet they account for more than a third of its prisoners.

They are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans.

External Link:

America's adult population and prison population by race

“I find it appalling and extremely disturbing and it bothers me. Those are the kinds of things, as a public defender, that kept me up at night,” Ms Hansotia said.

Both Republicans and Democrats have vowed in recent years to reform the laws that lead to such disproportionate rates of imprisonment.

In South Carolina, where voters will next have their say in choosing America’s Democratic presidential candidate, African-Americans make up nearly 60 per cent of the party’s base.

The state is the first true test of how the candidates will perform with the party’s most crucial voting bloc.

A recent poll suggested that nearly 70 per cent of African-Americans will vote for a Democrat regardless of who becomes the nominee.

Yet that same poll suggested that nearly half of African-Americans feel the party is taking their vote for granted and missing the issues that matter to them most.

Lester Young, a South Carolinian who served 22 years for third-degree murder after a drug deal gone wrong, said none of the candidates are doing enough for criminal justice reform.


Community organiser Lester Young is encouraging those in South Carolina to think about criminal justice reform when casting their ballots. (ABC News: Emily Olson)

“Everyone in the state of South Carolina has a loved one who is incarcerated or knows someone who is incarcerated — a classmate, a friend, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, who has been impacted by the criminal justice system,” he said.

Mr Young said it was essential for people in South Carolina to understand criminal justice issues in their state, and vote for change.

“You have the opioid addiction crisis going on in America, we have more rehab centres for them. For the black and brown people, we created prisons.”

What are the positions of the Democrat candidates?


Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have vowed to overhaul America’s criminal justice system if elected President. (Reuters: Randall Hill)

The top candidates vying to be the Democratic presidential nominee have all pledged to make drastic changes to America’s criminal justice system.

As president, Senator Bernie Sanders said he would end the federal three-strikes policy that inspired the state law affecting Mr Williams.

Mr Biden promised to rewrite the rules around mandatory minimum sentences and eliminate incarcerations for drug use.

External Link:

@JoeBiden Today I released my plan to reform our criminal justice system.

Michael Bloomberg wants to seek alternative forms of prison for non-violent offenders.

Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar all propose erasing harsh sentences and establishing rehabilitation programs to keep people out of prison in the first place.

External Link:

@PeteButtigieg It’s past time to recognize that our criminal justice system is unfair, and in many ways, racist

But all of the candidates have been accused of only taking a superficial interest in what is the most pressing issue to African-American communities.


South Carolina will be the first major test for candidates who need the support of the African-American community to become the nominee. (Reuters: Bita Honarvar)

Mr Biden was the one who wrote the 1994 crime bill that disproportionately affected minorities. Senator Sanders voted in favour of it.

Mayor Buttigieg and Senator Klobuchar both have been criticised for unjustly handling African-American murder cases in their communities.

Mr Bloomberg supported a controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy that led to millions of minority men being randomly searched on the street.

Williams is now hoping for a better future

Ms Hansotia said a combination of laws, policies and societal norms have led to this being a big issue among African-American voters.

“An African-American man may be stopped quite a bit more often than, say, a white man walking down the same street,” Ms Hansotia said.


Onrae Williams is happy to be out of prison and home with his sister, Brittany. (ABC News: John Mees)

Now a free man, Mr Williams finds hope in the fact that criminal justice reform is getting more attention from politicians than ever before.

“I think we can get change if we put the right person in the seat,” he said.

But personally, he has not had much time to research the candidates.

Since his release from prison, he has been catching up with his daughter and working towards a welding certification to find employment.

“I’ll work hard, I’ll study hard, I’m going to put myself in the best position,” he said.

“My story is only as good as my success.”