More than 18 months after a state law took effect allowing prosecutors to revisit extreme prison sentences, 54-year-old Charles Patton became the first in Illinois to be freed under the new measure.
On July 19, Patton left Dixon Correctional Center in his wheelchair four years earlier than he expected. The Gulf War combat veteran and music producer, known for his work with Lupe Fiasco and other Chicago hip-hop artists, had served more than 17 years of a 44-year term following his conviction for heroin trafficking.
His 2007 conviction relied on testimony from a cooperating witness who later recanted. Still, all his appeals failed, his clemency petition was denied, and he was refused medical release, despite his failing health and paralysis from a serious fall while in prison.
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Two weeks later, a Kane County man was freed after serving 20 years of a 27-year sentence for being an accomplice to murder when he had just turned 16. Derron Johnson, who is Black, was found guilty under the accountability theory for his presence during a brutal killing committed by 15-year-old Andrew Proctor, who is white. Proctor left prison in April after serving the 20-year-sentence he got through a plea bargain.
In both cases, prosecutors in Cook and Kane counties petitioned the court for reduced sentences based on the new law, known as SB2129, which took effect in January 2022. The law gives prosecutors explicit power to ask judges to reconsider past sentences “in the interests of justice.” The goal was to help right the wrongs of an era of mass incarceration, which led to a prison system clogged with people whose sentences may have been unfairly excessive.
But the law — in Illinois and similar laws throughout the nation — has been ineffective for meaningfully reducing prison populations, an Injustice Watch examination found last year. The process to select candidates for resentencing has been time-consuming and narrowly applied, and judges have refused resentencing requests with skepticism and sometimes even contempt. Some prosecutors have criticized the law as poorly written and too restrictive. Overcoming objections from victims and their survivors also limits the effectiveness of prosecutor-initiated resentencing.
Illinois is one of only six states to adopt a version of the measure, according to For the People, a non-profit that tracks the passage of these laws. The same group estimates several hundred people have been released nationwide with the help of these laws since the first of its kind was enacted in California in 2019. These numbers are difficult to verify, however, due to a lack of consistent state-level tracking.
“The law passed in ’21, and two years into it, it’s helped two people?” said Patton, now back with his family and working to open a restaurant in East Garfield Park. “I appreciate the law because I’m talking to you from the streets, but it’s not no effective way to ease the strangling of the jails. The simpler thing to do is to institute parole.”
In 2007, Patton was convicted of running a heroin trafficking ring and sentenced to 44 years in prison. As of the end of June, he was among just 24 people statewide — and just six people from Cook County — serving 40 or more years for a drug crime, according to an analysis of data published by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
His conviction relied on testimony from an associate who said some 1,500 grams of heroin police discovered in a storage locker had belonged to Patton. Though the witness later recanted and provided a sworn statement that the drugs actually belonged to him, Patton could not get his conviction reversed. He was denied clemency by the governor and, despite his poor health, denied medical release under the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act earlier this year.
That last denial left him pessimistic about the prospects of leaving prison sooner than his November 2027 mandatory supervised release date. “I didn’t believe it can happen,” he told Injustice Watch.
But Patton’s family and friends remained committed to getting him out as soon as possible, recruiting attorney Kendra Spearman to represent him free of charge.
“I thought it was outrageous,” she said when she saw his sentence. “I had never seen anything like that for a drug offense, which is one of the reasons I was happy to come on the case pro bono.”
Then came the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who lobbied for the passage of SB2129 and had directed staff to look for resentencing candidates fitting one of three strict criteria: 1) Those who’ve served at least 10 years for a drug offense, theft, robbery, or burglary, 2) Those 65 or older who’ve served at least 20 years, or 3) Those who were younger than age 21 at the time of their offense and served at least 15 years. People serving time for homicides and sex offenses — the bulk of the state prison population — would not be considered.
“[Patton’s] case was clear as day that it’s meant for resentencing,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Michelle Mbekeani, who was a policy adviser for Foxx and recently reactivated her law license to take over the office’s resentencing initiative.
As Mbekeani reviewed the transcripts from Patton’s original sentencing hearing, she was surprised to read how Cook County Judge Dennis J. Porter acknowledged the 44 years he handed down were “more than excessive.”
Mbekeani said she reasoned that, alongside his medical condition, family support, and clean disciplinary record from the Illinois Department of Corrections, Patton would have a good chance. Patton used his time while incarcerated as productively as he could, contributing to the production of multiple songs and records that went on to win Grammy Awards, according to court records.
Patton said he was at first skeptical the new law would help him.
“I heard a few other people had went up and got shot down,” he told Injustice Watch. “I just assumed it was another ploy of the state, just trying to make it appear that they were doing something and actually not doing it.”
At the time, Mbekeani also had reason to be wary.
The first two cases her office took to judges for resentencing were rejected, met with vitriol and skepticism. Both judges denied the requests with lengthy explanations of their rulings and repeated references to the victims of their burglaries.
However, the judge who inherited Patton’s case, Michael R. Clancy, granted the motion and reduced Patton’s sentence to 35 years.
He cited Patton’s health condition, “model behavior” in prison, the testimony of character witnesses, and letters of recommendation on his behalf and said these factors “reduced the defendant’s risk for future violence and reflect changed circumstances since his original sentence.”
With day-for-day good time credits applicable to his case, Patton was able to leave Dixon the next day with time served.
Patton chalked up his resentencing to good luck, especially with Spearman and Mbekeani advocating for him together. “If you’re not fortunate enough to have two people like that on your side, you’re not gonna win,” he said.
A second resentencing success
Meanwhile, in Kane County, another resentencing case was brought by Kane County State’s Attorney Jamie Mosser.
Unlike Patton, whose case was a rare drug conviction with a multidecade sentence, Johnson was among the 26% of incarcerated people in Illinois doing time for a homicide — the most typical offense in the state’s prison system, according to IDOC data.
In 2004, Johnson, who is Black, was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury and given a 27-year sentence. He was convicted based on evidence he had gone along with his friend’s plan to kill his roommate by knocking on a door to catch the roommate off guard.
Andrew Proctor, the white 15-year old who planned and committed the murder, took a plea deal and got a 20-year sentence.
Mosser told Injustice Watch she thought Jonhnson was a strong candidate for resentencing because he was a child at the time of the offense, because he wasn’t the one who killed the victim, because of the “racial disparity” in the boys’ sentences, and because of Johnson’s clean disciplinary record while incarcerated.
“Somehow, through work of his own — and not really giving any credit to the Department of Corrections at all — he was able to become a model prisoner and go from being in a maximum security facility to a minimum security facility, got his GED, put himself through college-level courses,” Mosser said. “His time in prison was very well spent. …Justice was no longer served by keeping him in prison.”
Mosser said the most challenging part of advocating for Johnson’s resentencing was explaining her decisions to the family of John Szilage, the 22-year-old victim.
Szilage’s sister testified during an August hearing about the impact of his disappearance on her family. After Proctor beat her brother to death with a baseball bat, his body was hidden in a garbage can for months. She described waiting for him through Christmas and his birthday and the long-term health and interpersonal consequences of the death on the rest of her family. Nevertheless, she did not oppose Johnson’s resentencing.
As he delivered his ruling, Judge Donald M. Tegeler Jr. spoke around 40 minutes about the internal conflict he felt between his responsibility to follow the law and his personal resistance to setting Johnson free seven years early.
“Every bone in my body, even as a true-believing criminal defense attorney, abhors this statute,” Tegeler said of SB2129. Still, he granted the state’s motion. “Over my abhorrent objection, I am reducing the sentence to time served,” he said.
“He walked off the bench emotional,” Mosser said.
As she reflected on her first resentencing, Mosser said she had no regrets about picking Johnson’s case but the effort on his behalf was “traumatic.”
“I know that what we did was right, but that was one of the worst experiences I have ever had,” Mosser said. “I had a family weeping in the back of the courthouse; I had to call them and make them go through this entire horrific thing all over again.”
Mosser described SB2129 as “horribly written” because defendants don’t have the opportunity to petition the court for resentencing directly, while state’s attorneys aren’t allocated additional resources to build up resentencing teams in their offices. She said it’s also a problem that the statute offers no guidance for the sorts of cases prosecutors should prioritize, leaving decisions to the whims of elected officials.
“What if it’s not me sitting in this chair?” Mosser asked. “What a horrible miscarriage of justice that would be for Derron Johnson.”
The other major problems with the law, she said, is that defendants have no right to appeal judges’ denials in resentencing hearings, and the original sentencing judges aren’t barred from presiding over resentencing hearings.
“I don’t think the original sentencing judges would give it the consideration it should have,” Mosser said.
At the end of 2022, a state task force, convened to evaluate how resentencing could help reduce the prison population, issued its final report. Among its 16 recommendations for legislative action were the institution of appeal rights and opening up the resentencing process for direct petition by defendants. The task force also recommended the Legislature authorize judges to depart from mandatory minimums and mandatory sentence enhancements in resentencing.
More cases in the pipeline
Despite the shortcomings of the law and the shortage of staff, Mosser and Foxx’s offices have filed more motions to resentence.
In Kane County, Mosser’s office is asking for a new sentence for Nicholas Bennett, who had a history of mental illness and substance abuse when, at age 20, he pleaded guilty after being arrested with 53 pills of Ecstasy. Though it was his first felony conviction, Bennett got an 18-year sentence.
In Cook County, Foxx’s office is seeking to resentence Edgar Naranjo who in 2004 received a 40-year sentence from Judge Michael Toomin for a felony murder conviction. The case is a significant departure from the nonviolent case types Foxx’s office has said it would prioritize.
At age 26, Naranjo and 14-year-old Juan Salazar showed up at a home masked with a gun and the intent to steal some expensive cologne, but the owners and their son were home. After a fight with the owners, they fled. But the owners’ son, an off-duty Chicago police officer, shot at Naranjo and Salazar, killing the teenager. Naranjo was held accountable for the death of his accomplice and convicted in a bench trial of first-degree murder, home invasion, residential burglary, and attempted armed robbery, according to court records.
In her motion to resentence, Mbekeani notes Salazar’s mother “is still angry that Mr. Naranjo’s actions ultimately led to her son’s death.” But due to recent changes in Illinois law, Naranjo would not face felony murder charges for the same case today because Salazar was killed by a cop.
Naranjo has had no substantial disciplinary infractions in over 20 years at the IDOC and has advanced his education. The case is set for a first court date before Judge Diana Kenworthy in October.