In his 20s he did drugs and then he did time. But Cory Stringfellow will spend his 30s a free man.
Stringfellow is one of 140 people who were pardoned or had their sentences commuted Saturday by President Clinton, just two hours before George W. Bush came forward in the freezing rain to take the oath of office.
"We were on pins and needles," said Cory's father, Burt Stringfellow, from his home in Holladay. Burt and his wife Carol knew if their son's name wasn't on Clinton's list, it might be 2009 before Cory would get out of federal prison. Bush, they knew, likely would not be keen on commuting the sentences of drug offenders.
The Stringfellows have spent the past five years trying to get their son's 15 1/2-year sentence reduced, eventually gaining the attention of activist groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson and finally Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who all saw Cory's case as an example of unreasonably long prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.
"She shrieked," said Burt Stringfellow about his wife's reaction when the news came Saturday morning in a phone call from FAMM.
"He sobbed," said Burt Stringfellow about his son's reaction when they told him the news by phone a few minutes later. "He said 'thank you, thank you, thank you,' " Burt Stringfellow remembered. "He was thanking everyone involved. And I think it was a prayer, too."
But Cory Stringfellow's release won't put an end to their push to reduce the lengthy prison terms of other nonviolent drug offenders, his father said. "We'd be very ungrateful" to not keep working for the cause, he said. Cory Stringfellow, too, will help once he gets out of prison, he says, as will another son who will graduate this spring from law school.
Cases like Cory Stringfellow's are simply "symbolic of a much larger problem," echoed Anderson. "There are probably tens of thousands of people in the same circumstance," who did not have their sentences commuted by Clinton. "That's why we need to keep working," Anderson told reporters Monday.
Like the Stringfellows, Anderson would like to see a change in the sentencing structure "that leads to almost no discretion for judges to do their job" of weighing the particulars of each drug case, and would like to see an end to mandatory-minimum sentences. Many nonviolent drug offenders, Anderson said, spend more time in prison than the average rapist. The "tired, old approach" to the war on drugs has resulted in a ten-fold increase in incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders over the past decade, he said, "at horrendous expense to taxpayers."
"It's so counter to what would really be more humane — to help them get their lives turned around and be productive members of society," said Anderson, who testified recently at a Washington news conference against severe punishments for minor drug offenses.
Anderson, in line to shake hands with Clinton with other mayors last week, said he gave up a chance for a photo-op and instead pushed one last time for clemency for Cory Stringfellow and others.
Anderson and the Stringfellows don't believe Cory Stringfellow should have served no time, however. "We felt he deserved some punishment," Burt Stringfellow said.
Cory Stringfellow was arrested when he was 22, charged with being the source of LSD that was transported across state lines and sold in Colorado. A year later, while awaiting sentencing, he fled to England "in a state of panic," his parents said. He was picked up 18 months later, then sentenced to 188 months in federal prison. In federal prison, there's no chance for parole, noted Burt Stringfellow. "So you're stuck. You only get 15 percent off" for good behavior.
Cory Stringfellow's good behavior has included getting a master's degree while in prison, completing five years of course work from Heriot Watt, a Scottish university, with a 3.6 grade point average. According to his parents, Cory Stringfellow studied at a small table in a room he shared with nine other noisy inmates. Their son had dropped out of Skyline High School as a senior.
"His Little League coach said that of all the kids he'd coached, Cory was among the three or four he thought were most likely to succeed," Carol Stringfellow said.
A family photo from the late 1980s shows a young man with long, curly hair. A more recent photo shows a young man with a goatee. The picture was taken the month Cory was arrested and his brother was getting ready to go on an LDS mission.
"I should have been happy but I was crying all the time," Carol Stringfellow remembered.
The Stringfellows are looking forward to their son's release from prison. Because he is now confined in a facility in New Jersey, they haven't seen him since last May. Although his drug sentence has been commuted, Cory Stringfellow may still have to serve several months for using a false passport when he fled to England in 1993.