President commutes Sarasota woman's life sentence

Haley Hinds reports

- A Sarasota woman who's spent 22 years behind bars is getting a second chance. Cheryl Howard was among more than 200 people granted clemency by President Obama this week. In two years or less, the grandmother will be free.

Lavithia Howard was just 11 years old when her mom went to prison. "Being a young child, I didn't understand exactly what all of that meant at all. I just knew my mother was gone," Lavithia Howard said.

It was 1994. Cheryl Howard was 26 years old and living in Sarasota when she was arrested. Two counts of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, plus one count of conspiracy, equaled a life sentence.

"She always told me I love you no matter what and I am always going to be here for you," Lavithia Howard said.

Decade after decade, freedom was out of reach. Cheryl Howard missed graduations and the births of her grandchildren. Despite rehabilitation, she was prepared to die in prison.

A request to President Obama in 2014 to commute her sentence was denied. In 2015, she suffered an aneurysm, spending a month on life support. But, when she recovered, 48-year-old Cheryl asked a second time, for a second chance.

"I prayed, I prayed, I prayed," Lavithia Howard said.

Monday, Lavithia's phone rang. "She says, your mom's name is on that list. Your mother is coming home," Lavithia said.

Cheryl Howard was 1 of 231 inmates granted clemency by the President.

"My mother called me Tuesday morning," Lavithia said, "and, that's when she told me she's going to be free. And, that's when everything became whole again."

Obama has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 individuals, including 395 life sentences. The focus is on those who've made the most of their time in prison, participating in educational courses, vocational training and drug treatment.
  
Amy Povah received clemency, herself in 2000 from Bill Clinton. She later founded CAN-DO, or Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders and was one of Howard's strongest advocates.

"I'm so excited for Cheryl," Povah said. "It's the most wonderful gift anyone could ever received and unless you've lost your freedom, you probably can't imagine what it's like."

Povah hopes Obama's work with clemency continues with the incoming administration.

"I think it's a humanitarian issue that will seal his legacy as being one of the most compassionate Presidents," Povah said. "But also, there's  just so many more people who are waiting in the pipeline."

Cheryl Howard send this message to Povah: "WOW!! I am OVER JOYED right now!!  God said he would restore everything that the canker worm and the locust ate up!! He did it Amy and I cant wait to get out and testify about the goodness of Him and the people like U that He put into my life."

Lavithia Howard's 34th birthday was Sunday, the day before she got the news. Her mother's freedom was the best gift she could've hoped for.

"They want them to come back to the community better," Lavithia said. "She was ready for that 15 years ago. But, since they want to take 23 to 25, we are going to take it and  we are going to show how she is going to shine."

Cheryl Howard is currently an inmate at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Her sentence is now set to expire December 19, 2018. When she gets out, she plans to start a mentoring and job placement program in Sarasota called "Fed up" or Federal Ex-offenders Driven to their Unexpected Potential.

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