NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — At least four Tennessee men are among the 73 people pardoned by President Donald Trump during the final hours of his term, and three of them have dedicated their lives to helping other inmates and those at risk of incarceration.
Robert Sherrill is a Nashville resident who served five years in prison on drug charges. After his release he started a successful janitorial business but has also devoted his time to helping others. His projects include Impact Youth Outreach, a mentoring program for at-risk youth, and the Dream Initiative, which works to ease prisoners' reentry into society.
Sherrill said he knows first-hand about the roadblocks ex-prisoners face. Even after he received a pardon from former Gov. Bill Haslam for his state conviction, the federal conviction remained in place and made it very difficult to get federal contracts or apply for federal loans.
“The negative stigma takes its toll,” he said. “I just want to be successful and provide for my family.”
Sherrill learned of the pardon shortly after midnight Tuesday. “I just went crazy,” he said Wednesday. “I haven't been asleep since.”
Josh Smith, of Knoxville, is also trying to make it easier for prisoners to reintegrate into society. Smith served time in a Kentucky prison for drug charges. After his release he started a very successful waterproofing and foundation repair business. He later sold the company and used the money from the sale to start the nonprofit Fourth Purpose Foundation, a criminal justice reform group.
Smith said on Wednesday that as a convicted felon it was actually easier to found a business than to get hired by one. Even so, the collateral consequences of his conviction have followed him for 25 years. He has had trouble getting loans, life insurance, business licenses and basic car insurance. He hasn't been able to vote or go hunting with his son. He even had trouble getting inside a prison to do volunteer work.
“So many things just hold you back, and they never go away,” Smith said.
Smith served on Gov. Bill Lee's Tennessee Criminal Justice Investment Task Force, and Lee was among those supporting his pardon.
Lee also wrote a letter of support for pardoned Nashvillian David Miller, who was convicted of making a false statement to a bank, but is now the development director at the prison ministry Men of Valor.
“I have personally seen the meaningful, positive impact that Mr. Miller has had on others who are trying to improve themselves while in prison and after release,” Lee wrote to Trump. “He is an inspiration to those he serves.”
Johnny Phillips Jr., originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, was one of 10 men convicted in a fraud scheme out of Johnson City that bilked investors out of more than $14 million dollars. Phillips fought the charges in court, testifying that he was unaware that the investment scheme was a scam. He was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison. Ed Yarbrough, who represented Phillips at trial and wrote a letter in support of the pardon, said he thinks Phillips is deserving of the second chance.
Phillips has three young children, one of whom has Type 1 diabetes, and he has become an advocate for diabetes research, Yarbrough said.
“He's an extremely humble young man and just so grateful for this that words can't express,” Yarbrough said.
In addition, at least two Tennesseans had their sentences commuted. Chris Young, of Clarksville, was sentenced to life in prison in a drug conspiracy case under a mandatory minimum sentence by then- U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp. Sharp later said he was horrified by the sentences he was required to hand down. He stepped down from the bench and became an advocate for Young, who also counts Kim Kardashian among his supporters.
Young's sentence was later reduced to 14 years, and he has served more than 10.
“I'm very happy about Chris,” Sharp said Wednesday. But he noted that the clemency system relies on access to politicians and said many other people who deserve clemency are still sitting in prison.
Franklin resident John Davis had his 3 1/2-year sentence commuted after serving four months for his role in a $4 million Medicare kickback scheme. A news release from the White House says “no one suffered financially as a result of his crime," although taxpayers were on the hook for the improper Medicare reimbursements. Davis is the former CEO of Comprehensive Pain Specialists of Gallatin.