NASHVILLE, Tenn. (NewsNation Now) — Faced with two life sentences in jail, Chris Young was told the only way out was death.
Investigators charged the Tennessee native for his role during a drug trafficking sting.
Thanks to Attorney Brittany K. Barnett and her team of civil rights lawyers, Young is free.
“All of my clients were serving time in federal prison under outdated federal drug laws… and so I’ve had 7 clients who received clemency under President Obama and four clients over Donald Trump,” Barnett said.
Young, now 32, was in jail 10 years, one month and 10 days. On Jan. 20, 2021, he walked out a free man.
Despite being sentenced to life in prison with no parole, he says he never gave up hope that he would be free one day.
Young’s journey behind bars began when he was just 18-years-old.
“Unfortunately, it was too familiar to me. Just like everybody else in America, sometimes we let our neighborhoods and our circumstances be a prison themselves. And I was in prison in my mind and my neighborhood before I went to prison,” said Young.
First, a conviction for possession of cocaine, marijuana and a weapon.
Then at 19, another conviction, for possession of less than half a gram of cocaine and marijuana.
In 2010, his third strike came after federal investigators conducted a drug sting in Clarksville, Tennessee.
More than 30 people were arrested. Many took a plea deal which meant serving 14 years in jail.
Young decided to fight for his day in court, but he would ultimately lose.
Federal Judge Kevin Sharp sentenced him to two lifelong terms in prison without parole on a nonviolent drug charge.
In court, Sharp said Young did not deserve his fate.
Under the federal “Three Strike” law, defendants receive mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if they have three federal convictions for serious violent felonies or crimes related to drug trafficking.
His story made national headlines and the media attention caught the eye of Barnett.
“I always knew that I was going to get Chris Young free. The light at the end of the tunnel just became really, really bright,” said Barnett.
After two years, Barnett and her team made a major discovery.
“I realized that we had uncovered a huge issue in his case as it related to ineffective assistance of counsel as it related to his plea negotiation,” Barnett said. “So uncovering that issue and really pounding the pavement to get this motion in front of the court really the best way possible, that was the highlight of the case process for me. And then of course with him being free, nothing can trump it.”
During this time, an unlikely supporter came to Young’s defense — Kevin Sharp, the same judge who sentenced him to jail years ago, advocated for Chris’s release.
“A mandatory life sentence was never an appropriate sentence for what he did. He and his co-defendants were just fringe participants in a much larger drug conspiracy,” said former U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp.
In 2017, Sharp stepped down from his life-appointed position to return to work for criminal justice reform as a civil rights attorney.
“It’s clear; the data will show you that answer is no. It does not make us safer. Putting a Chris Young in prison for life does not make any more safer. These are nonviolent drug offenses. Chris was a catalyst and became a poster child for my issues and the federal justice system. He was the perfect example of what bothered me about the job,” Sharp said.
With Sharp’s support, a major win followed for Young.
“In September of 2020, we actually had a huge victory in the court and got Chris’ life sentence reduced to 14 years, and that was amazing in and of itself. But he still has two years left,” said Barnett.
Young’s story caught the eye of Kim Kardashian. She advocated for President Donald Trump to help get Young out of jail.
In January, with a presidential grant of clemency, that dream became a reality.
“Yes, she is a global superstar, but this was another person a part of the team. This was bigger than Kim Kardashian. It took a whole village to help get me free,” said Chris Young.
At the airport in Nashville, the first person to greet him was the same judge who sentenced him to prison years ago.
With Young now out of prison, he plans to work closely with Barnett and former judge Sharp to help others they say are ‘buried alive.’
“It’s beyond legitimate debate at this point that the system bleeds with racial injustice and to know that there are so many more Chris Youngs that are still buried alive and in need of their freedom as well. You know, it just shows that we have a lot more work to do,” said Barnett.
Barnett has worked to get 11 clients freed from federal prison through presidential clemency or presidential pardon in the past six years. Through her program, Buried Alive she fights to free people serving sentences handed down on federal drug laws. Two of her clients, Corey Jacobs and Sharanda Jones, now work along side Barnett in the organization.
She also has a non-profit called Girls Embracing Mothers. The program works to empower girls with mothers in prison.
“Girls Embracing Mothers was born from my experience of having a mother incarcerated,” Barnett said. “That organization is based in Dallas and we work to empower girls whose mothers are in prison. We work to empower them to break the cycle of incarceration and lead successful lives.”
Chris Young said he plans on working with Barnett on other justice reform projects in the future. He said one of the first things he would like to see reformed are mandatory minimums and penalties should be set on a case-by-case basis.
“I just want to tell people that humanity is one of the greatest creations and is one of the greatest species. That’s what we need more in this world, more love, more compassion,” said Young. “More empathy, whether it be just in the judicial system or whether it be in every area of hospitality.”