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With a stroke of a pen, Joe R. Alvarado went from having no hope to anticipating a happy future.
The 63-year-old, an Ogden man who was serving a life term on methamphetamine-related charges, was granted clemency Wednesday by President Barack Obama. His release date is set for Aug. 3, 2018.
"He can get out and be with his daughter and he can see his grandchildren for the first time," said George Burbidge II, the Salt Lake City attorney who handled Alvarado's clemency application. "He'll be able to live his life again."
Alvarado was one of two Utahns among the 214 federal inmates granted clemency Wednesday. The other is West Valley City resident Pauline K. Blake, 50, who was serving a 24-year prison sentence for methamphetamine-related charges. Her prison term will expire on Dec. 1, 2016.
Both Alvarado and Blake are incarcerated at a correctional facility in Victorville, Calif., according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Alvarado, who had previous drug possession convictions, was sentenced in 2004 by then-U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell to a mandatory life term.
Cassell, now a University of Utah law professor, said Wednesday that if there had not been a minimum mandatory sentence in the case, he would have imposed a term of no more than 12 1/2 years, on Alvarado.
"To be sure, repeat drug offenses involving methamphetamine deserve tough punishment," Cassell said. "But a mandatory life sentence was not the right sentence for that crime, and would have cost the taxpayers an extraordinary amount of money if Mr. Alvarado had been incarcerated in federal prison until he died."
There is no parole in the federal system, which means offenders serve out their entire term, minus any "good time" credit of up to about 50 days a year for their behavior in prison. There is no possibility of parole for lifers.
Last February, Cassell wrote a letter to Obama in support of Alvarado's clemency petition, saying the inmate's life sentence was "grossly disproportionate" to the crime committed and that the term is typically reserved for major drug dealers.
"From all the information I saw at trial and in the pre-sentence report, Mr. Alvarado was better characterized as a low-level drug user and occasional dealer," Cassell wrote.
Cassell said he has written letters supporting presidential clemency for two defendants, Alvarado and Weldon Angelos, a Utah music producer who was sentenced to a mandatory life term in 2004 on gun and drug charges. Angelos was never granted clemency but did receive an immediate sentence reduction in May.
According to court records, Alvarado came to the attention of law enforcement in 2003 when two informants separately told the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force that he was a multi-pound drug dealer. When officers spotted Alvarado's green Pontiac Bonneville in the parking lot of an Ogden auto store, they blocked it in with their own car.
Alvarado gave them permission to conduct a pat-down search and they found a bag of what appeared to be methamphetamine in his pocket, according to police. A search of the Pontiac turned up a notebook containing monetary notations, $1,020 in cash, a digital scale, measuring spoons, empty sandwich bags and a pouch of methamphetamine, they said.
A federal jury convicted Alvarado in July 2004 of two counts of possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute and of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The gun charge stemmed from a post-arrest search of Alvarado's home; he did not have a firearm with him when he was arrested, according to court records.
Blake was found guilty in 2001 of one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, one count of establishment of a methamphetamine operation, two counts of conspiracy or attempt to manufacture methamphetamine and two counts of possession of a listed chemical.
Blake was first sentenced in 2002 by Judge Dale Kimball to 210 months behind bars, a "downward departure" from the federal sentencing guideline range. In 2004, she was resentenced to 292 months after prosecutors successfully challenged the departure at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Court documents say an informant told the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force in late 1999 that a methamphetamine lab was being stored in a unit at a Draper self-storage facility. The informant mentioned the names of two men and Blake, according to the documents. A search of the unit found a van with items used to manufacture methamphetamine inside.
Weeks later, a tip led investigators to a lab in a Salt Lake City building, where officers found chemicals and other items associated with methamphetamine production and use. Blake was arrested at the site and later indicted by a federal grand jury.
Blake's attorney, Elaine Cochran, could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.