By Joe Beck
HARRISONBURG -- Family, friends and supporters of a Berryville woman serving a life sentence plus 30 years on drug charges protested the severity of her punishment Monday on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse.
Larry Yates, leader of the Justice Coalition of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, which organized the event, described the case as a glaring example of the war on drugs' tendency to target racial minorities for excessively harsh sentences.
"We're looking at drug enforcement going after a small part of the African-American community when everyone knows" that use of illegal drugs is equally prevalent among whites, Yates said.
"Why are they picking on this one very small community?" Yates said. "There's not a lot of African-Americans in the Shenandoah Valley. What is going on?"
Charceil Kellam and her supporters have admitted she used drugs, but insist she did not commit the trafficking offenses for which a federal jury convicted her in 2007. U.S. District Judge Glenn E. Conrad said at a post-conviction hearing in 2011 that he agreed the sentence was excessive, but that "my hands are tied" by "the way the statute works."
Kellam was convicted on three counts of distribution of crack as part of an investigation spanning several jurisdiction and involving numerous other defendants. Previous convictions for distribution and possession of crack cocaine in Maryland and another conviction in Frederick County required that she receive a life sentence, according to federal statutes. She was 43 at the time she was sentenced on the federal charges.
Kellam and her supporters are trying to gain judicial approval for a process that Yates said amounts to "a second look" at the handling of her case. They said they have been stymied so far by repeated extensions sought by the Justice Department in replying to their request.
Kellam's mother, Vonceil Hill, was among the 25 or so people on the steps of the courthouse Monday. She said her daughter is "doing well" at a federal woman's prison in Danbury, Conn., where she is serving her sentence. Hill said she had spoken to Kellam by telephone shortly before the protest.
"She's just wondering why (federal authorities) keep requesting these extensions," Hill said.
Hill said Kellam would be out of prison by now if she had agreed to a plea bargain involving distribution of crack. But Kellam's confidence that a jury would refuse to convict her led her to seek a full acquittal, Hill said.
Hill said several co-defendants in the case already have been released.
Yates said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph H.W. Mott, who prosecuted Kellam's case, bears the biggest share of blame for the outcome. But, he added, the ultimate responsibility rests with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Eric Holder needs to take a good look at this case," Yates said. "Something went seriously wrong."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org