Commuted inmate’s mother looks ahead to her return

Vonceil Hill has waited nine years for the news she received Wednesday that her daughter’s life sentence in prison had been commuted.

“I’m grateful,” Hill said. “I was hoping she’d be released sooner.”

A homecoming celebration may still be a way off. Hill’s daughter, Charceil Kellam, 52, had her sentence commuted by President Obama to a little more than 13 years, and it remains uncertain how much longer she will remain in prison.

Hill is hoping for a release date within the next year, which would give Kellam a chance to see her grandmother, Hill’s mother, who will turn 105 within a few months. The exact release date won’t be known until the federal Bureau of Prisons calculates it sometime in the next few weeks.

Kellam, formerly of Berryville was sentenced in 2007 on three counts of distribution of crack cocaine, the last in a long series of drug-related convictions. She rejected a plea agreement under which she would have pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. Instead, a jury convicted her in U.S. District Court, despite her insistence that she was not a member of the drug distribution ring to which she had been linked.

Judge Glenn E. Conrad said federal statutes governing sentences for repeat drug offenders left him no choice but to sentence her to life in prison, although he made clear he believed she deserved something far less.

Hill and community activists around Winchester and Berryville organized an effort to bring attention to what they considered Kellam’s unjust sentence. They circulated a petition and wrote letters asking that her name be included on the list of those receiving commuted sentences from Obama.

Hill said she has talked for a few minutes with Kellam since learning she was among the 214 inmates who had their sentences commuted Wednesday. Kellam is confined to the Hazelton federal prison in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia.

“She said she was very grateful, and she was waiting for the Bureau of Prisons to calculate the exact release date,” Hill said, adding that she hoped her daughter may be able to spend a year or less in a halfway house before her release.

Andrea Harris, an assistant federal public defender in Charlottesville, said the time Kellam has already served will count toward the slightly more than 13 years left on her commuted sentence.

“My guess is it’s not like she will be getting out tomorrow,” Harris said.

Hill, who has been living in Berryville taking care of Kellam’s two youngest children since their mother’s sentencing, said she is looking forward to some relief from child-rearing responsibilities.

“It’s been hard on me because I’m 74, and there’s a lot of things going on in school, and I’m providing a lot of transportation,” Hill said. “It’s been hard. I’m looking forward to the day their mother can take over.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com