Obama commutes life sentence of Berryville woman

A former Berryville resident serving a life sentence plus 30 years on drug charges was among 214 federal prisoners who had their sentences commuted by President Obama on Wednesday.

Charceil Kellam has been the subject of a public campaign mounted by her family, friends and others who have long contended that her sentence was far too harsh for her crimes.

Kellam, 52, was sentenced in 2007 after she was convicted on three counts of distribution of crack. A string of previous drug-related convictions in Maryland and Frederick County required under federal statutes that she be sentenced to life for the 2007 offenses.

U.S. District Judge Glenn E. Conrad said at a post-conviction hearing in 2011 that he agreed with Kellam’s supporters that her sentence was excessive, but “my hands are tied” by federal law.

Larry Yates, of Winchester, one of those who has led the effort to reduce Kellam’s sentence, said he was pleased Obama included her among those whose sentences were commuted.

“It’s good news,” Yates said. “It shouldn’t have taken this long. But that’s what happened. I’m just glad for her.”

A commuted sentence does not mean an inmate will be released soon. Kellam’s sentence was commuted to 160 months, slightly more than 13 years.

Yates said it is unclear how much longer she will remain in prison or whether the nature of her sentence will be modified to something less confining than the facility in West Virginia where she is currently serving time.

“It’s not going to be a life sentence. That’s the main thing,” Yates said.

The case that led to Kellam’s life sentence involved a massive crack cocaine ring in Winchester that produced charges against 27 people. A jury found Kellam guilty but her supporters have insisted she did not commit the crimes of which she was convicted, although she was a user of illegal drugs at the time. Kellam’s supporters say she did not know any of those arrested in the drug bust and lived in West Virginia at the time.

Kellam’s mother, Vonceil Hill, said in an interview in 2013 that her daughter would have been released from prison by that time if she had accepted a plea bargain.

Yates said he last spoke with Kellam 10 days or two weeks ago. He said her persistence and determination played a large part in the eventual success in the effort to have her sentence commuted.

“She’s been very focused, and that’s very important,” Yates said. “She has worked very hard on her own behalf.”

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