Man pardoned by Obama killed by masked men at halfway house
Damarlon Thomas had spent years looking for freedom - ever since he was sentenced to two decades in prison for selling half an ounce of crack cocaine.
He'd nearly reached it, with a president's help. One of 1,715 federal inmates whose sentences were commuted by former president Barack Obama before he left office, Thomas was living in a halfway house in Saginaw, Michigan, awaiting his early release on March 22.
Then on Monday night, police said, two masked men came looking for him.
They stormed in carrying high-powered rifles, Michigan State Police Lt. David Kaiser told the Saginaw News.
One intruder rounded up the nearly two dozen residents, he said, while the other searched the house for Thomas, "located the victim and executed him."
The halfway house has been temporarily closed and its residents relocated while the FBI investigates and Michigan state police pursue the intruders.
Thomas was shot in the head - among other parts of his body - and died at age 31, after spending the last eight years in prison, sometimes filing his own petitions for release.
He pleaded guilty in 2008 to selling crack cocaine for the Sunnyside Gang, which had warred for years with its rivals in Saginaw until federal-led operations began to dismantle it.
The Saginaw News chronicled the gang's reign of drug deals, shootouts and terror - including the death of a federal witness.
But even the federal judge who sentenced Thomas at age 23 noted he did not seem like a big player, but rather "a street dealer."
Raised by his grandmother in Saginaw, according to court records, he'd briefly attended community college on a football scholarship before returning to town to sell for the gang.
He'd been sentenced twice to probation for selling drugs before the big Sunnyside bust in 2007, in which he admitted to selling 14 grams of crack to a government informant.
When asked if he understood that his offense, combined with his last two, could put him in prison for up to 30 years, Thomas replied: "Yes, sir."
"This gentleman arrives here without ever having been sentenced to a day in jail," Judge Thomas Ludington said at the sentencing. Thomas had shown "a distinguishable level of remorse for his circumstance," and "a level of depth that I think is also distinguishable."
Against this, the judge weighed Thomas's "repeated violations of the law."
He got 19 years in prison - a few years less than the shortest sentence that federal guidelines recommended.
During his time in a low-security prison in Ohio, Thomas tried several times to appeal his sentence as unreasonable - at first through lawyers, and then by himself.
The court ruled him ineligible for reforms passed by Congress in 2010 to reduce sentences for many crack cocaine convictions.
In a motion he appeared to have typed himself and mailed from prison - printed crooked in the court file - Thomas argued that the judge had erred.
Literally. The court had referred to him as someone named "Brandon" several times in its denial.
"The Court apologizes for this clerical error," the judge wrote in 2014. "But it is no more than that."
His release date remained 2025, when he would be nearly 40.
But far from the courtroom and prison, the White House was growing frustrated with the lack of sentencing revision the United States. Obama resorted to commutations - his right to reduce punishments for nonviolent drug offenders.
The president would call it giving people a "second chance."
As he ordered commutations first in the dozens, then hundreds, some hailed him for fighting what one group called "racially discriminatory crack cocaine laws" - among other alleged injustices.
But others warned against the unknown effects of releasing hundreds of convicted offenders before their judges deemed it proper.
Obama "has effectively set himself up as a judge," Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told USA Today last September - as Obama's commutations approached 1,000.
Some of the releases were felons convicted of firearms offenses, or gang leaders put away under so-called "Kingpin" statutes, Goodlatte wrote in a letter to Obama that same month:
"Commuting the sentences of individuals who have serious violent felony convictions, significant connections to organized crime or gangs, or individuals convicted under the Kingpin statute, is extremely troubling."
But the commutations accelerated.
On Nov. 22, 2016, Damarlon Cenaka Thomas made the list.
It's unclear how he persuaded the White House of his case, or if anyone helped him. His trial and appellate lawyers could not be reached. Nor could his family.
In any event, he was ordered to be set free in the spring.
To get ready, he was transferred back to his home town - to a federally run halfway house where he had some measure of freedom in the five weeks before his death.