UPDATE: As of August 30th, 2016 Timothy Tyler has been granted Clemency
Twenty years without music.
That ended up being part of the punishment handed down to Timothy Tyler, a now 47-year-old Deadhead who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling LSD at 25-years-old. He was arrested in 1992 and sentenced in 1994, a period when Congress and newly elected President Bill Clinton were eager to increase the punishments for drug offenders. The tough on crime mentality meant many people wouldn’t blink an eye at locking up nonviolent offenders like Tim, who received a mandatory minimum sentence because of two previous minor drug convictions.
Yesterday, President Obama granted clemency to 42 people serving long or life sentences under outdated and overly harsh sentencing laws. It brings his total number of commutations to 348 -- more than than the past seven presidents combined.
Tim wasn’t on the list. Next month, he will have spent more than half of his life in prison.
It wasn’t until 2012 that he was allowed to have an approved MP3 player that he could purchase music for. The music is limited and get can’t get all the Grateful Dead he wants — but this was the best news he’d had in a long time.
“I am still at times really not believing that we can listen to the music we want to. The people coming into prison from now on have no idea what some of us endured with no music all these years.”
In the early 90's, Tim was touring the country with the Grateful Dead. He made friends within the community of passionate fans, became a vegan, and started selling fried dough at shows. LSD was, and still is, a common psychedelic drug found at concerts and like many others involved in the Grateful Dead scene at the time, he started taking it. Then he began selling it to friends for less than $1 a hit.
Tim wasn’t a big drug dealer and he wasn’t making the sort of money you’d think would be necessary to trigger a life without parole sentence. In total he profited about $3,000 from selling LSD to a friend over the course of two months (about .45 cents a hit). What Tim didn’t know is that his friend had recently been arrested and turned confidential informant for the DEA in exchange for a lesser sentence. This was an unusual amount for Tim to be involved with and police could could have arrested him after the first sale, but they had the informant keep asking Tim to mail more so they could push for a longer sentence.
Some packages with LSD were mailed to Tim’s father’s address, implicating him in the case as well. His father was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to ten years. Tragically, he died in prison after serving eight. The confidential informant that set Tim up received no jail time.
“My dad died in prison, how much blood does society feel they need from one family?”
Tim was charged with selling over ten grams of LSD, though he says it was really only about two grams of the actual substance. That’s because under mandatory minimum sentencing laws, drug weight can be based on any “mixture or substance containing a detectable amount.” They weighed the blotter paper that the LSD was on too. If sentenced today, Tim would have received significantly less time.
Three years ago I encouraged Tim’s sister Carrie to start a petition on Change.org asking President Obama to grant him clemency. I explained to her that there were people who would hear Tim’s story and want to help. As of today, over 400,000 people have signed it -- it’s the most popular clemency petition on our platform and Carrie continues to be a tireless advocate for Tim’s release.
I talk with Tim through CorrLinks, the email system for federal prisoners. Just over a plain text email, you can feel the kindness in his words. We talk about his petition and the large number of supporters he now has, as well as the big changes in the clemency process that the Obama administration implemented.
We talk about music. I feel bad telling him about the all the shows I get to attend but he likes hearing about them. I’ve turned him on to Umphrey’s McGee and another supporter has got him listening to Widespread Panic. He tells me about how Althea is his favorite song to play on guitar and how he wants to go to Phil Lesh’s new restaurant and venue, Terrapin Crossroads. More than any song, he wants to hear a live version of Days Between, one of the songs he can’t get in prison.
I send him the setlists from the Phil & Friends, JRAD, and Dead & Company shows I attend. He likes to read them and says he can hear the songs in head. He spends much of his time playing handball and is, it seems, incredibly good at it. He tells me other inmates line up to try and beat him only they get to use a racquet and he only uses his hand. He reads a lot. I renewed his subscription to the music magazine Relix and sent him a copy of the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kruetzman’s new book “Deal.”
Is Tim a person who deserves to die in prison?
I don’t think so. And most people who hear his story agree that if Tim owed any debt to society for his crime, he has more than paid for it. He’s no longer behind bars to keep society safe or to rehabilitate him, it’s just to make him suffer. It’s punishment for punishment’s sake and that is not justice.
But there is hope. President Obama is clearly committed to processing as many clemency applications as possible before his term is up.
“It does not make sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be getting 20 years, 30 years, in some cases life, in prison. That’s not serving anybody.”
- President Obama
Tim has not been included in any of the president’s commutation rounds and unless he’s granted clemency, he will die in prison. His mom is now 70-years-old and he just wants to be out of prison before she, like his dad, passes away.
Clemency is an important issue in criminal justice reform and it’s going to be key for the next president to carry on the work of the Obama administration. It’s really the only way to help people like Tim given that Congress is unlikely to make the sort of reforms that would benefit drug offenders serving federal sentences.
Tim’s story isn’t unique. If you’re interested in learning about other stories like his, you can view a long list of people deserving clemency from President Obama for nonviolent drug offenses on this Change.org movement page .
Jon is Associate Campaigns Director at Change.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_jonperri