- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The inmate case manager spotted Robert Gill reading a law book in the prison library one afternoon last March. She spoke in a tone that chilled him.

“You gotta come with me,” she said. “We need to talk with you.”

He stood up and followed her to the office of an associate warden at the medium-security federal penitentiary in Yazoo City, Mississippi. His mind groped for answers as he wondered if he had done something wrong.

Gill had lived there for eight years, his latest address behind bars while serving a life sentence for a 1992 felony drug conviction he received in his native San Antonio.

His disciplinary record at the prison was unblemished, his behavior exemplary. But he sensed none of that mattered to the associate warden, who frowned at him from across her desk.

She held a large yellow envelope, and he watched as she pulled out a piece of cream-colored paper stamped with the seal of the Department of Justice.

“You’ve been granted clemency,” she said, piercing the tension with a smile. “Your life sentence has been commuted.”

A man of many words on most occasions, Gill responded with awed silence. His disbelief has yet to recede since he returned to his hometown in May, searching for a future lost to him more than two decades ago.

“One minute you didn’t know if you were ever going to get out of prison,” said Gill, 67, who has spent almost half his years locked up, the legacy of three low-level, drug-related felonies. “And then in the next minute you’re being told you’re going back to free society.”

The San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1nFiVQz) reported that Gill, a Vietnam veteran, belongs to the fraternity of 184 federal inmates whose sentences President Obama has commuted as part of a broader campaign to reform the criminal justice system. Last summer, Obama cut short the 20-year sentence of another San Antonio man, Clarance Callies Jr., who was convicted on drug charges in 2002.

Justice Department officials unveiled Obama’s clemency initiative two years ago. The effort attempts to bring relief to nonviolent offenders serving long prison terms that date to a frenzied period in the nation’s war on drugs.

The 1980s and ‘90s spawned the era of mass incarceration, with tens of thousands of men and women punished under mandatory minimum guidelines for federal drug crimes that now carry shorter sentences.

In Gill’s case, authorities linked him to a conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance after his arrest for possession of less than an ounce of heroin at Stinson Municipal Airport in 1990.

A public defender represented him at trial two years later, when a jury convicted him and three co-defendants. In the ensuing decades, Gill pursued an uncertain path to freedom while imprisoned in South Texas, Indiana and Mississippi.

He gained a hard-earned legal education inside prison libraries, devoting untold hours to deciphering the nuances of federal drug laws. Filing most of his own motions, Gill exhausted his appeals without depleting his hope, even as each of his co-defendants, one by one, died in confinement.

“I believed there were people in government with rational minds who sooner or later would realize that the sentence wasn’t fair,” he said. Two years ago, when he requested relief from the Texas judge who sentenced him, several staff members at the prison wrote letters of support on Gill’s behalf.

“Yes, you have the thought that you’re going to die in prison - that’s a human reaction,” he said. “But there’s always the possibility that they’ll acknowledge the injustice.”

He petitioned the Justice Department for clemency in 2013 and again the next year. The president rewarded his persistence last spring, placing Gill in the small group of inmates to so far receive commutations among more than 33,000 who filed for relief.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote in a signed letter of notification. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”

The president’s decision ended what Ronald Schmidt, a San Antonio attorney who handled Gill’s earliest appeals, called “a terrible travesty of justice.”

“There’s very little mercy in our criminal justice system,” Schmidt said. “Commutation provides mercy, and Bobby Gill is deserving of another chance. He should not have been locked up for life.”

Re-entering the outside world after a 25-year hiatus has felt to Gill like a form of time travel.

He has learned about iPhones and the Internet. He has reconnected with his three children and most of his 12 siblings, some of whom barely recognized him, and hugged grandchildren he had never met.

Last month, he moved into an apartment on the Northwest Side, his first private residence since George H.W. Bush occupied the White House. He also found work as a paralegal; he last held a legitimate job around the time Richard Nixon resigned.

Each step of progress further separates Gill from a fractured past and draws him closer to redemption.

“Should a person who has committed three mistakes be subjected to life without parole and not be considered for a second chance?” he said. “This is a new awakening.”

Federal inmate No. 24434-149 walked out of prison May 7 wearing black trousers and a white button-down shirt.

Long ago, for hazy reasons, a court clerk registered his identity as Robert Martinez-Gil. She assigned him a middle name because he had none - borrowing his mother’s maiden name - and pruned his surname, then hitched the two together.

Now, released at age 66 and dressed in civilian clothes for the first time since he was 41, he became, once again, Robert Gill.

A van delivered him to Yazoo City’s Greyhound station, where he bought a hot dog to liberate his palate after 9,000 days of prison food.

He boarded a bus for San Antonio, and over the next 24 hours, traveling through Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, he savored the landscape slipping past, views unbounded by walls.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “You’re looking at freedom.”

Gill had seldom glimpsed that figurative tableau since his first conviction in 1978. He served a 20-month sentence for selling a small amount of heroin to an undercover narcotics agent in San Antonio.

During the following decade, authorities arrested him for possession of heroin, and he picked up a pair of parole violations that yielded more prison time. He had been out less than a year when federal agents busted him at Stinson airfield in early 1990.

His conviction in that case completed an unraveling that began more than two decades earlier, after he finished his second Army tour in Vietnam.

Bobby, as everyone called him, had grown up happy and antic in Palm Heights, the fourth-youngest of 13 children born to Jose and Angela Gill.

Jose worked on a boiler-cleaning crew at CPS Energy while Angela took occasional housekeeping jobs. The youngest boys slept on blankets in the living room of the couple’s small home, and Angela stretched the thin family budget by serving a steady diet of bean rolls.

Describing Bobby’s untamed energy, his mother often said, “He doesn’t know how to sleep; he only knows how to pass out.” He hustled to make a buck delivering newspapers, washing cars at a repair shop and sweeping floors at A&W.;

To his teenage mind, the classroom resembled a cage. He once shortened a school day by turning the hands of a wall clock an hour ahead. He stopped attending after the eighth grade.

His lack of direction and flouting of authority inflamed his father, who forced Bobby to sign up for military service in 1966. Five months later, a few weeks after his 18th birthday, he deployed to Southeast Asia.

Army records show that Gill, a helicopter door gunner for most of his 14-month tour, earned an Air Medal and eight oak leaf clusters, each representing 25 hours of combat flight time.

The military newspaper Stars and Stripes published a photo of him on a Huey gunship as his platoon flew a mission over the Mekong Delta in August 1967. “By day’s end, 49 Viet Cong lay dead,” the paper reported.

Gill returned to San Antonio in 1968 but soon wearied of the civilian world’s sedate rhythms. He reenlisted and flew back to Vietnam the next year, and though rarely exposed to combat as a radio operator posted to a hilltop relay station, he faced another pervasive threat: the abundance of illicit drugs available to troops.

His overseas affair with heroin and marijuana mutated into a full-blown romance after his discharge in 1972.

He quit his janitorial and sales jobs in San Antonio to enter the drug trade, chasing the adrenaline rush he experienced in war. His stints in prison failed to deter him from a lifestyle colored by addiction.

“I had a talent that I could have used to sell anything - hardware, refrigerators, homes - and I squandered it,” said Gill, who as a dealer cleared $1,000 a week for a stretch in the ‘70s. “I got caught up in the music, the cars, the clothes, the image.”

The illusion dissolved when U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. handed down a life sentence in 1992.

By then, Gill had lost two marriages. His three children considered him a stranger. Most of his brothers and sisters dismissed him as a blight on the family name.

Two of his younger siblings, Eddie and Yolanda, with whom he shared a strong bond in childhood, remained allies as he aged behind bars.

They mailed letters and family photos and accepted his collect calls. Contact with them provided a portal to a realm beyond confinement and allowed him to say an anguished goodbye.

In 2002, as Angela lay dying from a stroke at age 90, Yolanda arranged a final phone conversation between mother and wayward son. (Jose had died of cancer in 1978, the same year as Gill’s first conviction.)

Bobby’s absence had cut a deep wound in his mother’s spirit. In prison, as an act of self-preservation, he concealed his emotions. But hearing her voice for the last time, he cracked open with grief.

Rippling beneath the pain was a sober awareness that, given his past addictions and livelihood, a life sentence may have spared him from dying before her.

“He’s alive because he went to prison,” Yolanda said. “She could have wound up burying him.”

The bus pulled into the downtown Greyhound station on May 8, and Bobby Gill found himself in a place familiar yet alien. He was home.

He approached Yolanda and spoke her name. She stared at him with dim recognition, the older brother she had known hidden beneath layers of time.

The decades had frosted his dark hair gray and thickened his waistline. He wore glasses. The light in his brown eyes had clouded with the wariness of a man locked up for a quarter-century.

Then the siblings hugged, and the distance between present and past collapsed.

“I always had hope that he would get out,” said Yolanda, 61, who had last seen him in 1991. “I wasn’t sure how, but I still had hope.”

The conditions of Gill’s release required him to check into a halfway house. Yolanda drove him to the Crosspoint campus on the East Side, where they met Eddie, who had long believed his brother would leave prison only in death.

He learned the news of Bobby’s impending freedom in March when he read an online report about Obama commuting the sentences of 22 federal drug offenders. The list included a San Antonio man named Robert Martinez-Gil.

“I was like, ‘Holy s_t! He’s getting out,’” said Eddie, 60, the youngest Gill sibling. “I didn’t really think we were going to get him back.”

The day after Gill returned, the two men ate breakfast at Benny’s Tacos on the South Side. Bobby attacked his order of huevos rancheros with such euphoric aggression that much of the food missed his mouth; afterward, he needed to borrow a fresh shirt from his brother.

“It felt good to watch him,” Eddie said. His 2004 visit to the federal penitentiary in Three Rivers, Texas, had marked the last time Bobby saw a family member before coming back to San Antonio. “It was sort of like watching a kid.”

Eddie and Yolanda shared the duty of guiding their brother through the dizzying advances of the digital age and the age-old hassles of government bureaucracy.

Eddie taught him about cell phones, ATM machines, laptops and the online universe. Yolanda helped him obtain a Social Security card, driver’s license and copy of his birth certificate. The ex-lifer was at once catching up and starting over.

He also began juggling the obligations of his five-year supervised release program. He must meet with a probation officer every month, submit to sporadic drug tests and complete drug counseling, among other conditions.

Both younger siblings realized that, if Bobby’s appearance had changed, he retained the restless nature that inspired their mother to say, “He never sits long enough to heat up a seat.”

“People ask, ‘Why are you moving so fast?’” Gill said, wearing his typical post-prison outfit of crew-neck shirt, cargo pants and cross-training shoes. He spread his hands open. “Why would you want to slow down if God has given you a second opportunity to live?”

Gill rediscovered his hometown by riding the bus for hours, relishing the chance to drift after decades of stagnation. He walked around Palm Heights and went past his childhood home. He wandered the aisles at Walmart to gaze at the endless merchandise and to buy fresh produce - avocados in particular_that he missed while behind bars.

“Just the idea that you can head down the street and go to McDonald’s, go to Sonic, go to the grocery store - it’s heaven,” he said. “You have control again. You have choices.”

In their youth, Eddie lent a hand with Bobby’s paper route. In their 60s, the younger brother has indulged his older sibling’s desire to make the rounds of city steak houses.

During trips to Little Red Barn, Longhorn and Outback, Bobby has shown the appetite of someone who, in a single meal, intends to make up for 25 years of too little meat in his diet. He has packed on almost one pound for every year incarcerated in his eight months on the outside.

“We’re kind of coddling him, giving him everything he wants,” Eddie said. “But you don’t want to spoil him too much.”

Eddie sells used restaurant equipment out of a South Side warehouse. In July, after receiving approval from his probation officer, Bobby moved into a bedroom that adjoins Eddie’s office.

The spare furnishings in the coral-red room consisted of little more than a double bed, dresser and flat-screen TV. Modest d├ęcor aside, after the coldness of prison cells, Gill had landed in what he dubbed “the penthouse suite.”

“When you’ve been given life without parole, you’re the walking dead,” he said. “So just the fact that you have your own space, it’s like you’ve been resurrected.”

His acclimation has occurred by degrees and not without a sense of uneasiness. On one occasion last summer, he locked the door to the bedroom, where the employee bathroom is located. One of the workers broke the door down in frustration.

When Eddie later prodded his brother about why he bolted the door, Bobby replied that he was scared.

“Of what?” Eddie asked.

“Of being out,” Bobby said.

Gill’s caution around strangers mirrors his approach to many of his loved ones, owing to a mutual unfamiliarity. Until his return to San Antonio, he had heard little from most of them, including his three children. He understood the silence.

“When you’re doing time, especially life without parole, people lose hope. Some might think, ‘Why bother with him? He’s never getting out,’” Gill said.

“I didn’t want to be a burden by bringing them into my circle in prison, and I think it would have been harder on me to see them and then watch them leave.”

Around Christmas, Yolanda and her husband hosted a family barbecue, and Bobby had a chance to reunite with several of his brothers and sisters.

His conversations with them tended to skid along the surface, and to escape nervous pauses, he fetched food and drinks for the others.

“He was still on guard about a lot of things,” Yolanda said. “He knows that some of the family are more judgmental about his past. But at least they got to see each other.”

Gill has sought to slowly build rapport with his 40-year-old daughter from his first marriage and his fraternal twins, a 32-year-old son and daughter, from his second. His eldest daughter was 15 and the twins were 7 when he vanished from their lives.

Each of them has children of their own, and Gill recalled his first meeting last summer with his youngest daughter. She brought along her 4-year-old daughter, who rushed toward him, wrapped her arms around his legs and squeaked, “Grandpa!”

“It was beautiful to hear,” he said. He blew out a breath, eyes cast downward. “That’s a word I hadn’t heard in my life.”

Gill’s son wrote a letter to Obama last fall to thank him for commuting his father’s sentence. Meanwhile, among family members of thousands of other federal inmates who applied for clemency under the president’s 2014 initiative, the prevailing sentiment shades toward frustration.

The Justice Department laid out six criteria for inmates to qualify for consideration of clemency, and 33,000 men and women applied.

Some 9,000 prisoners met the basic standard as nonviolent offenders who have served more than 10 years of their sentence with good conduct, and who lack a significant criminal history or ties to large-scale criminal organizations.

Obama has granted clemency to 184 inmates amid a logjam of petitions in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an agency within the Justice Department.

Legal advocates have questioned the initiative’s slow pace and selection process, and earlier this month, Deborah Leff, who headed the office, announced her resignation.

“We honestly don’t know why a case is or isn’t granted clemency,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “Once a file goes to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, we don’t hear anything more.”

Many of the 184 inmates to receive clemency benefited from legal aid provided by defense lawyers. Gill was a team of one.

Prison imposed physical constraints that pushed his mind toward more bookish pursuits. In time, Gill, once the middle-school truant, evolved into a self-taught legal expert. He filed dozens of motions and writs on his own behalf, and hundreds more for fellow inmates.

His appeals failed but his clemency petition reached the president’s desk, and in a twist that might amuse the Bobby Gill of 1990, his experience as a prison lawyer has smoothed the transition to civilian life.

His legal skills enabled him to navigate two of the federal government’s largest agencies, Social Security and Veterans Affairs, to obtain retirement and health benefits within a few months of his release. (He has been diagnosed with hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder related to his Vietnam service.)

Most ex-convicts who served long prison terms struggle for years to find meaningful work. In December, seven months after coming back to San Antonio, Gill started a job as a paralegal with the criminal defense firm LaHood and Calfas.

He has brought several clients to the practice through contacts he made while living at Crosspoint, the halfway house on the East Side. Most are embroiled in divorce, child support and drunk driving cases.

“One of the things Bobby has is street credibility,” said attorney Neil Calfas, who learned about Gill from an investigator who works with the firm. “If someone is charged with a crime, they know he’s spent 25 years in prison. That allows him to be a buffer between the lawyers and the clients.”

As it happened, the firm hired Gill around the time that Family Endeavors, a nonprofit support services organization, helped him move into his own apartment. The one-bedroom unit on the Northwest Side, with barren white walls and only a few pieces of furniture, bears an institutional austerity.

For him, the space represents peace.

He can sleep later than 6:30 a.m. and take showers longer than three minutes. He never has to wait in line for the microwave or endure “Jeopardy” when he would rather watch CNN.

On a recent gray afternoon, Gill ignored an incoming call on his smartphone. The black rectangle writhed on the surface of his kitchen table, which stands in a dining nook roughly the size of his last prison cell in Mississippi.

He stared at the hi-tech artifact of his new existence as he pondered the dimensions of his old life.

“I wake up sometimes and I think, ‘Wow, man, I can’t believe I have all this space to myself,’” he said. “Sometimes that can make you feel a little alone. But what I see most of the time when I look around here is opportunity. I got a second chance.”

He’s home. He’s free.

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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