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No Compassionate Release for Bank Robber Turned Angel of Mercy at North Carolina BOP Lockup

As reported by the Atavaist on May 31, 2023, Gary Settle, a federal prisoner in North Carolina, has outlived his 18-month diagnosis with terminal prostate cancer—and is still in prison.

Settle is serving an unprecedented 177-year term for bank robberies he pulled off in Central Florida during the early 1990s. With a conviction for nine bank robberies, the sentencing judge threw the book at Settle when she applied the most draconian term permitted under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, legislation enacted to correct what politicians called “undue leniency” in the criminal justice system.

The Florida judge drew on precedent as well. In Deal v. United States (1993) the Supreme Court ruled that the harsher mandatory minimum should apply even in a single indictment, like Settle’s case. The 2,000-plus-month sentence is exceptionally extreme, however. Adeel Bashir, a federal public defender, said he “has only ever seen one other person get 2,000-plus months. To date, people ask … if Gary’s sentence is a typo.” But Settle’s sentence, while extreme, had an unexpected consequence: It converted him into an angel of mercy for terminally ill federal prisoners.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes severe sentencing and advocates for fair treatment of prisoners, sent out a newsletter in February 2019 that outlined historic changes to the compassionate release process for prisoners held by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which had been included in the First Step Act passed by Congress the previous December.

The legislation was dismally urgent because BOP rejected almost every request it received—90% of those processed between 2013 and 2017. That 2019 FAMM newsletter prompted an influx of inquiries from prisoners hoping for compassionate release, including one from Gary Settle, who wrote not for himself but on behalf of a fellow prisoner with terminal lung cancer. Settle managed to obtain release for the man, R. Smith, by using Smith’s prison email account anonymously and asking FAMM for help. Smith, who had been serving time for distributing drugs, was able to spend his last months with family.

Settle’s effort on behalf of Smith not only helped the cancer-stricken patient die in peace but was a turning point for FAMM’s work on compassionate release. Using it as a “blueprint for helping qualifying individuals,” FAMM created the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, which “recruited, trained, and supported lawyers representing sick or elderly prisoners requesting early release.” According to The Atavist, the Clearinghouse screened some 500 inquiries and placed more than 125 cases with lawyers in its first year.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Settle helped 19 prisoners obtain compassionate release. He continued helping his fellow prisoners at FMC-Butner and now is credited with an astonishing 42 compassionate releases. Diagnosed with the beginning of prostate cancer in 2016 he has taken hormone therapy treatment that has helped him battle the disease. During the pandemic, FAMM lawyers encouraged Settle to apply for compassionate release for himself, knowing that in his body’s weakened state he was susceptible to dying from the disease.

Federal defense attorneys Juliann Welch and Adeel Bashir filed three motions in federal court for the Middle District of Florida on behalf of Settle between January 2021 and May 2022. Judge Carlos Mendoza denied two of them, and he never saw the other —it was quashed by an assistant U.S. Attorney. The warden at FMC-Butner even recommended a compassionate release for Settle which the BOP Central Office overrode, despite a wave of contagion caused by the omicron variant that was racing through the prison.

As “Team Gary” worked diligently for Settle, his cancer progressed to Stage IV, yet he continued to help other prisoners obtain compassionate release while taking 39 pills a day to stay alive, and then 50 once he started chemo. In the last denied motion for Settle’s release at an unusual in-person hearing, Judge Mendoza claimed he saw “no examples of Settle’s rehabilitation” and found his statement of remorse “disingenuous.” The judge allowed no comments before ending the hearing.

With his path to compassionate release closed, Settle’s only chance not to die in prison is clemency. Although aware that only 2% of petitions are approved after years of moving through the federal pipeline, Settle decided to petition with the help of his friends at FAMM. But he maintained his belief in compassionate release, calling it “a process I trust and believe in that failed me.”   

Source: The Atavist

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