Tennessee man sent back to prison after release "worthy of a second chance"

Matthew Charles, a Tennessee man sent back to prison after his sentence was reduced by mistake, is planning to file for clemency next week. The 51-year-old was released in 2016 after spending 21 years in prison. But in March, a judge ordered him to return to prison and finish the rest of his 35 year sentence.

The push for his release comes as President Trump commuted the life sentence of Alice Johnson, a non-violent drug offender. Charles' case has been the subject of tweets from Chelsea Clinton and Kim Kardashian West.

After nearly two years of living as a free man, Charles is waking up in a county jail in Kentucky. He is waiting to be moved to federal prison where he will face another decade behind bars. While legally Charles should have never been released in 2016, those close to the father of two said he's already done his time, reports CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan.

"When you let someone out, you give them their freedom and then you just take it back, that's just grossly unfair," said John Hairston, Charles' longtime friend. Hairston said goodbye to Charles at an April going away party in Nashville. 
 
In 1996, Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison, in part, for selling crack cocaine. He served 21 years with no disciplinary infractions. During Charles' time in prison, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, lowering sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses. Charles appealed for a reduced sentence and was released in 2016.
 
Hairston said Charles came out a reformed man, reconnecting with his family, attending church and volunteering at a soup kitchen.
 
"He got a job, he got a vehicle, he got a place to stay… so he was really kind of getting his life back on track," Hairston said.
 
But in March, a Tennessee judge ordered Charles back to prison to finish his sentence.

"As it turned out, I was wrong," former Judge Kevin Sharp said. Sharp reduced Charles's sentence in 2016. Sharp said he made his decision based off an incomplete record that failed to show Charles as a career criminal.

"Based on the record in front of me… I would've made the same decision, but the record I had was incomplete," Sharp said.

Though career criminals are not eligible for reduced sentencing, Sharp believes Charles should be free.

"He has done sufficient time based on the crimes that he committed. I believe it's time to now release him," Sharp said.

But a May 30th filing by the Tennessee attorney general cited Charles' past drug convictions along with convictions of domestic assault, kidnapping, and shooting a man in the head. The filing also claimed his 2016 sentence was "unlawfully" reduced.
 
"He's not necessarily a poster child for someone that you would think of rehabilitating himself," former federal prosecutor Michael Cornacchia said, adding, "The fact that he got out for two years and showed that he was safe… is unusual."

"And that doesn't count for anything according to the law," Duncan said.

"According to the law, it doesn't matter," Cornacchia said. He said Charles' case is an anomaly.

"Do you think there's any fear that releasing someone early and they commit another crime then it looks bad on the Justice Department?" Duncan asked.

"Anytime someone is released after a lot of years for committing crimes of violence, there's always that they concern that they may commit a crime. But the longer they're in, the studies show they are less likely they are to resume a life of crime," Cornacchia said.

"It kind of shakes my trust in the justice system," Hairston said.

Hairston's friendship with Charles dates back more than two decades. They were prison cell mates in the '90s. Hairston got out in 2001 and the pair have kept in touch through dozens of emails and letters. One letter from May 11, 2015 read: "John, praise the lord brother, all is well with me. I'm spending time in God's Word and exercising every day."

Hairston said Charles called him from jail a few days ago.

"I think it's harder this time because he's been out, he's done well – he didn't do anything to merit going back," Hairston said.
 
Before turning himself in last month, Charles told National Public Radio he still believes in redemption.
 
"I didn't do it for the U.S. attorney's office to say, 'Charles has been a good boy, let's give him a break.' Here's a man who's changed, some see the changes he's made, other's won't even look at the changes. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to change back, you know what I mean? I'm going to continue to live out this new life... it's a great life," Charles said.

An attorney for Charles told us the commutation of Alice Johnson greatly encouraged him. In a statement after Johnson's commutation on Wednesday, Charles' attorney said: "Like Alice, Matthew Charles has also proven worthy of a second chance."

A GoFundMe page has been set up to support Charles' legal fees.