A Judge Sentenced Him to Life, Then Fought to Set Him Free

Chris Young was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 22 due to mandatory minimum laws, after a third nonviolent drug-related conviction in 2010. Kevin Sharp was the federal judge who handed down that sentence and who later resigned from his lifelong judicial appointment. He then worked with Young’s legal team to overturn the sentence. Sharp and Young join Michel Martin to tell their story.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Right. Well, we’ll keep following that. Listen, it’s great that we’ve had you both on, Ahdaf Soueif and Amna Guellali, thank you so much for being with us to give us this update. And we have talked about how many people have been swept up in the prison dragnet in Egypt. In America, mass incarceration has been long been synonymous with the United States, and many of the stories are simply extraordinary. Take for instance Chris Young who was sentenced to life in prison at age 22 due to mandatory minimum laws after a third non-violent drug-related conviction, that was in 2010. Kevin Sharp was the federal judge who handed down that sentence and who later resigned from his lifelong judicial appointment. But in a twist, he went on to work with Young’s legal team to overturn that sentence. They petitioned for clemency, which in fact President Trump granted in his final hours in office. Here is our Michel Martin talking to them both about the lifechanging impact they have had on each other.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thank you, Christiane. And Judge Kevin Sharp, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: And, Chris Young, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Chris Young, how did you come to be at Judge Sharp’s courtroom?

YOUNG: There were poor decisions, decisions that I now know could have been made that was better. But unfortunately, that those poor decisions was like fertilizers that blossomed a beautiful relationship between me and Judge Sharp.

MARTIN: Could I just dig a little bit deeper into that, and I don’t want to, you know, go into too much detail, but it is my understanding that you kind of had a rough go of it, growing up, and not a lot of parental support. You and your brother kind of on your own. Is that about right?

YOUNG: Yes, ma’am. My mother, unfortunately, suffer from a drug addiction and that led to my brother being more than a brother. He had to be a big brother, a father and a mother, which is a lot of stress and pressure for a young man. And unfortunately, he took his own life in 2007, the first day, January 1, 2007.

MARTIN: Well, we share that experience. So, I experience you sharing that. How did you — you had had some run-ins with the law prior to getting into Judge Sharp’s courtroom. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

YOUNG: Yes, ma’am. The month after my 18th birthday I had got pulled over riding with another young man, and I had some drugs the on my person. And then literally within the next 12 months, probably 9 to 10 months later, I got pulled over again, and it was some crumbs in my carpet. Unfortunately, those crumbs were illegal substances and that led to my second felony arrest that helped me get the mandatory minimum of the life sentence.

MARTIN: So, by the time you got the Judge Sharp’s courtroom, these were all nonviolent offenses. Am I right?

YOUNG: Yes, ma’am.

MARTIN: And it just so happened that this was the third strike. Is that right?

YOUNG: Yes, ma’am.

MARTIN: Even though it was small amounts of drugs? And, Judge Sharp, you are saying this was part of this very sort of complex case. As briefly as you can, what was Chris Young’s role in this conspiracy?

SHARP: Well, that’s one of the things that so bothered me about this case, because his role was very tangential in what is going on in a larger drug conspiracy, where you had 32 people. And the way conspiracies are prosecuted, you don’t have to know, if you are one of the defendants, you don’t have to know who is involved, who don’t have to know what is going on in order to be swept up in the conspiracy. And so, Chris’ role was really on the fringes. He was probably the most minor player. And so, you know, that is one of the things that really disturbed me as we go into this case. And his co-defendants are pleading guilty. The average sentence for most everyone by agreement, the average was about 14 years. And these were the major players in this. Yet, they were getting 14 years, how is it that Chris Young is getting life? And that had to do with a lot of the decisions that led to him deciding to take this to trial instead of pleading out.

MARTIN: Chris, can you go back to that? Why did you decide to go to trial along with the other, as Judge Sharp put it, minor players? Why is that?

YOUNG: I felt that if possible, some of the case laws could play in my favor and I could get a lower sentence due to the fact that the charges could be reduced. I understood I did something wrong and I was willing to plead guilty but I was not willing to plead guilty to a crime that I was not the most culpable defendant and I understood that I was facing a long time but agreeing to a long time was equal to getting a long time at trial. So, I said, let me take my chances, and I believed hopefully the case would play in my favor, the law was not in my favor, but there’s various cases that have been ruled in certain ways that they call case laws and I was hoping they will play in my favor and I would get the charges reduced and get a lower sentence.

MARTIN: What made you want to fight?

YOUNG: My love for me. Unfortunately, when I was in the streets doing the things I was doing, I did not love me because you cannot love yourself if you are willing to sacrifice yourself. And as I learned that and as I began to actually care about me and love me, I wanted the judicial system to realize that I’m a human being, I am part of humanity. I’m not just something you can throw away. I’m not just something that can be discarded and disregarded. So, I wanted to go to trial, and I wanted them to realize that I am a human being that has worth and value. Unfortunately, I lost, but I am very fortunate and blessed that in my sentencing, Judge Sharp and other people in their courtroom began to see me as more and more of a human being that is valuable to humanity and society.

MARTIN: So, how did you prepare for the sentencing? What was on your mind as you were getting ready for that day?

YOUNG: The main thing on my mind was there’s no getting around this. You are getting a life sentence. But with getting this life sentence, I could begin a new life. I could begin the show the world that I shouldn’t have a life sentence and I that should not die in prison. And that if given the opportunity and chance, I could be beneficial to the world. So, it was no changing the life sentence, but what I was hoping and what I did attempt to do was to change the minds of everyone in that courtroom about if I deserve the life sentence.

MARTIN: Judge Sharp, did you know you were going to be handing out a life sentence that day? When you went to court that day, I assume you have a docket, you know what’s on it, and I was just wondering what is it like for you that day when you got up and went to court?

SHARP: Well, you know, I knew that when he went to trial what he was facing. I knew if he was found guilty there was a mandatory life sentence and I knew that during the trial. As I am presiding over this trial, I also know at the end, he’s going to be found guilty. Chris has admitted that he did the things that he says he did. What he did not deserve for that was a life sentence. But I knew that was happening and I knew that was happening that day. And my recollection is that I did not have anything else on the docket that day. I don’t believe I did anything but to think about Chris. When Chris started to allocate every criminal defendant as they’re being sentence, before they are sentenced, has an opportunity to speak to the court and say whatever they want to say. And usually, it’s not much. They may say they’re sorry, they may wave that altogether, they may speak a little bit to their family, but Chris stood up and started talking about all of the things that he would do if and when he gets out. And I — my initial reaction is, what are you talking about, we both know you are not getting out. I haven’t said life in prison yet but I will when you’re done. But then I began to realize exactly what he was doing and he was successful. I started to realize, what a waste. This is — you know, I intuitively knew that but then when Chris stands up and starts talking about history and starts talking about his own history, the history of this country, historical figures in world history and then what he would do were he not going to die in prison, it was, you know, like a lightning bolt, what in the world are we doing? This man doesn’t deserve life. He deserves punishment. And let me mete out that punishment. Because one of the things that I found frustrating was that all of the work and investigations and vetting that it takes to become a judge to make sure that they are putting the right person in that position. The most important thing being, that I have the judgment to make these kinds of decisions. And then instead what you do is you take that discretion away from me and you give it to someone else knowing nothing about the human being that I am about to sentence. And so, that was what really struck me as this process was going on and Chris spoke for at least 45 minutes, maybe more. And then we started to engaging in a conversation, which I had never done with a defendant before. I may say something here or there, acknowledge them, acknowledge what they say, but not engage in conversations and then we started talking about music and books, and he was a human being.

MARTIN: What were you doing there? Is it that you just could not let it go or you just could not stand what was about to happen? What were you doing?

SHARP: Delaying the inevitable.

MARTIN: You wanted to give him a few more minutes as human being?

SHARP: Right.

MARTIN: Judge, you did something remarkable after that. You actually left the bench in part because of this. Do you want to tell me about that? What — tell me what was going through your mind.

SHARP: Well, you know, Chris was not the only one. There were lots of sentences that I thought were unfair, mandatory minimums, took away the discretion that you hire me to do, and I became a messenger, and I had to decide where I am most useful? And the answer could have been staying on the bench and complaining every time I had to do something like this, or it could have been step down and take this on. And it really could have gone either way except that there was a law firm out there that said, we want you, we want you to come work with us, and we’re going to give you the platform and the opportunity to talk about these things and make a living and take care of your family. And so, that is what I did. I mean, I could have stayed. I just — when I had to think, am I more valuable to society on the bench or off of the bench, I came to decision that it was off of the bench.

MARTIN: Chris, what happened? At some point, you had to have heard that Judge Sharp had stepped down after your case. Do you remember how you heard about that and what you thought when you did?

SHARP: Yes, ma’am. I logged in to check my e-mails and I had one from an auntie and a friend and then another friend who’s actually a journalist who did an article on me. And all of the subject lines kept saying, you are in the paper, you are in the paper. Judge Sharp is speaker about you. So, I hurried up and clicked into the message and it was breathtaking. It was the best part of not only that day, not just that week or that month, but of my whole incarceration. It was something that empowered me and galvanized me to feel like, OK, I got some more fight in me. Let’s go. Let’s win this and get out.

MARTIN: So, Judge Sharp, you stepped down from the bench. How did you get involved in Chris’ case?

SHARP: Well, it is interesting. When I stepped down, I heard almost immediately from Brittany. Mrs. Barnett called me. Said, I read the story, there have been at several articles about this, and she had read one of them and she was taking on Chris’ case and asked if I would help and get involved, and the answer was, of course. And look, if you need me to go through the trial transcript and figure out what I did wrong, I will do it. Now, I have been through it before and I can’t — I don’t see where I did anything improper or wrong in the trying of this case, made any rulings that we’re going to make a difference and no one found those. But I told her look, if you see them, I don’t see them. If you see them, let me know and I’ll fall on my sword in a heartbeat. If I made a mistake, let’s fix it. We didn’t see that. But as she started to filling up clemency paperwork, I came in, helped her with that, submitted my own letter asking the president for clemency.

MARTIN: And you actually went to the White House, as I understand it, to lobby along with Kim Kardashian West and lobbied President Trump for clemency for — not just for Chris Young, but I guess to also to elevate the whole issue around mandatory minimums. How did that happen?

SHARP: Kim Kardashian got involved through Brittany. The — in the September of ’18, she got me an invitation to a roundtable meeting at the White House led by Jared Kushner on the issue of clemency. In general, how this process works, what is wrong with this process, and that meeting lasted for about an hour-and-a-half. And really, I looked around the room and though, you know, you have got some of the best minds on this.

MARTIN: And just fast forward though, this was one of President Trump’s last acts in office, right, as I am understanding it in January.

SHARP: Right.

MARTIN: So, just, Chris, take me back to that. How did you find out that, in fact, your clemency petition had been approved and you would be free? How did you find out?

YOUNG: Well, Mrs. Brittany (INAUDIBLE) had won an argument through the courts to get my sentenced corrected to 14 years, which makes me no longer classified as a maximum-security inmate. So, due to COVID-19, I couldn’t be transferred so they could put me in the SHU, which is the Segregated Housing Unit. Most guys in prison call it the hole. And we called it the hole for a reason because, unfortunately, it’s like you’re in a dungeon. So, I am hungry and I’m waiting on lunch. So, when I heard some keys, I know it’s a guard coming, so I’m thinking it’s lunch. I was very surprised to see it was a lieutenant and he was smiling really hard. He was saying, Young, do you want good news? I said, what? What are you talk about? He said, are you going to cry? I said what are you talking about? He said, I was to tell you you’re going home right now, would you cry? I said, if it don’t come out right now, it’s going to come eventually. But yes, I’m going to cry. And he said, well, come on, man, you got immediate release. When he unlocked that hole that they feed us through, he said, come on, man. Cuff up, man. You’re getting ready to go home, it was breathtaking to the point where I honestly think that I did hold my breath for about four or five minutes. It took me to get up there in R&D to get processed, to get released for me to realize that it is real and to breath and take my time and absorb it.

MARTIN: Judge, you were there when Mr. Young came out. What was that like?

SHARP: That — you know, the last time I had seen Chris, he was in an orange jumpsuit, and I was telling him that his life sentence was imposed. Now, I saw him coming out in civilian clothes and his fresh haircut and a big smile on his face as he is coming down the terminal at the airport, you know, that was one — give me a hug. This is an unbelievable moment.

MARTIN: Chris, what about you? What went through your mind when you saw, of all people, of all people, Judge Sharp standing there?

YOUNG: I have held back tears during this interview and almost every time I’ve seen him, because the level of courage and temerity it took to speak out in my behalf, like I told him, he is changing the world, because he is helping break stereotypes, he’s helping break barriers. How many times have you seen an older white male speak out on the behalf of a younger black male who did something wrong? I did commit crimes. But he seen past that and understand that I was a human. He understood that I was conscious, that I needed to change some ways. And he understood that my acknowledgment led to my improvement, and he seen me as the human being I was and value. So, when I actually seen him, I was ecstatic. I was emotional. I have cried several times due to the fact of his support and the hard work of Ms. Brittany K. Barnett and the attention and the excitement that Kim Kardashian has brought, and due to the fact of seeing my niece. When I left, she was eight years old, now, she is 19 years old. So, went from a child to a young lady. I’ve cried over the guys that I had to leave behind, unfortunately, because I’m not the only person who was buried alive. That’s why Ms. Brittany K. Barnett has the Buried Alive Project because we need to reach back and dig those people (INAUDIBLE) because they’re living waiting to die, unfortunately, for something that is not worth being killed over.

MARTIN: Kevin Sharp, Your Honor, Chris Young, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SHARP: Thank you for giving us the time.

YOUNG: Yes, ma’am, it was an honor.

About This Episode EXPAND

Marty Baron joins Christiane for his first television interview since announcing he will step down as The Washington Post’s executive editor. Ahdaf Soueif and Ahdaf Soueif reflect on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring. Former prisoner Chris Young and former judge Kevin Sharp discuss the criminal justice system.