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Northam lessens sentence for man with nonviolent drug charges from life to 20 years

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Gov. Ralph Northam reduced from life to 20 years the sentence of a Black man convicted of non-violent drug offenses under a state “continuing criminal enterprise” law.

Jesse James Dunaway Jr. was convicted in Halifax County in 2006.

In his early 20s, he sold crack and drugs with friends in the rural South Boston area, said his lawyer, Jon Sheldon. He was convicted of attempted manufacture of marijuana, conspiracy to distribute less than half an ounce of marijuana and organizing a “continuing criminal enterprise.”

The case was not serious enough for federal law enforcement’s interest, Sheldon said, and Dunaway’s friends pleaded guilty. But Dunaway would not, and received the mandatory life sentence for a continuing criminal enterprise.

The charges should have warranted a prison sentence of about six years, Sheldon said.

“We couldn’t find anybody who got more than 20 years for what he had done,” he said.

And Sheldon said his research did not turn up others convicted under that law.

A conditional pardon signed by Northam on Dec. 17 says Dunaway will be released on June 1, 2025, giving him about 20 years to serve. He will be on supervised probation for three years after that. Sheldon said Dunaway feared he would die in prison and now looks forward to someday seeing his children outside prison.

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com; (804) 649-6061; Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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