Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge incumbent candidate Ralph Van Pelt Jr. talks before a debate at Dade County Public Library on Thursday, April 19, 2018, in Trenton, Ga. Multiple candidates across several races were in attendance for the forum, which precedes the May 22 primary election.

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — Keeping in line with a statewide trend, lawyers had hoped to free a Chattooga County man today who is serving 30 years for selling less than a gram of cocaine. But now they're not so confident.

As they have in 20 other successful cases, attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a motion asking Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. to send William Henry Adams home, arguing that he received an unusually long prison sentence for a non-violent drug offense. In 1997, a jury convicted Adams, 55, of two counts of possession of cocaine and two counts of sale of cocaine.

Because he had been convicted of three previous felonies, the prosecutor could demand that Adams receive the harshest possible punishment. That meant three decades in state prison without the possibility of parole. He is not scheduled for release until 2027.

But in a filing last month, attorneys Jon Dennis, Atteyah Hollie and Kate Morris lobbied Van Pelt to reconsider the sentence. They said there were two ways he could do it. He could grant an extraordinary motion for a new sentencing hearing. Or he could rule the first sentence was unconstitutional, immediately triggering a new sentencing hearing.

In their filing, they wrote that Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin did not oppose their request. The attorneys were supposed to make arguments in front of Van Pelt in Chattooga County today. But last Wednesday, Van Pelt decided they didn't need to bother. He issued an order denying their request.

"The issues raised by this request are not truly issues for judicial consideration," he wrote. "It is a matter for the Legislature to provide a means to reduce a sentence under these facts."

Other judges have not seen the issue the same way. Hollie and Morris told the Times Free Press on Friday that they have been stymied in cases like this only when the local prosecutor opposes the motion.

"We've never had a judge deny us relief, like what we're seeing here," Hollie said. "The DA is consenting to the motion."

State statutes

Adams' long sentence is steeped in Georgia's recidivism law, which can force judges to impose decades-long sentences for what may otherwise be relatively minor crimes. A prosecutor has discretion on whether to pursue the enhanced punishment, Hollie said.

In Adams' case, court files show, he was convicted of burglary in 1981, obstruction of an officer in 1989, interference with government property in 1990 and possession of cocaine in 1992.

But some prosecutors are less likely to pursue advanced punishment now than they were two decades ago, as mainstream politicians decry crowded prisons and the war on drugs' generational damage to minority communities. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal has advocated for reforms that attempt to keep non-violent offenders out of prison.

In 2012, the state legislature passed a law that curbed the effects of the recidivism statute. According to the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, a non-violent offender could be eligible for parole after 12 years. If the reform had been in place when Adams was convicted, he would have been eligible for parole in 2009.

"The trend in Georgia is clear," his lawyers wrote in their motion June 12. "Lengthy, non-parolable sentences are viewed by legislators, prosecutors and judges as excessive punishment for people convicted of common nonviolent drug offenses."

Trying to undo the past

Lawyers with the Southern Center for Human Rights began looking at these cases in 2012, when they learned about Wilmart Martin Jr.'s sentence in Evans County. Because of his history of felony convictions, a judge sentenced Martin to life without the possibility of parole for possession of 3.4 grams of cocaine with the intent to distribute.

With the cooperation of the local district attorney, a judge changed Martin's sentence in February 2015 to the time he had already served in prison. He was released from custody.

Since then, Hollie said, the organization has successfully lobbied for the release of 20 inmates, including 10 who were serving life sentences. Hollie said they find some defendants through a list of inmates in the Georgia Department of Corrections' prison system. Other referrals come from family and friends.

In 2017, the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council started its own review, asking district attorneys across the state to figure out how many people were serving long sentences for non-violent, drug convictions under the recidivism statute. In particular, they wanted to see who would have been eligible for parole under the 2012 law change.

"The District Attorneys of Georgia believed this exercise was necessary to ensure that no offender who could have technically qualified for these new considerations for parole was not serving an unreasonable sentence," the unnamed author of a report by the Council wrote.

Overall, according to a report released last year, prosecutors found 274 inmates in the state serving more than 10 years for recidivist drug offenses. On average, those defendants had 26-year sentences.

Looking at cases from the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, which includes Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties, Franklin found 28 such cases. The council asked the prosecutors to review the cases and report back. Franklin did not respond by the time the report was published.

In the Conasauga Judicial Circuit, which covers Murray and Whitfield counties, District Attorney Bert Poston found six cases. But of those, he told the council five were not good candidates for release, based on the nature of their offense and their criminal histories.

But he saw one case that would be a good fit. James Milton Dennard was convicted of possession of cocaine in Whitfield County in May 1989, August 1989 and December 1991. When he was convicted of possession with intent to distribute 6 grams of cocaine in 1994, a judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole.

But in a hearing last year, Poston told Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris that the punishment didn't make sense.

"With a fresh look at the case from a 2017 perspective and looking at the equity of that," Poston said, "we have agreed to a change in that sentence."

Morris granted the motion for a new sentence and gave Dennard credit for time he had already spent in prison. He was sent home.

"If you do well," Morris told him, "some other folks may get some opportunities. And if you don't do well, they may not. So there's a lot — there's a lot riding on you, Mr. Dennard."

Legal arguments

In Adams' case, his lawyers say Van Pelt can grant what is called an extraordinary motion. This occurs when there's not any specific law that allows for a hearing in a case — but the lawyers say there's a special, urgent reason a judge needs to hear their arguments. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council, said the classic example is when attorneys discover new evidence in an old case.

But in his ruling, Van Pelt said he didn't see any special reason to revisit Adams' punishment. If the state wants to free inmates serving long sentences on the recidivism statute, he said, lawmakers need to create a clear legal path.

"A remedy for the Defendants' problems can be obtained from only one place," he wrote. "The Georgia Legislature."

Adams' lawyers also argue that Van Pelt can declare the sentence cruel and unusual punishment. And if that's the case, the sentence is unconstitutional. And if it's unconstitutional, Van Pelt can declare it void. Then, he can give Adams a new sentence.

First, the attorneys said the sentence is unconstitutional because it is "grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime." They pointed out that Deal and other state lawmakers are working to keep non-violent offenders out of prison. Twenty years ago, the lawyers said, that group made up 43 percent of prison inmates. Now, they represent 33 percent.

Second, the attorneys said the sentence is out of line from others in the jurisdiction. Of 221 prison inmates convicted in Chattooga County, only six are serving longer sentences than Adams. Three were convicted of murder. The other three were convicted of child molestation.

Last, the attorneys argued the sentence is out of line for the crime. Of 118 people released from prison last year after cocaine offenses, they wrote, the average sentence was 3-1/2 years.

Still, in his ruling, Van Pelt said the attorneys did not convince him that Adams' sentence is unconstitutional. Their filing made an argument, he wrote, "but otherwise cites no (legal) authority."

After Van Pelt's order, Adams' lawyers filed another motion Thursday, requesting that he hear them out in person in Chattooga County today. As of Friday afternoon, they had not heard from him.

"The court has not ruled on that motion," Hollie said.

And what if they don't hear from him by today?

"We're hoping to hear from the judge," she said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.