The error was made in a report used to sentence convicted drug dealer Ceasar Cantu of Katy, Texas, and resulted in 3 1/2 extra years being added to his prison term.
Obama took the extraordinary step of commuting Cantu's sentence from 15 years to 11 1/2 years. It's only the 10th time Obama has used his power to cut the sentence of federal inmates.
U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser, who sits on the bench in Danville, Va., last year dismissed Cantu's request to reduce his time because it wasn't filed within the one-year statute of limitations and his lawyer didn't object at the 2006 sentencing.
The White House said Obama decided to grant clemency because it was the only way to correct the mistake. "Given the circumstances of this case and the manifest injustice of keeping a person in federal prison for an extra three and a half years because of a typographical mistake, the president wanted to act as quickly as possible," said Obama press secretary Jay Carney. "This is a matter of basic fairness and it reflects the important role of clemency as a fail-safe in our judicial system."
Obama commuted only one sentence in his first term but last December cut prison time for eight inmates sentenced under old guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses harsher than those involving the powder form of the drug. Critics blamed the disparity for longer sentences being handed to black convicts, and Obama changed the sentencing standards for cases beginning in 2010.
Cantu's commutation came from a typo in the "base offense level" of his presentencing report - a numerical rating calculated by the court under federal sentencing guidelines that takes into consideration the crime's severity and the defendant's criminal history. The pre-sentence report correctly listed a level of 34 in one part of the report, but incorrectly listed it at 36 in the portion listing his recommended sentencing range.
"None of us made that connection in seeing the difference," Cantu's former attorney, John Weber, said in a telephone interview after Obama's announcement. "I'm happy that his sentence will be in the appropriate range of what it was supposed to be. Nobody wants mistakes."
Cantu pleaded guilty to trafficking marijuana and money laundering. Kiser noted at sentencing that although Cantu didn't have a criminal record, the quality of drugs involved in his case - 3,000 to 10,000 kilograms of marijuana - required that he be sentenced within the recommended guidelines.
Cantu said he didn't discover the error until six years later when he received a copy of the presentencing report from his family and accused Weber of ineffectively representing him. "By failing to object to this clear error, a manifestly unjust and prejudicial sentence was entered in my case," Cantu wrote in a motion he personally filed from Louisiana's Oakdale prison, where he is serving his time.
Kiser rejected Cantu's request and ruled that he could have reviewed the report as early as the day of his sentencing "if he had exercised due diligence."
"While I am sympathetic to petitioner's position, I am not permitted to disregard the law," Kiser wrote.