GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As the nation calls for change in pursuit of racial equity, a West Michigan woman hopes to harness the momentum to give a childhood friend a chance at freedom.
“With everything that’s been going on in the world right now, everybody is on fire, so I’m like, ‘What about Eugene?'” explained Brittany Adams, who attended middle and high school with Eugene Atkins.
Atkins, now 35, is serving life without parole in federal prison for delivering the heroin that killed a Grandville teenager in 2004.
“It would just be such a beautiful thing for him to get a second chance,” said Adams, who recently created a Change.org petition in support of Atkin’s bid for clemency.
In one week, the petition garnered 3,349 signatures.
“After I saw the shares and support we got from Change.org, I was like, ‘I’m ready to help and fight for a childhood friend,'” she said.
Atkins was 19 years old when he sold heroin to two teenagers at the corner of Logan Street and Ethel Avenue SE in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood.
By the next morning, Dec. 15, 2004, 17-year-old Matt McKinney of Grandville was dead.
In 2006, Atkins was convicted in federal court for selling the heroin that caused McKinney’s accidental overdose. Under federal statute, the charge carries mandatory life in prison because Atkins had a prior felony conviction for selling cocaine.
Federal law does not allow for parole on life offenses. That means unless a president grants his request for clemency, Atkins will die in prison.
ATKINS’ MOM NOT OPTIMISTIC ABOUT RELEASE
Atkins’ family members, who only recently met Adams, are grateful for her help.
Atkin’s mom and some siblings still live in Grand Rapids. It’s been 10 years since the family managed to visit Atkins, who is serving his time 1,000 miles away in a federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana.
The United States Penitentiary at Pollock is a high-security prison for men.
“People say, ‘Well, at least you can go see him.’ But it’s not the same because I have to leave him there,” Atkins’ mother Felicia Sims said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see him again, if I’ll get a call that he’s been killed in there or something.”
Sims knows her son must pay a price for his crime, but feels life without parole is unfair, especially given the circumstances surrounding the fatal overdose.
The friend who drove Matt McKinney to purchase the heroin, Chris Perrin, later left him with a blanket in a car overnight as McKinney weaved in and out of consciousness before taking his last breath.
Perrin ultimately cut a deal with federal prosecutors for lying to police and served two years behind bars.
He died of a heroin overdose himself in February 2015. He was 29.
Atkins has lost several appeals and applied to have his sentence commuted. His case is listed as “pending” in the federal pardon database. So are the cases of thousands of other prisoners seeking sentence reductions.
So far, President Donald Trump has granted 25 pardons and commuted the sentences of 10 prisoners, including Alice Johnson. Johnson was serving life for a drug offense until Kim Kardashian visited the White House to advocate for the grandmother’s release.
Felicia Sims is not optimistic her son will gain the same attention.
“I just don’t see them letting him go,” she said. “The day the trial was over, when they found him guilty, I felt like I had attended his funeral.”
But she’s also keenly aware that Matt McKinney’s parents actually did attend their son’s funeral.
“I especially felt for Matt’s mom, losing a child.”
McKinney’s mom Mary has honored her poetry-writing, animal-loving, forever 17-year-old son by speaking publicly to remove stigma surrounding addiction and push for better access to treatment.
She declined to comment to Target 8 about Atkins’ request for clemency.
US ATTORNEY: ‘FEDERAL LAW IS CLEAR’ ABOUT LIFE FOR DEALING
The United States Attorney’s Office for Western Michigan would not speak on camera for this report, but did provide a lengthy statement outlining the clemency process, as well as details regarding Atkin’s prosecution.
“The Department of Justice Office of the Pardon Attorney reviews formal petitions, gathers relevant material and, when appropriate, forwards the petition and supporting material to the office that prosecuted the case and solicits input,” wrote Andrew Birge, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. “I have not received a solicitation from the Pardon Attorney regarding a petition from Mr. Eugene Atkins. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of clemency in a particular case outside of that process and without reviewing the full formal petition with all of its supporting materials.”
Birge went on to write that his office gives such petitions “serious and thoughtful review” especially regarding “victim impact, demonstrated rehabilitation while in custody or any refusal to accept guilt or minimize culpability.”
“As for the underlying prosecution and conviction of Mr. Atkins, there is an extensive public record, the evidence was overwhelming and his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt affirmed on appeal,” wrote Birge, who also noted that Atkins was offered plea deals to avoid a life sentence but ultimately withdrew an initial plea and went to trial instead.
Birge pointed out that Chris Perrin cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to lying to police, which is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
Birge also shared with Target 8 a portion of the government’s argument at Atkin’s sentencing:
“Eugene Atkins made a series of bad decisions,” it reads. “He decided to become a heroin dealer while still on felony probation for dealing cocaine. He delivered daily fixes to over a dozen known users, including people still in high school. He had a seventeen year old friend assist him in his drug business. He delivered the heroin which killed Matt McKinney. And he decided to deny responsibility for his actions; to eschew the advice of experienced and well-intended counsel; to ignore warnings from judges; to forgo repeated and reasonable plea offers; and to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial.”
“Federal law is clear; it provides for mandatory life sentences for persons previously convicted of drug dealing who deal drugs that kill someone. … The best way to avoid the harsh reality of federal law is to not deal drugs,” Birge wrote in his statement to Target 8.
DID RACE MATTER IN ATKINS’ CASE?
In a 2012 letter to McKinney’s family, Atkins apologized for his role in their son’s death and wrote, “the right and mature thing to do at the time was to come to terms with myself, apologize and accept my prison time. I was just too caught up in the media and the different influences that were going on.”
In May 2006, after Atkins was convicted, but before his sentencing, supporters staged protests, chanting, “Free Eugene.”
Among those who spoke out on the defendant’s behalf was a member of a movement known as “Millions More.”
“Pursuit of justice is not equally distributed among whites and blacks,” Kenneth Muhammad declared to television cameras in 2006.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons says that as of June 2020, nearly 46% of federal prisoners were behind bars for drug offenses. About 2.8% of the total federal prison population, or 4,373 inmates, are serving life sentences, and about 30% of those have drug-related offenses.
According to 2015 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 39% of drug offenders held in federal prison are black.
Federal prosecutors said race played no part in the prosecution of Atkins, but his family believes otherwise.
“I just feel like had it been my son who overdosed, it probably wouldn’t have even went to court. It probably would have just been ruled an accidental overdose,” said Felicia Sims, Atkins’ mother. “Nothing was being done about the people who were dying in the inner city of overdoses. Nothing was being done here.”
BROTHER: ‘WE HAD TO BE TOUGH’
Atkins’ younger brother Patrick Wright wishes people understood what he and his siblings faced growing up in some of Grand Rapids’ gritty southeast side neighborhoods.
“When you walked around that neighborhood, people would take advantage of you, and that does something to your mind,” Wright explained.
In the 1990s, Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood was plagued by a deadly, drug-dealing gang known as the Wealthy Street Boys. In 1997, prosecutors issued warrants for a dozen people tied to the gang and police confiscated $48,000, assault rifles, semi-automatic weapons and hollow-point bullets.
At the time, then Grand Rapids Police Chief William Hegarty said his department had identified 11 homicides that may have been connected to the group of suspects or individuals within it.
Atkins’ childhood home — he was 12 years old in 1997 — was one block south of Wealthy. His mother was a single mom working two jobs and trying to keep up with five children.
“It turns you into a different person. My mom, she didn’t raise us to be those type of people, but at the time, in the neighborhood we grew up in in the ’90s, we had to be those people. We had to be tough, and selling drugs was a part of it,” Wright said. “We needed the money (too). Mom worked two jobs. We’d see her struggle. We didn’t want to be like, ‘Ma, we need this, Ma, we need that.’ We had to jump off the porch, go out there and get it ourselves.”
Wright said he started to go down that path, too, but changed course after witnessing what happened to his older brother.
“Nobody intends for somebody to die when you’re selling drugs,” he said. “We knew it was wrong. He knew it was wrong, but I know he didn’t mean for Matt McKinney to die.”
Felicia Sims wishes desperately that someone will give her son a chance to show that he can be a productive citizen.
“I just hope that Matt McKinney’s mom can find it in her heart to forgive him for his part in it,” said Atkins’ mom.
For now, when Sims talks to her son by phone, she sometimes ends the call by saying, “See you in my dreams.”
“Like I tell him, ‘We go to the beach in my dreams.’ We go visit somewhere… together,” she said tearfully.
On the front of a homemade Mother’s Day card, Atkins pasted a picture of a tropical paradise and wrote, “Mom, just thought a tropical island would be nice for Mother’s Day. See you when I get back.”