Commuting Wis. man’s sentence, Obama reopens debate on fairness

No Minnesotans were on the list of commuted sentences of individuals President Barack Obama said bore the brunt of overly harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

But Steven Donovan of Oak Creek, Wis., received a commutation of his 1992 life sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine; interstate travel to promote distribution of cocaine; possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

The 1994 denial by the U.S. Court of Appeals for a rehearing tells a little more of the story.

Donovan was brought into a cocaine ring by his brother, Vincent. The drug money was to be used to finance Vincent’s stock-car and drag-racing career.

During the last half of the 1980s, Vince Donovan, an erstwhile automobile racer, orchestrated an extensive scheme to distribute cocaine in and around Milwaukee. Donovan’s scheme took off in 1985 when he was introduced to a major Columbian drug supplier in Florida. At that time, he bought a few ounces of cocaine. In 1986, Vince brought his brother Steve with him to meet his Florida supplier. At that meeting, Vince Donovan’s plan to sell cocaine accelerated as the three men discussed the possibility of conducting large cocaine transactions to facilitate the Donovans’ drug trade in Milwaukee. Following this meeting, the Florida supplier flew to Milwaukee to evaluate Vince Donovan’s operation in Milwaukee in order to confirm that it was an appropriate outlet for his cocaine. In Milwaukee, the Donovans explained to the Florida supplier that each had separate cocaine customers, but worked together in other aspects of the cocaine business. Apparently, the Donovans’ operation satisfied the Florida supplier; he agreed to provide cocaine to the Donovan team.

Steven Donovan got the life term because he’d already had two felony drug convictions in state court, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 1992.

He’d also been charged in December 1991 with threatening to kill a witness at his federal drug trial.

But perhaps what makes Steven Donovan’s sentence appear more unfair, is the sentence his brother — the ringleader — got. He was sentenced to 17 years. His attempt to get a new trial was turned aside in 1997.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” President Obama said in announcing the commutations today. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would’ve already served their time.”