Kansas Man Granted Clemency By Obama Adjusts To Freedom After 28 Years In Prison

Jan 19, 2017

On his last full day in office, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 330 drug offenders. That brings the total number of prisoners whose sentences were commuted under Obama to nearly 1700 -- more than the 11 previous presidents combined.

Richard Reser is one of those 1700. He returned to Topeka in December and recently spoke to Wichita Eagle reporter Oliver Morrison about how he's adjusting to life after prison.

Freedom tastes sweet for Reser: For the first time in 28 years, he fills his cupboards and fridge with food of his own.

There's soda and milk, eggs, Hot Pockets, peanut butter, ketchup. Although the food he buys from Walmart isn’t that different than prison food, he says, now, it’s his food. The guards used to be able to take his belongings.

Now, he’s free to spend his time the way he wants. But he spends most of his days in a single room by himself, watching TV. He is 71 years old.

Reser sits in his Topeka home, where he spends much of his time. He takes six pills a day and relies on an oxygen tank to get around.
Credit Oliver Morrison / The Wichita Eagle

Reser has had two heart surgeries and takes 6 pills a day -- for his thyroid, for heartburn, a cholesterol pill at bedtime, and "an aspirin a day to keep the doctor away," he says.

He straps an oxygen tank to his back to help his breathing. He takes tiny steps to his bus stop, a block away. He stares out of the window at buildings he doesn’t recognize.

"I see some places [and think] oh, yeah, I sheet-rocked those apartment buildings or this and that, I recognize that," he says. "But like Walmart out west, it was just being built when I went to prison."

That was back in 1989. That’s the last time Reser was free.

In those days, Reser would pick up his two teenagers at his ex-wife’s house in Topeka. One afternoon he took them out for hamburgers and dropped them back at their mom’s afterward.

But instead of heading back to Wichita, he went out drinking. And sometimes when he drank, he’d take speed too.

"I was a hard worker and everything going, but sometimes you just fall into the wrong kind of tracks, following somebody else, and go down the wrong road for a little bit," he says.

Reser met someone at the bar who told him that he was looking for some methamphetamine.

"I said, 'I don't know, I'll check,'" Reser remembers. "Guy says, 'Well, I'll give you $300 if you can do something."

"Sometimes you just fall into the wrong kind of tracks, following somebody else, and go down the wrong road for a little bit."

Reser knew it was risky: He had done it 12 years before. He was caught and sent to prison for three years.

But this time, that $300 sounded too good.

"I almost talked myself out of it," Reser says. "But I needed some money. If I get that $300 I can get this, or pay a bill or something."

The police started following him, so Reser pulled over, got out of his car and started walking away through a field. The man who wanted the drugs turned out to be a police informant.

"He came across the field with his car and said, 'Hey, stop or I'll shoot,'" Reser says. "And so I stopped."

He wanted to plea to a five- or 10-year sentence. But this was in 1989, in the middle of Reagan’s war on drugs. Congress had just toughened the minimum penalties for drug crimes.

"I did wrong, and like I said in the courts, I know I did wrong," Reser says. "The prosecutor says, 'Nah, we're giving you 40 years, you're not cooperating.'"

Reser, left, in the prison library. He says he spent hours there trying to figure out a way to cut short his 40-year sentence.
Credit Courtesy Richard Reser

When Richard Reser started serving his 40-year sentence, the U.S. held fewer than 800,000 prisoners. Today that number is closer to 2.2 million.

Congressional representatives from both parties had proposed legislation to help reduce the prison population. But the legislation languished.

Reser had served 28 years of his sentence when he was told that a “visitor” had come to see him.

But it wasn’t a visitor; it was the warden.

"He introduced himself," Reser says. "[He said,] 'Mr. Reser, I got good news. Mr. Obama just give you clemency.' I said, 'Wow.' It was breathtaking."

That was last August; Reser was released on Dec. 1. He says he’s happy now to be free. But almost everyone he once knew is gone. His parents died while he was in prison. So did his two brothers. And a few years ago, his son died from complications from diabetes.

"They found him in his house alone," Reser says. "He died on the 9th and they found him on the 23rd. It's heartbreaking. If I could've been out, he would be still alive today."

Reser is still angry at the police informant, who he believes entrapped him. But he tries to keep the past behind him.

Reser found out he had been granted clemency in August. He was released from prison after almost 28 years in December.
Credit Oliver Morrison / The Wichita Eagle

"I don't want to put it there in my head. You put it that way, you'd be like one of these guys going to the store shooting the boss for firing him for something. And I ain't going that route," he says.

So he wakes up early and goes to bed early, out of habit. And he drapes a thin grey blanket over himself while he sleeps on his couch at night. He’s saving for a bed, but the couch is more comfortable than anything he slept on in prison.

"Thanks for Mr. Obama," Reser says, "for releasing all these people that really needed chances."

This piece was produced as part of a partnership between KMUW and The Wichita Eagle. Find Oliver Morrison on Twitter @ORMorrison.