Donny Andrews & Andrew Matson: Two friends doing "dumb things," two different outcomes

"Hello, my name is Donny Andrews. I am a first-time, non-violent offender who has been in prison for 23 years on an 80-year sentence... I came to prison at 20 years of age in 1989, and I am now 43 years old."

Thus begins a recent letter of appeal from Andrews, a former small-time thief and cocaine addict who, under Colorado's harsh war-on-drugs-era sentencing scheme, won't see a mandatory discharge date until he's 97.

I first wrote about Andrews in my 2009 feature, "The Quality of Mercy," which examined the decline in the use of clemency by Colorado's governors; the piece focused on six state prisoners who were serving lengthy sentences, didn't appear to pose a risk to public safety -- and whose release could save our budget-strapped prison system more than $4 million.

In the case of Andrews, zealous prosecutors pushed to "aggravate" the sentences he faced for a fairly pedestrian series of drug-related burglaries (and one attempted robbery) that caused no injuries; one case that involved a busted window (which Andrews insisted he didn't do) and no theft resulted in a thirty-year sentence. Run consecutively to other sentences, his convictions resulted in an eighty-year jolt that far exceeds what many more violent criminals received.

Andrews claims to have cleaned up and taken every rehabilitative program offered to him, but his clemency application was denied by Governor Bill Ritter, who waited until his last days in office to issue a few "safe" pardons. But Andrews is hopeful that Governor John Hickenlooper might take a different view and has, with the help of outside supporters, put up a Facebook page pleading his case.

Tellingly, one of the members of Andrews' team of supporters is Andrew Matson, a former Colorado inmate and author of the self-help book Choose to Do Right: A Proven Path to Criminal Rehabilitation (reviewed here). Like Andrews, Matson went into the system on a long sentence stemming from drug addiction and theft -- but the connection goes a bit deeper. The two knew each other at Columbine High School in the 1980s.

"We went to a lot of the same parties," Matson says. "We were all kids, doing dumb things. Donnie was never the violent type. He just hung around with the wrong crowd."

Although sentenced as a habitual criminal, Matson didn't get quite the mountain of time that Andrews did. He ended up serving fifteen years on a thirty-year sentence and turned his life around. He's now a successful executive in a telecommunications company, has a wife and four children, and gives frequent motivational speeches in jails, prisons, and halfway house programs. During one talk at the prison in Buena Vista, he reconnected with Andrews.

"It's a shame he's still in there," Matson says. "If he had a chance to be free, I think he'd be successful. It's very difficult; I know that firsthand. But it can be done."

Will Governor Hickenlooper's approach to clemency be any bolder than that of his predecessor? Matson and Andrews can only hope so.

More from our News archive: "Governor Bill Ritter pardons Reverend Leon Kelly and nineteen others."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast