CHARLOTTE, N.C.—As a 22-year-old, Cedric Dean was given a life sentence in prison on federal drug charges. But rather than let this verdict spell the end of a meaningful life, Dean treated it as a rebirth, becoming a published author and teacher while still behind bars.

Now, thanks to his determination to turn his life around and the tenacious representation of Womble Bond Dickinson lawyer Claire Rauscher, Dean is finally free and back in the community.

The Charlotte Observer recently shared his remarkable story. Dean grew up in a tough Charlotte neighborhood and became involved in street gangs before he was old enough to drive. In the mid-1990s, Dean received a life sentence during a much-criticized period when crack cocaine crimes received much harsher sentences than other drug crimes.

Rauscher took Dean’s case in 1995, shortly after moving to Charlotte after serving as a public defender in Philadelphia. Dean had decided to represent himself at trial, and Rauscher was appointed as stand-by counsel.

After the jury convicted him, the judge sentenced him to life plus five years. “It was so unjust,” Rauscher said. “I promised him I would continue to work until he got out of jail.” She has been advocating for justice for Dean ever since.

Rauscher kept that promise, keeping in touch with Dean during the decades he spent imprisoned. Eventually, sentencing reforms gave both of them hope that Dean could win his freedom. Rauscher filed a motion asking the courts to reconsider the life-plus sentence. That motion was granted, reducing his sentence to 30 years. Later, she was able to get it reduced again to 24 years.

Dean also became a strong advocate for his own case, teaching himself to become a writer by studying books from the prison library. Eventually, he authored a dozen of his own books and taught writing and public speaking skills to other inmates. He also started an anti-violence foundation SAVE (Safeguard Atone Validate Educate), to steer children away from gangs, while in prison.

“He’s doing remarkable things—I always knew he would,” Rauscher said. “To be in jail that long and persevere and still have hope is remarkable…I’m really proud of Cedric.”

Those skills led him to convicted killer Clay Waller—and, ultimately, to freedom. Dean and Waller shared a cell block at a Louisiana prison. Knowing of Dean’s reputation as a writer, Waller asked him to ghostwrite his story.

Dean took the assignment and interviewed Waller about his confessed murder of his wife, Jacques. During the course of the interviews, Dean realized that the man was both unremorseful and guilty of other crimes. Prosecutors credit Dean with providing key information that allowed them to charge Waller with a federal domestic violence charge. Waller was recently sentenced to 35 years, which insures he will not be released from prison.

In November 2017, Dean finally was freed from prison after serving nearly 24 years behind bars. He already has begun work on his latest book, a memoir titled “From Mayhem to Morality,” and is continuing his public service work.

Recently, Dean’s charitable foundation, at an inaugural event, gave Rauscher an award for her devoted service to the cause of justice.

“It really was one of the most special moments of my career,” she said.

Click here to read “He agreed to write a killer’s story. Then a wild plot twist changed everything” in the Charlotte Observer.

Claire and Dean

(Left to right) Claire Rauscher and Cedric Dean