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How a 'changed' Texas man's chance at exoneration is about so much more

Jason Hernandez was given a life sentence plus 320 years for a first time non-violent drug offense. When it was commuted, he devoted his life to righting the wrongs.

MCKINNEY, Texas — Jason Hernandez knew his path to freedom would ultimately lead him back home to the east side of McKinney. 

Hernandez has fond memories of his early years in the neighborhood. He and his friends would skateboard and breakdance in the predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood.

“We were just two boys from the east side,” said long-time friend Damian Guerrero. 

Hernandez and Guerrero lived two blocks from each other. Guerrero was closer friends to Hernandez's older brothers. But the two were connected by an event and would later cross paths in the most unlikeliest of ways two decades later.

“We took extremely different paths, the most extreme that you could imagine,” said Hernandez.

Hernandez was selling drugs on the east side at 15 and in prison for life by the age of 21.

Guerrero was 24 years old and a young officer for McKinney police. The moment that will forever bind two friends happened in March of 1998. 

Guerrero was directed to arrest Hernandez and take him to jail following a raid at the Hernandez home. 

“I don’t think there was a word said between us on the ride to jail,” said Guerrero.

“I felt bad, right? I felt ashamed, I couldn’t look at you,” said Hernandez.

Watch WFAA's extended interview with Jason Hernandez:

Hernandez received life plus 320 years for a first time non-violent drug offense. He was sent to a federal prison and served 19 years before President Obama granted him clemency.

“I was poisoning my community. I have to live with that for the rest of my life,” said Hernandez.

He made a promise to his brother JJ when his sentence was commuted: come back home and redeem yourself.

Since then, Hernandez started a non-profit, worked in criminal justice reform, and righted many wrongs. He would return to the east side and reconnect with the people he directly or indirectly hurt.

“Jason, I’ve seen you in these streets selling drugs and I see you now the person that you became. You have changed, you have changed people’s lives,” Tara Williams, a neighbor, told him.

Clemency allowed Hernandez to get relief from his court-ordered sentence. It did not, however, remove his drug-related conviction. His path to true freedom is asking for President Biden to grant a pardon.

A pardon would wipe his record and allow him to vote, to travel, and to get a job.

“It’s almost like a scarlet letter. I still feel like I’m incarcerated,” said Hernandez. 

But a presidential pardon requires a petition and that requires signatures and letters of recommendation from people who can vouch for Hernandez.

“That’s all it takes one wrong turn, changes your life forever,” said Guerrero.

For years, Hernandez couldn’t face many people the east side. But having turned a new leaf and constantly looking to better his community, it has given him the courage to meet with old friends and mentors. 

He has dozens of signatures to go along with some important letters of recommendation. But no recommendation will go further than the one he received from his old friend, Guerrero.

“Somebody believed in me, somebody gave me a second chance,” said Hernandez. 

“It just so happens it was the man who drove you to jail,” interjected Guerrero.

A pardon is entirely up to President Biden and his team. 

Hernandez is preparing to turn over his petition before the end of the year. Returning to the east side was about honoring a brother’s promise. Reconnecting with the people he hurt was about getting redemption.

“The signatures weren’t for [the President], they were for me,” said Hernandez.