America’s Most Disturbing Drug War Prison Sentences
By Phil Smith, DRC Net
United States, “the land of the free”. With five percent of the global population, the US holds twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. The US leads in both the absolute number of prisoners – more than 2.1 million – and in per capita incarceration rates, and the numbers keep increasing as they have every year since the early 1980s during the Ronald Reagan administration, when the latest chapter of the war on drugs began.
The war on drugs has been a primary motor of growth in America’s prisons, and with drug arrests reaching a record high 1.8 million last year, it seems destined to continue as such. While for many readers the fact that anyone is arrested – let alone imprisoned – for drug offenses in general or marijuana offenses in particular is an outrage, some sentences meted out to non-violent drug offenders defy imagination. The title of this article is actually something of a misnomer. I am by no means certain that the sentences in the cases below are the most disturbing. With more than 500,000 Americans behind bars for drug offenses on any given day, one simply cannot track them all. If these cases are not the worst of the worst they are certainly among them, and are starkly representative of the harsh and inhumane tactics used in America’s war on drugs.
These cases highlight a variety of nasty tangents to the drug war, including mandatory minimum sentences and harsh federal sentencing guidelines; sweeping up of wives, girlfriends, and mothers of drug suspects; systemic dependence on self-serving snitches; cruel treatment of pain patients; demonization of marijuana; and heavy-handed reliance on paramilitary SWAT-style drug raids. To explore any single case in depth is to venture into the ugliest, darkest side of police, prosecutorial, and judicial depravity, and be shocked to the core of your conscience. I urge readers to take that plunge.
Clarence Aaron – Snitch Culture Takes a Victim; Life in Prison
Clarence Aaron was a college student in Louisiana. He introduced a childhood friend, who was looking for cocaine, to a supplier in Baton Rouge. Because neither of the two men knew each other, they insisted Aaron attend the meeting. A year and a half later, Aaron was pulled out of his college class by FBI agents and arrested. The men he had introduced the previous year had been arrested along with several others, all of whom portrayed Aaron as a major player, in hopes of reducing their own sentences. Aaron, on the other hand, refused to inform against anybody. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute nine kilograms of cocaine, and attempting to possess with intent to distribute 15 kilograms of cocaine – in other words, he was held responsible for all the cocaine allegedly sold by the conspirators. A first trial ended with a hung jury, but due to the testimony of the snitching co-conspirators at a second trial, he was found guilty and given three life sentences. Clarence Aaron has been in prison for more than 13 years, and will die there unless he wins a presidential pardon or commutation.
Weldon Angelos – A Pistol in His Pant Leg While
Dealing Pot; 55 Years
Weldon Angelos was a Salt Lake City-area married father of two and aspiring hip-hop entrepreneur who supplemented his income with mid-level marijuana sales. When federal officials arrested him on marijuana distribution charges, he was also charged with multiple counts of possessing a weapon while committing a drug trafficking offense, which carries a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence for a second offense. Angelos did not kill or wound anyone, fire his weapon, or even brandish it; he merely carried it on his person. Angelos was convicted of pot dealing and three weapons counts, and a reluctant US District Court Judge Paul Cassell sentenced him to the mandatory minimum 55-year sentence (five years for the pot, concurrent with five years for the first weapons charge, plus 25 years each for the second and third weapons counts, to be served consecutively). Judge Cassell went to the unusual measure of passing out a chart comparing Angelos’ sentence to the much lesser sentences that would be given to rapists and other violent criminals, and called the sentence “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” A motion to review his sentence had been supported by a wide array of officials, legal scholars, and activists who hoped it would lead to the throwing out of the federal sentencing structure, but a federal appeals court upheld his sentence, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear his case. The now 26-year-old husband and father should be released sometime around 2050.
Dana Bowerman – A Meth Head Gets Ensnared;
19 Years, 7 Months
Dana Bowerman was a speed freak with $11 in her bank account when she was arrested in a 15-person methamphetamine conspiracy ring in Texas that included her father. A small-time player in the drug ring, Bowerman couriered cash and drugs in exchange for meth to feed her addiction and pay off her drug debts – but she was charged by federal prosecutors as a major player and held accountable for the 12 pounds of meth she allegedly distributed during the conspiracy. Even though she was a first offender she received a nearly 20-year sentence under the guidelines, more than any other defendant except her father, who got 26 years with a three-year reduction on appeal. In prison since 2000, Bowerman will not be free until 2018 – if she earns all her good time credits.
Tyrone Brown – Perpetual Imprisonment for a Dirty
Drug Test; Life in Prison
In 1990, a then 17-year-old Tyrone Brown was convicted of taking part in a $2 armed robbery – in which no one was injured – and sentenced to probation. A few weeks later the black Dallas teenager tested positive for marijuana. His sentencing judge, Keith Dean, revoked his probation and sentenced him to life in prison. Brown has languished in the Texas gulag ever since, but now there is a chance he will get out. Earlier in 2006, a Dallas Morning News reporter published an article contrasting the treatment Brown got from Judge Kean with that of a wealthy, well-connected white man convicted of killing a male prostitute. He, too, was sentenced to probation and repeatedly flunked drug tests, but Kean didn’t send him to prison for life; he loosened his probation regime instead! That article got the attention of ABC News’ investigative show 20/20, which featured Brown’s case twice in 2006. After the ABC News program aired a spontaneous movement to seek justice for Tyrone Brown began and, at the time of this writing, Judge Dean, the local prosecutor, the local sheriff, and the victim of Brown’s 1990 robbery have all sent letters to the Texas parole board urging that his sentence be commuted to time served. Parole board attorneys have been quoted as saying they want to “right this wrong”. If the parole board approves, it then goes to Texas Governor Rick Perry, who makes the final decision.
Alva Mae Groves – Grandma Behind Bars;
24 Years, Seven Months
As a retired poor black woman watching over a pair of grandchildren in North Carolina in 1994, Alva Mae Groves barely got by living off Social Security, some rental income, and by selling eggs, candy, and soda to neighbors. But an adult son who lived with her was arrested as the head of a crack cocaine ring that exchanged drugs for food stamps, and she and four other family members were also arrested. Although Groves has steadfastly maintained she was unaware of any drug activity, informants seeking sentence reductions claimed she had sold cocaine base on numerous occasions. Federal prosecutors charged her with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base, use of a firearm during, and in relation to, a drug trafficking crime (there was a gun in a back bedroom); and trading food stamps for crack cocaine. Although Groves says she believes she was prosecuted only because she would not testify against family members, she eventually pleaded guilty. During sentencing she was held accountable for all the drugs and food stamps allegedly exchanged in the conspiracy and received a federal sentencing guidelines sentence of 295 months. Now 84 years old, she will be in prison until November 2015, if she makes it that long.
Hamedah Hasan – A Peripheral Player Gets Serious Time;
Hamedah Hasan was a single mother of two (she gave birth to a third child in prison) who had just moved out of a battered women’s shelter after getting her own apartment through public assistance, and had enrolled in a welfare-to-work program. She was arrested on cocaine distribution charges after a drug courier, who worked for her cousin Ahad Hasan, turned state’s evidence to avoid prosecution. The courier identified Ahad as the leader of the conspiracy and also implicated Hamedah, who was indicted along with Ahad and several others. The only evidence against her was $72,000 worth of Western Union money transfers – which Hamedah said she made at Ahad’s request – and the testimony of her co-defendants who cut deals with the police. No drugs were found on her, nor was she ever observed doing anything illegal, but she was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute powder and crack cocaine, interstate travel in aid of racketeering, and use of a telephone to commit a felony. Because of the co-defendant’s testimony, the judge identified the welfare mother as a “manager” of a criminal conspiracy and she was automatically sentenced to life in prison under the old federal sentencing guidelines. At the time of sentencing, the judge did speak out against the shackles of the guidelines, saying he would have sentenced her to 10 to 15 years had the guidelines not required life. Hasan filed a motion seeking to be re-sentenced under current guidelines in 1999, which would have given her a sentence of 27 to 34 years. The same judge granted an “extraordinary departure” and sentenced her to only 12 years – but that was too little for the federal government, which appealed and prevailed. Hasan was re-sentenced to 27 years.
George Martorano – America’s Longest Serving Non-Violent Prisoner For Marijuana; Life in Prison
The son of alleged Philadelphia mobster, Raymond “Long John” Martorano, George Martorano was arrested with a truckload of marijuana in 1982. Although others arrested with similar quantities typically received 20-year maximum sentences at the time, Martorano was given life without parole, most likely in an effort to “send a message” to his father. After spending more than four years in solitary confinement, Martorano was sent into the general population at what was then the nation’s toughest federal prison in Marion, Illinois. He’s been there ever since, now having served nearly a quarter-century for a pot offense.
While imprisoned, Martorano has authored numerous novels and screen plays and teaches reading, writing and yoga to other prisoners. This non-violent, first-time drug offender will die in prison unless he receives a presidential pardon.
Cory Maye – The Ultimate Punishment for Defending His Family; Death By Execution
Cory Maye is not doing time on a drug charge, but he is one of the drug war’s casualties. On the night of December 26, 2001, after falling asleep in his living room chair beside his young daughter in the duplex where he lived with her mother, Maye was awakened by loud pounding and men attempting to break into his home. Afraid of the unknown attackers, Maye grabbed a pistol and opened fire when the intruders burst through the door. He shot and killed Police Officer Ron Jones of Prentiss, Mississippi, who was part of police team conducting a drug raid aimed at the duplex’s other side. Maye was not the target of the raid, was not named on the warrant, and no drugs were found in his residence (except for a partially smoked joint that police mysteriously found later) but he was charged with capital murder in the killing of Officer Jones, found guilty in a jury trial, and sentenced to death. His efforts to obtain a new trial have so far been thwarted, but his sentence may be changed: in September 2006, a Mississippi circuit court judge ruled that Maye received incompetent counsel during the sentencing phase of his trial, and vacated the death sentence pending a new sentencing hearing.
Danielle Metz – The Sins of the Husband; Life in Prison
Danielle Metz was a married mother of two young children when her husband was arrested on cocaine conspiracy charges in 1991. Soon, the DEA arrested her too, saying they were not interested in her but in her husband whom they had charged as the leader of the conspiracy. Metz refused to cooperate in sending her mate to prison, so the DEA found various people convicted on drug charges willing to testify against her in return for sentence reductions. Metz was found guilty of participating in the drug conspiracy and the first-time non-violent offender was sentenced to life in prison. She has been there since 1993.
Richard Paey – A Chronic Pain Patient in the Drug War; 25 Years
Suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and disabled as a result of a 1985 car wreck and subsequent failed back surgery, wheelchair-bound Richard Paey was prescribed a large amount of the narcotic pain reliever Oxycontin by his New Jersey physician. When Paey and his family moved to Florida, he was unable to find a doctor to prescribe his required drug dosage so he prevailed upon his old physician to provide him with undated prescription forms. (Now facing potential legal problems of his own, the doctor denies having done this.) Florida’s Pasco County Sheriff’s Office began investigating Paey after being alerted by suspicious pharmacists who filled the large prescription orders. Officers regularly watched Paey roll up in his wheelchair to get his medication from the pharmacy, and after they observed him get prescriptions for some 1,200 pills between January and March of 1997, they arrested him as a suspected drug trafficker. They never found any evidence he had sold any of the pills, and Paey insists that he used the amount that had been legally prescribed to him in New Jersey. Nonetheless, under Florida law, illegally obtaining more than an ounce of pain relievers containing the narcotic oxycodone means you are presumed to be a drug dealer, and subjects you to a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. A man of principle, Paey rejected a pair of plea bargain offers and went through two trials before being convicted on the third go-round. He is currently in the Florida state prison system, in his wheelchair, with the prison supplying a subdermal morphine pump to treat the pain for which he was seeking relief – ironically, giving him stronger drugs in prison than he was legally allowed to receive as a regular citizen.
• This article was written with assistance from two organizations vitally interested in representing and defending drug war prisoners: the November Coalition (www.november.org) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (www.famm.org). Both do saintly work, and readers interested in helping the unjustly incarcerated should contact both groups.