Pubdate: Tue, 19 Dec 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Lisa Richardson, Times Staff Writer
Cited: Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
Related: Dorothy Gaines
Kemba Smith


Inmates Serving Lengthy Prison Terms For Drug Offenses Find That The
Last Days Of A Presidency--When An Outgoing Chief Has Little To
Lose--May Bring Their Best Chance At Clemency.

It is unwise to walk the halls of a prison with a smile, so Billy
Langston strains to keep up a "mad dog" look that tells other inmates
not to mess with him. Yet despite his best efforts, the corners of his
mouth keep winging upward against his will.

A national prison advocacy group called Families Against Mandatory
Minimums has argued to President Clinton that he is worthy of
clemency, and every now and then a rush of hope takes over and
Langston cannot help but smile.

Langston, 42, who has served six years of his 22-year sentence for a
drug offense, is allowing himself to hope that FAMM will be
successful, that he might not grow gray at the federal prison on
Terminal Island.

Thousands of federal prisoners seek clemency from President Clinton
before he leaves office Jan. 20.

The power to commute or pardon sentences is granted to the president
by the Constitution. Clemency seekers include junk bond king Michael
Milken, Whitewater figures Susan McDougal and Webster L. Hubbell, and
Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist convicted of killing two
FBI men in 1975. Peltier has maintained that evidence against him was
falsified; the FBI has vigorously opposed his petition.

Some seek pardons, which wipe the slate clean. Others, like Langston,
ask for their sentences to be commuted to time served.

When a president is poised to leave office, a window of hope flies
open for inmates. It is during this lame duck period, when a president
may have nothing politically to lose, that people believe he is most
likely to grant petitions for clemency.

A campaign is underway from many quarters to persuade Clinton to grant
clemency to an entire class of federal inmate: nonviolent drug
offenders who have received decades-long sentences, often for first
time offenses, under mandatory federal sentencing guide lines enacted
in the 1980s. Under federal law, sentences for most drug crimes are
determined by the quantity of drugs, without regard to the defendant's
record, motives or likelihood of re-offending.

Disparities built into the sentencing laws also provide for a 100-to-1
difference between sentencing of powder and crack cocaine offenders.
Someone convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder draws a mandatory
five-year-prison term, as does a person with 5 grams of crack cocaine.
Federal statistics show that the average American drug user is a
white, middle-class, suburban male, but the average drug convict is
poor, urban and black.

Langston's story is typical. In 1993, he was arrested while
accompanying a friend who bought chemicals used to manufacture PCP.
The friend, and a another man who was a drug dealer cooperated with
prosecutors. The friend received a five-year sentence; the dealer 25
months. Langston, who neither purchased the chemicals nor knew how to
use them could not cooperate because had no information to give
prosecutors. He received a sentence of 27 years, later reduced to 22.
Both the judge and the prosecutor in his case remarked on the severity
of his sentence. The judge called it "shameful."

Last week, seated at a gray speckled table in the visitors' room at
Terminal Island, Langston said it has taken years for him to get over
his anger. A prison drug counselor and other inmates helped him
recognize that regardless of the lighter sentences meted out to the
others, his own actions had contributed to his fate. After his mother
died in 1983, he said, he fell into a life of drug use and alcohol,
associating with people who were a traffic stop away from a prison.

"It wasn't just bad luck that I happened to be along for that ride,"
Langston said. "It was the result of life I had been living."

Given a second chance, he said, he would be a good father to his
11-year-old son, with whom he speaks daily. "I am a changed man, and I
am truly sorry for what I did. I grew up with both a mother and a
father, and if I could talk to the president I'd tell him that if I
get a second chance I'd be a better man, a family man."

Some organizations have written blanket petitions on behalf of all
such inmates; others have taken up the cause of a few. They do not
argue guilt or innocence, only that even if the government's case is
entirely accurate, sentences meted out to low-level drug offenders are
too harsh.

At issue, however, is the definition of "low-level."

"You're talking federal offenses, and they are rather significant in
and of themselves," said Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman
Michael Chapman.

Still, drug couriers with no previous convictions are serving
sentences of 20, 30 and 85 years in federal prisons. By contrast, the
average child molester in California served about five years in prison
and a person convicted of second-degree murder served just over 10
years, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums is one of the groups leading the
push. (Mandatory minimums are the drug laws requiring certain minimum
penalties for any drug offense.)

With a mixture of hope and regret over having to focus on only a few
prisoners when it feels so many are deserving of intervention, FAMM
has submitted 12 clemency petitions to U.S. Pardon Atty. Roger Adams,
the first step toward presidential clemency. Adams, who works for the
Department of Justice, evaluates clemency petitions, and forwards his
recommendations to the deputy attorney general. Petitions are then
evaluated by the White House counsel, who makes a recommendation to
the president. A Justice department spokeswoman said the department
does not comment on clemency requests.

FAMM tried to choose cases that would be easy to justify politically.
Each of the 12, including Langston, has served at least five years in
prison. Each was a minor player, and received sentences that far
outstripped those of their more involved co-defendants. And they were
all first-time offenders.

Another of the 12 is 30-year-old Derrick Curry, who was a 19-year-old
high school basketball player with a college sports scholarship, when
he was arrested in 1989 while transporting crack cocaine. He is
serving a 19-year sentence in Maryland for his role in a 28-member

"I was a high school principal when this happened to my son," said
Derrick's father, Arthur Curry of Prince George's County, Md. "If
there's any one regret I have it is that I paid so much attention to
my job that I maybe missed some of the signs in my own child."

He thinks his son deserved to be punished, "but 19 years is absurd for
the mistake that he made. He'd never even been suspended from school."
Over the years, Arthur Curry has pleaded his son's case to so many
Senate and House subcommittees, with so many legislators, lobbyists
and congressional staff members, that although the signs are good, he
refuses to become too hopeful. "I'd say I am guarded," he said. "I am
optimistic but I've been down that road before."

The Face of Sentencing Reform

Because of the extreme nature of her case, Kemba Smith of Richmond,
Va., has emerged for many advocates as the face of the sentencing
reform movement, largely due to the efforts of her parents. Their
sheltered debutante daughter went off to Hampton College and was
promptly swept off her feet by Peter Hall, a drug dealer who was eight
years her senior. According to her attorneys, she soon found herself
trapped in a violent relationship and began to transport drugs for
him. Hall, who had fled the state, was murdered in Seattle in 1994
before he could be brought to trial, but Smith, now 29, who was eight
months pregnant with their child, pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency.
Instead, she received a sentence of 24 years in prison and gave birth
to her son shackled to a prison hospital bed.

Prosecutors maintain that she was high up in Hall's organization and
knowingly participated in a $4 million drug ring.

Smith's advocates, however, do not argue her innocence, only that the
punishment does not fit her crime.

"Isn't this punishment way out of line with the mistake that she
made?" asks Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore who has written to
Clinton several times on Smith's behalf. "It's hard to fathom a person
without a criminal record, who cooperates with the government and
testifies, getting this kind of sentence and being treated the way she

Smith's parents, who are raising her son, have traveled the country,
bankrupting themselves twice, keeping her name and her case before the

Mother Anguishes Over Her Children

If Dorothy Gaines could to talk to President Clinton, she would tell
him she's sorry. Then she would tell him how much her children have
suffered during the six years of her incarceration.

In 1993, Gaines was a widowed mother of three in Mobile, Ala., whose
live-in boyfriend, unbeknownst to her, had become a driver for a
cocaine distribution ring. When he was arrested, so was she. State
officials declined to prosecute her for lack of evidence, but federal
prosecutors took up the case. Based on the testimony of drug dealers,
who received reduced sentences in return for their cooperation, Gaines
was convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. The man who
ran the cocaine ring was released from prison after five years, while
other dealers received terms of eight or 10 years. Gaines, who neither
took cocaine, nor profited from its sale, is serving a sentence of 19
years, seven months.

"In a normal case you'd hope, you would go after the small players and
use them to supply evidence against the kingpins," said her
Boston-based attorney Gregg Shapiro. "In this case, they got the
kingpin and his chief deputies to plead very early on and then to
testify against the low level players like Dorothy."

On the phone from the Marianna Federal Camp in Florida, she ponders
what she would say. Would it matter to the president that she was a
PTA mother? A churchgoing woman? That prison officials give her
glowing reports? Which nugget of her life should she throw down before
him to tilt the scales back in her favor?

Gaines is desperate. Since she has been incarcerated her children have
sunk into an anguished existence. Her 19-year-old daughter dropped out
of college to raise her younger siblings, and Gaine's other daughter
has a host of health problems. She worries the most, however, about
her 16-year-old son Phillip.

Phillip, who was 10 when his mother went to prison, began working to
free her. He wrote to the judge who sentenced her, offering to wash
his car or to mow his lawn. Twice he ran away from home, heading on
foot to Washington to see the president, only to be caught on the
interstate and returned home to Mobile. Deciding that if he could not
get her out, maybe he could get in to live with her, Phillip began
trying to get arrested, succeeding only in spending one month in
juvenile hall. Now, she and her attorneys say, he has given up.

'Now he won't even come and see me no more," Gaines said. "My kids are
my only priority right now--they're really the ones doing time."

Some See Promising Signs for Petitioners

Will President Clinton do it? Will he set free one or two, 10 or 20?
One hundred or 200 people? Gauging the president's mood is about as
exact a science as reading tea leaves. Yet in the past few weeks, the
tiniest of Clinton's comments--a word here, a quote from a magazine
story there, have raised hopes in the hearts around the nation.

"There have been a lot of rumblings about it and most likely he's
going to do something," said Julie Steward, founder of FAMM.

Those laboring for prison reform swap the same rumors. They hear that
everywhere, people beg the president to be merciful. They say
so-and-so spoke to him at a cocktail party and that a congresswoman
gently waylaid him at a fund-raiser. Some appeal to his heart: he is
showered with heartbroken, handwritten letters from children, and also
to his head, with detailed petitions from $500 an hour law firms.

Activists even appeal to his soul.

"As faith leaders who cherish Divine justice and mercy for all
persons, we ask you to grant clemency to and to release on supervised
parole those federal prisoners who have served at least five years for
low-level, nonviolent involvement in drug cases . . . We hope, trust,
and pray that you will," reads a petition signed by 650 American
religious leaders.

Gathering the support of clerics was the idea of Eric Sterling,
president of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in
Washington. Sterling has personal reasons for his mission. From 1979
to 1989, he was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, principally
responsible for writing the anti-drug legislation that created the
mandatory minimum sentences.

Sterling has tried to reach the president by appealing to his faith,
because, he said, "The president has, in his second term, learned the
importance of forgiveness, repentance and that punishment takes many

When his last appeal was exhausted a few month ago, Billy Langston
seriously began to contemplate the prospect of living in prison for
the next 16 years. Terminal Island is not the worst place in the
world; it's not the TV stereotype of constant violence, he said. But
it is still prison.

Even if he is not granted clemency, the hope FAMM's campaign has given
him is a gift he will always cherish. "I'm not confident about getting
out, but I have nothing to lose so why not hope?" he said, and the
smile creeps back. "I'll always remember what people have tried to do
for me. I'm grateful for their time and grateful for their help. That
somebody would care enough even to try, means everything to me."
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