Pubdate: Sun, 19 May 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Eric Slater, Los Angeles Times
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


On May 1, the 34-year-old mother of two got perhaps the first break of her 
life. She was freed.

"You've gotten a second chance," said Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tommy 
Nail. "Don't blow it."

To many, Wilson had become a symbol of the high price of mandatory 
sentencing. And her release is the latest in a series of events challenging 
those laws.

Intended to target major drug traffickers, many mandatory minimum laws, as 
they are known, more often have sent addicts, drug dealers' girlfriends, 
and college students peddling marijuana to prison for long terms.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases, probably in the 
fall, challenging California's three-strikes law, the toughest of its kind 
in the nation.

Sens. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a former federal prosecutor, and Orrin G. 
Hatch (R., Utah) are pushing a bill that would ease mandatory sentences for 
those who played a minimal role in a drug transaction. Neither lawmaker is 
known for being easy on criminals.

Louisiana, Michigan, Connecticut, North Dakota, Utah, Washington state, 
Iowa and Mississippi also have rolled back at least some of their 
mandatory-minimum statutes.

They have rolled them back to prevent more cases such as Wilson's.

In 1996, Wilson - a junior high school dropout - was losing all control, 
she told the Birmingham News in the only interview since her incarceration.

The product of a troubled household, she drank too much, had become 
addicted to prescription painkillers following a medical problem, was 
deeply in debt, and had marital problems. Then, her mother died, she said. 
Then, the state took custody of her two children.

Unable to pay a $95 electricity bill, she got a vial of a prescription 
morphine solution from a neighbor whose late husband had used the 
painkiller while undergoing cancer treatments.

During a secretly taped conversation with an undercover police officer 
posing as a drug buyer, Wilson said she had no idea what the morphine was 
worth. So she offered to sell it for $150. She would keep $80 for herself, 
she said, and give $70 to the neighbor.

The police officer replied that he only had $80 with him. No problem, 
Wilson said on the tape; he could pay her whenever he had the money.

Wilson had no idea that the 97.8 grams of morphine solution had a street 
value of $10,000 - or that the confluence of circumstances would land her 
desperate crime under a law intended to nab Alabama's biggest drug traffickers.

In March 1998, Circuit Judge J. Richmond Pearson was visibly shaken when, 
saying he had no choice, he sentenced Wilson to spend the rest of her life 
in prison. Last year, Wilson appealed. In August, the state appellate 
court's opinion came down. Wilson's sentence, wrote Judge Sue Bell Cobb, 
was "grossly disproportionate."

The Alabama attorney general then appealed the case to the state Supreme 
Court. In April, the court agreed with the lower court's decision.
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