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5 Senior Citizens Serving Life Without Parole for Pot

Should five non-violent offenders die behind bars for a crime Americans increasingly believe should not even be a crime?
 
 
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Right now, five adults await death in prison for non-violent, marijuana-related crimes. Their names are John Knock, Paul Free, Larry Duke, William Dekle, and Charles “Fred” Cundiff. They are all more than 60 years old; they have all spent at least 15 years locked up for selling pot; and they are all what one might call model prisoners, serving life without parole. As time wrinkles their skin and weakens their bodies, Michael Kennedy of the Trans High Corporation has filed a legal petition with the federal government seeking their clemency. Otherwise they will die behind bars for selling a drug 40% of American adults have admitted to using, 50% of Americans want legal, and two states have already legalized for adult use. Since these men were convicted of these crimes many years ago, public opinion and policy related to marijuana have shifted greatly. Should these five non-violent senior-citizen offenders die behind bars for a crime Americans increasingly believe should not even be a crime?

1. John Knock, 65, has been incarcerated for more than 16 years. The only evidence against him was the testimony of informants; Knock was convicted of conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana. The judge sentenced him to 20 years for money laundering plus not one, but two terms of life-without-parole -- a  punishment typically reserved for murderers. Despite the uniquely unjust sentence, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court denied his pleas for reconsideration via appeal or court order.

Waiting for death in jail, Knock suffers from chronic sinus problems linked to an untreated broken nose. Due to circulatory problems, one of his ankles swells to twice its size. Knock also suffers from what the legal petition called “untreated" hearing and vision problems. Easing some of his pain are visits from his family and his participation in prison programs. He has taught home building and physical education inside the prison that has become his home. According to the legal petition, he is assured employment and a home should his sentence be commuted.

2. Before he was incarcerated, Paul Free obtained a BA in marine biology and was starting a school while teaching English in Mexico. Now 62, he has continued his passion for education behind bars, where he has lived for the past 18 years. Free helps inmates prepare for the General Equivalency Diploma tests, and according to the petition, prison officials have applauded Paul’s hard work and his students’ high graduation rate. Paul suffers from degenerative joint disease, failing eyesight, sinus problems, and allergies, and he has had 11 skin cancers removed.

3. Once a union carpenter, Larry Duke, a 65-year-old decorated Marine, has spent the last 23 years of his life behind bars for weed. On top of the difficulties life in prison lays on the psyche, Duke suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from multiple tours in the Vietnam war. Like Knock, Duke received two life sentences without parole for a non-violent marijuana conspiracy, and was unsuccessful at appeal. According to the legal petition, Duke is the longest-serving nonviolent marijuana prisoner in the nation.  

Despite his incarceration in a country that has failed him, Duke works from behind bars to design patentable concepts that would assist the general public. While locked up, he has already managed to obtain a federal patent for a water-delivery system he plans to market to the U.S. Department of Defense. According to the legal petition, Duke enjoys the support of his wife and a growing family including two children, two grandsons, three siblings and many nieces and nephews. “They all want him to come home and be part of their lives and dreams,” the petition said.

4. William Dekle, 63, is also a former U.S. Marine serving two life sentences without parole, 22 of which he has already completed in a Kentucky penitentiary. Despite the depressing possibility that he will die behind bars, Dekle has participated in more than 30 prison courses, including counseling other inmates. Before his conviction, Dekle was a pilot certified in commercial and instrument flying, as well as multiengine aircraft. Now he suffers from a chronic knee injury. He is supported by his wife, two daughters, and grandchildren, who call him “Papa Billy.” Dekle’s relatives would ensure a stable home environment should he be granted clemency, the legal petition said.

5. Charles “Fred” Cundiff is a 66-year-old inmate who has served more than 20 years of his life sentence for marijuana. Before the marijuana arrest that changed his life forever, he worked in construction, retail and at a plant nursery. In prison, he worked for Unicor (Federal Prison Industries) for 12 years before his declining health interfered with his ability to work. Battling skin cancer, eye infections, and severe arthritis in his spine, Cundiff uses a walker. While the legal petition makes no mention of family, it says he is regularly visited by “friends from his youth.”

While these men have all spent many years behind bars for crimes they were convicted of many years ago, the same draconian punishments are handed down to marijuana criminals -- young and old -- to this day. Conspiracy charges, combined with mandatory minimums for marijuana sale and firearms charges, can quickly add up to decades behind bars. Should anyone in the entire criminal operation have a gun (legal or not), everyone involved can be charged with firearm possession during a drug offense, a five-year mandatory minimum that can reach 20 if the person is charged with continuing criminal enterprise -- a long-term, large-scale operation. In the end, these sentences are often not applied, but used to encourage guilty pleas in exchange for a lesser sentence.

Marijuana prisoner Chris Williams is an example of one such case. He was recently facing a mandatory minimum of 85 to 92 years behind bars for providing medical marijuana in Montana, where it is legal. Citing a moral opposition to plea bargains forced by the threat of a lifetime in jail, WIlliams rejected a deal that would have drastically reduced his sentence by cutting away mandatory minimums. Then, this Tuesday, federal prosecutors agreed to drop six of eight of Williams’ charges, provided he waive his constitutional right to appeal. Now Williams faces a mandatory minimum of five years for the firearm-related charge, and another five for distribution.

“With the rest of my life literally hanging in the balance, I simply could not withstand the pressure any longer,” Williams said in a statement. “If Judge Christensen shows mercy and limits my sentence to the five-year mandatory minimum, I could be present at my 16-year-old son’s college graduation. This would most likely be impossible had I rejected the latest compromise.”

Kristen Gwynne is an associate editor and drug policy reporter at AlterNet.  Follow her on Twitter: @KristenGwynne