15 People Rotting in Prison for Life for Drug Crimes That Didn't Hurt Anybody
(Ed. note: President Obama recently announced his intention to more aggressively use his powers to grant clemency to non-violent offenders. But the vast majority of those affected by draconian drug sentencing will be unaffected.)
The American Civil Liberties Union reported in November 2013 that 3,278 Americans were serving life sentences for non-violent crimes. Many of these individuals are behind bars for charges related to drug possession or minor instances of drug trafficking.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported in 2010 that the average annual cost of housing an inmate is over $28,200. Because of their life sentences, they are typically denied access to drug treatment, educational opportunities and even life-saving medical treatments. In short, they are essentially waiting to die.
Here are 15 inmates currently serving what many believe are unnecessarily harsh life sentences due to non-violent drug crimes often committed decades ago.
1. Tyrone L. “Scrap” Taylor
In January 2000, Taylor, 41, was sentenced to life behind bars over selling $20 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover officer. He was convicted on the charge of delivery of cocaine, but was given the harsh sentence due to it being his third conviction and the state’s mandatory “three-strikes” law in these cases. He was previously convicted in May 1990 and March 1993. Taylor insisted he was “not a drug dealer, but a drug user,” but it was to no avail.
“I’m free on the inside. I may be locked up but I’m free,” said Taylor at sentencing. “If I never see the streets again, I look for hope in the next life.”
His defense attorney, James W. Vaughn, called for changes in the three-strikes policy. He expressed outrage that “an individual who sells three $20 pieces of crack cocaine…is required to have a sentence [that is the same as if] he killed someone.
2. Euka Wadlington
Wadlington, now 54, has been incarcerated for 16 years. He had two previous state drug convictions as a teenager before being convicted in February 1999 on three counts of drug conspiracy, a non-violent offense.
He insisted that he was pressured for months by a local dealer to sell drugs, but went to meet him to talk about a different method of making money. No drugs, guns, or unusual amounts of money were found on Wadlington at the time of his arrest., but the three-strikes sentencing guidelines in Illinois led to him receiving two life sentences without parole.
Since then, Wadlington has helped hundreds of incarcerated men obtain their GEDs and created re-entry programs for soon-to-be released prisoners. However, his appeals have been exhausted and the Supreme Court refused to hear his case in 2007.
“I've chosen to represent change, respect, and redemption. I have chosen to show people, myself included, that rehabilitation is possible,” he wrote in an article for Huffington Post.“Because of my life sentences, I can only hope to have the opportunity to share my experience, newfound wisdom, and unique perspective with others who could benefit from it on the outside.”
In September 2008, Winslow, who was homeless at the time partially due to alcoholism, sold $20 of marijuana to an undercover officer. Because he had already received three non-violent felonies in the past 23 years, one of which was a drug possession charge in 2004, prosecutors sought the maximum available punishment. In December 2008, he was found guilty of distribution of a Schedule I substance and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor, without the possibility of parole.
Several portions of the trial were controversial, with Winslow’s state-appointed attorney failing to even acknowledge him by name. A jury member later revealed anonymously that they were never informed a life sentence was a possibility.
“He didn’t even kill anybody. He didn’t do anything, he just had an addiction he couldn’t control and he was trying to support it robbing,” said Angola Prison Warden Burl Cain,where Winslow is serving his sentence. “I want something done to him. But not all his life. That’s extreme. That’s cruel and unusual punishment to me.”
4. William Dufries
Dufries was recently named by the Clemency Report as Oklahoma’s third-most deserving inmate worthy of clemency. In February 2003, he was sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent, marijuana-related crime after being arrested driving through Oklahoma with 67 pounds of pot in his RV. Two prior, non-violent drug convictions in 1988 and 1996 led to his mandatory sentence under Oklahoma’s habitual offender statute.
Dufries told the court he began transporting pot after being diagnosed with lung cancer so he could pay medical bills while uninsured. He also reportedly rejected a 40-year sentence plea deal because his appointed attorney told him he would be eligible for parole after 36 years, when it was actually 13 years. His commutation request was later denied, but he insists the parole board never read it.
“They call this state part of the Bible Belt. I don’t see it,” he wrote.“There’s no forgiveness and (there’s) evil in the laws.”
Mosley’s drug addiction began as a teenager and led to several minor drug-related convictions. But after officers found four ounces of meth in his pocket in 2008, he was sentenced to life without parole under Oklahoma’s habitual offender statute.
Following his arrest, but prior to sentencing, Mosley completed a drug treatment program and was in the middle of graduate school courses to become a drug and alcohol counselor. Ironically, he is not eligible for drug treatment behind bars due to his life sentence.
"Each incarceration took me further away from my career, my friends, and family and deeper into addiction," he wrote from behind bars. “The threat of prison or even death will not deter an alcoholic and/or addict from drinking or using until they get to the root cause of the problem."
6. Leland Dodd
The Clemency Report recently named Dodd, 59, as both Oklahoma’s longest serving non-violent drug offender and the state’s most deserving of clemency.
He had four previous non-violent drug felonies dating back to 1978, but became the first prisoner to receive a life sentence under Oklahoma’s habitual offender statute after trying to buy 50 pounds of marijuana from an undercover officer in May 1990. He was convicted in February 1991 of conspiracy to traffic marijuana and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
Dodd has applied for clemency on 10 occasions since being sentenced, but has never received a hearing.
“I don’t even smoke weed anymore. What’s the threat here?” he wrote. “When I was on the street, I went fishing and I smoked joints…I wasn’t hurting anyone.”
Knock was a first-time offender and did not have a previous history of drug abuse. He has since exhausted his right to appeal the sentence. In 2012, a petition for clemency filed by New York attorney Michael Kennedy on behalf of Knock and four other men serving life sentences for non-violent pot crimes was dismissed.
“There’s no logic to it,” said Knock’s sister, Beth Curtis. “It seems like such a hypocritical thing to have people serving life without parole for the same product that people are now scrambling around to make business on.”
8. Paul Free
In a cruel example of irony, Free will likely never have his freedom after being sentenced to life in prison in 1995 on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance (marijuana). He had served two previous sentences on other non-violent crimes related to the importation and possession of pot.
Two witnesses reportedly came forward before the trial and said that Free wasn’t the man involved in distributing marijuana with them. The judge in his case also allegedly fell asleep at the bench several times during the trial.
His advocates have created a website on his behalf to help his trial get back to court, in addition to circulating an online petition asking President Obama to grant group clemency for all nonviolent drug offenders serving life sentences.
Daniel was given a life sentence in 1990 for non-violent charges related to methamphetamine. He had no disciplinary write-ups during his 24 years behind bars.
Last July, Daniel died at the federal prison in Butner, N.C., at the age of 75. A series of strokes over the previous three years left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to read or write. He had been waiting to hear back on a compassionate release request so that he could spend his final days with his family.
Cundiff, now 66, has been serving a life without parole sentence since 1991 after being convicted of conspiracy to import and distribute over 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. At his sentencing, the trial judge initially indicated that he would spend 15-20 years behind bars.
Cundiff has had no disciplinary write-ups during his time behind bars. His health has declined rapidly in recent years and he now requires a walker, in addition to suffering from skin cancer. He wrote to POW 420 about his time in prison and said that “if I should die and go to hell, it could be no worse.”
11. Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda
Miranda, now 76, has been serving a life without parole sentence since 1993. His employer, Atilano Dominquez, reportedly made arrangements to purchase 3,100 pounds of marijuana and Hernandez-Miranda was instructed to guard it. However, both men were arrested in what turned out to be a sting operation.
Hernandez-Miranda had no prior criminal record before his arrest and no disciplinary write-ups since being incarcerated. His unofficial caretaker, Eugene Fischer, said that he now weighs less than 80 pounds and is transported around his prison in a wheelchair.
12. David Lincoln Hyatt
The former U.S. Army veteran received a mandatory minimum sentence in 1993 for his alleged role in a massive cocaine conspiracy in Ohio. He had no prior criminal record beforehand. Hyatt has maintained his innocent, insisting that the guns and thousands of dollars in cash found in his home by police was a set-up by other drug dealers. The FBI also never found any drugs in his office or house.
Now 65, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer five years ago and court documents revealed that his “prognosis is poor.” He is currently waiting to hear back on his compassionate release request. Ohio federal judge David D. Dowd, who expressed frustration with the mandatory minimum sentence he was forced to give Hyatt at the trial, has since advocated for his release.
“The court notes that the petitioner did not kill anyone even though he is serving a life sentence,” he wrote in an October 2013 order.“I question whether the life sentence that I was required to pronounce makes good policy in the long run.”
In 2008, Mosley, then 30, was sentenced to life in prison over two pounds of marijuana that an officer found in his car. The judge in his case initially sentenced him to 25 years in prison, but then increased it to life without parole on the basis that he was a habitual offender. Mosley had two previous convictions over a decade earlier; a cocaine possession charge at age 17 and a cocaine distribution charge at age 18.
[It’s] cruel and unusual punishment to think you will never be free before you die,” he said. “I’d like to have my freedom back and be the best in society possible and a father for my children.”
14. Travis Bourda
Despite not having any marijuana found in his possession, Bourda was sentenced in October 2009 to life without parole for possession of 130 grams of marijuana with intent to distribute. The trial judge initially gave him an eight-year sentence, but the prosecutor charged him as a third-strike habitual offender. The judge upped the sentence to 14 years, but the prosecutor appealed it once again and the appellate court ultimately sentenced him to life without parole.
“I believe a life sentence under the circumstances in these cases…would be an unconstitutional sentence,” the judge stated on the record. “The underlying charge was possession with intent to distribute marijuana and the amount of marijuana involved was not significant.”
Bourda, who also suffers from schizophrenia, has since completed educational, vocational and substance abuse classes while behind bars.
“It’s a sense of hopelessness,” he said of his sentence. “Every day you wonder if you are ever going to make it home to your family and children.”
15. Donnie Daniel
In August 1997, Daniel, then 34, was convicted by a jury of trafficking 24 grams of methamphetamine and two counts of possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute. Because of previous non-violent drug convictions that left him serving several years behind bars, he was given life without parole on the trafficking charge and a life sentence for the 15 Valium pills found on him by officers.
Daniel was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease in 2004, in addition to cirrhosis of the liver and chronic hepatitis B and C. Although a liver transplant could save his life, he doesn’t qualify for one due to his incarceration.
“I still can’t see how they can put a person away for the rest of their life just because they were convicted of two or more drug felonies in the past,” he said. “I’ll never give up my hopes and dreams of being free, to spend what little time I do have left with my loved ones.”