The aim of this TakePart series is to show that wrong convictions are not restricted to innocent defendants who are falsely found guilty. Mandatory minimum sentencing policies are piling years of unwarranted penitentiary time on first-time, nonviolent offenders. Prosecutorial manipulation of jailhouse informers routinely hangs truth and justice upon the words of a single snitch. America’s broken justice system is cruel and unusual by the standards of the developed world. It needs to be fixed.
In all of their 25 years, Lawrence and Lamont Garrison had never run afoul of the law. In fact, the identical twin brothers were fascinated by it. One month away from graduation at Howard University, both were intent on pursuing postgraduate law degrees.
On April 8, 1998, however, their relationship with the law took a sick turn. Federal agents burst through the door of their home, where they lived with their mother, Karen, and arrested them for being part of a crack cocaine ring.
The combined efforts of local police and federal agents failed to find any drugs or drug paraphernalia at the Garrisons’ home. Nor did the law enforcement find a money trail that would imply the twins were moving two kilos of crack per week—as the brothers were accused of doing.
Instead, the government relied explicitly on the word of an informer—who was snitching for the sole purpose of reducing his sentence. The man ran an auto repair shop—a front for his drug operation—where the twins were having an uncle’s car fixed. The boys’ phone number showed up repeatedly in the shop’s records.
Despite the paltry evidence, the phone records and the word of a drug dealer were sufficient to sway a jury.
The Garrisons were convicted.
On October 16, 1998, Lawrence and Lamont were sentenced to 15 and a half and 19 and half years in prison respectively. The informer who testified against them received 12. Lamont says the man only served three.
For testifying on he and his brother’s behalf, Lamont was sentenced to an extra 46 months for obstruction of justice. “If you testify and are found guilty, everything you say is considered a lie.”
“That’s the way the system works,” he tells TakePart. “The government goes on testimony of one individual, with no other evidence. They use the term ‘ghost drugs’ throughout the system. This is evidence that doesn’t exist, proceeds that don’t exist. It’s just the word of a snitch.”
Worse yet, for testifying on he and his brother’s behalf, Lamont was sentenced to an extra 46 months for obstruction of justice.
“If you testify and are found guilty, everything you say is considered a lie,” says Lawrence.
“It’s a game they play,” explains Lamont. “The government does it as a deterrent. When you try to exercise your constitutional right, this is what will happen to you.”
“When the judge said ‘guilty’ in the courtroom that day, I passed out,” the twins’ mother, Karen, tells TakePart. “I went home, the next day it was like, ‘I can’t believe it.’ It was just too much time for a first-time, non-violent offender. I was sitting there, and I started listening to the news. I had to teach myself how to use the computer. I started writing people.”
Karen became a tireless advocate for her sons’ release and for sentencing reform. Teaming with groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, she helped push Congress to pass the 2009 Fair Sentencing Act, which dropped the mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses—statutes that were substantially more punitive than for comparable—and identical—drugs, such as powder cocaine.
The change in law helped knock more than three years off of her sons’ sentences.
Years later, progress has continued. Marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington has the nation rethinking the Drug War.
What Karen truly has on her mind, however, is an end to the mandatory-minimum sentencing schemes that condemned her sons to more than a decade in prison each—for a first-time offense.
That goal may be attainable. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy recently announced his intent to fight for an end to mandatory minimums. High profile calls for reform like Leahy’s have advocates excited.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells TakePart, “and I have to say I’m very enthusiastic about where we are right now. They say it takes about 20 years for a social movement to start changing laws. As depressed as I sometimes feel, I think we’re on a cusp of significant reform.”
Lawrence Garrison, who was released from prison on June 2, 2009, sees hope for change. He has joined his mother’s advocacy and become a tireless campaigner for sentencing reform. He was even called to testify on Capital Hill in hearings about the Fair Sentencing Act.
Still, his work isn’t done.
“Until they abolish mandatory minimums, this problem won’t change,” he says. “People ask me all the time if I’m angry about the ordeal I went through. I’m not mad. I understand why I was there. I have to do something to help others. That’s why I was put there. Not to sulk. Not to cry that I was unjustly convicted. The way I deal with this is to help others. And it’s a lifelong commitment.”
Lamont, meanwhile, was released on February 8, 2012. He, like the rest of his family, wants to see systemic change in the way sentences are meted out.
“I would like to see judges get more discretion—especially where you can consider a person’s criminal history.”
That said, given his history with the system, he’s glad to be out of prison, and not stuck waiting on reform.
“I see things as still stagnant. Things are moving slowly. There are so many more people arriving [in prison] every day and staying in there. The government is downright devilish when it comes to sentencing people.”
What do you feel are appropriate punishments for first time, nonviolent drug offenders? Leave guidelines in COMMENTS.
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Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt