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Crime & Courts

Mandatory minimums keep many nonviolent people behind bars

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Published:   |   Updated: August 17, 2013 at 10:10 PM

TAMPA — Timothy L. Tyler was a free-spirited Grateful Dead fan who followed the band around the country in his camper, selling fried dough and smoothies to other fans and buying LSD to sell to his friends back home.

Sherman Chester was a former St. Petersburg football player who dropped out of college after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and then began selling cocaine on the city’s streets.

Each man had run-ins with the law, receiving probation or house arrest for drug offenses before they found themselves in their mid-20s in federal court in the 1990s.

And because of mandatory sentencing laws, each received sentences of life in federal prison.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder could have been talking about Tyler and Chester, their supports say, when he declared, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long.”

“Both of the cases represent the overarching principle that sentencing should be tailored to an individual defendant, and with mandatory minimums that’s impossible,” said Greg Newburn, the Florida project director for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Neither of these guys fits the intention behind the mandatory minimum law.”

In a speech in San Francisco last Monday, Holder said the criminal justice system is broken in some ways and it’s time to rethink mandatory minimum prison sentences for many drug offenders. The attorney general directed federal prosecutors to curtail the imposition of the sentences by restricting how often they bring certain charges and refraining from sentencing enhancement requests for drug offenders with prior criminal records.

For some, Holder’s initiative is awakening a sense of optimism that had been gone for decades.

“I guess it could mean hope,” said Tyler, speaking from the federal penitentiary in Canaan, Pa. “Maybe I can get a date to go home some day.”

Describing himself, Tyler mentioned Jerry Garcia, the late frontman for his favorite band: “I’m a nonviolent Deadhead, basically. I got caught up in believing what other people believed, Jerry being something higher than what he was.”

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Tyler, whose life once revolved around music, went 20 years from the time of his initial arrest without being able to listen to any tunes, except what his sister could play for him in the limited phone time he was allocated. Finally, he said, last year, inmates were permitted to purchase digital music players, and once again, he has his Grateful Dead.

U.S. District Judge William J. Castagna, who sentenced Chester in 1994, said then his case was “an illustration of the difficulties and problems that result from the application of mandatory minimum sentences. This man doesn’t deserve a life sentence, and there is no way that I can legally keep from giving it to him.”

For Chester, who is serving his sentence in Georgia, prison has been demoralizing. “I can’t catch a break in here,” he wrote in a letter to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “So I know my worth in society.”

Judge Castagna told the Tribune last week that while he doesn’t specifically recall Chester’s case, “I haven’t changed my feelings about the situation.”

“It seems to me that the real solution to whatever problems have manifested themselves as a result of the mandatory minimums is to do away with mandatory minimums,” Castagna added.

The judge said the federal statute that lists the factors judges are to consider — such as the nature and circumstances of the offense, the need to protect public safety and the history and characteristics of the defendant — is “sufficient to enable a judge to come to some reasoned conclusion for an ultimate sentence.”

Having to impose a life sentence, regardless of the specific circumstances of a defendant, “does bother me, and — I’m sure — the other judges that feel obliged to follow those restrictions. When you know something you’re doing isn’t completely the right thing to do, but you’re obliged to do it anyway, that has a significant effect on a judge’s thinking. You just realize what you’ve done is, yes, to uphold the law, but that’s a tough way to do it. You’d rather not have to uphold that law.”

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Acting U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley said he’s not familiar with all the facts surrounding Tyler and Chester cases.

“It appears extremely likely, however,” Bentley said, “that these two prosecutions would be handled differently today. As prosecutors, we’re charged with enforcing and utilizing the statutes and policies in effect at the time.”

But there is almost no legal recourse short of presidential clemency now for Chester and Tyler and others like them who were sentenced when Justice Department policies called for federal prosecutors to seek sentencing enhancements and mandatory minimums in virtually every case.

Tyler’s sister, Carrie Tyler Stoafer, sees another option. She said she hopes her brother will some day be eligible for “compassionate release,” a program that allows some inmates to leave prison before their sentences have been fully served if they are elderly or sick.

In his speech Monday, Holder announced expansions to the program, saying, “Of course, as our primary responsibility, we must ensure that the American public is protected from anyone who may pose a danger to the community. But considering the applications of nonviolent offenders — through a careful review process that ultimately allows judges to consider whether release is warranted — is the fair thing to do. And it is the smart thing to do as well, because it will enable us to use our limited resources to house those who pose the greatest threat.”

For Tyler-Stoafer, who lived in St. Petersburg when her brother was arrested and now lives in Las Vegas, Holder’s statement offers her something she didn’t expect.

“I didn’t think that anything was ever going to change,” she said, “but for the first time ever, I have hope that at the very least, maybe he’ll get out when he’s elderly. He could get compassionate release. Maybe when he’s 65, maybe they’ll let him out. He’s 45 now. Maybe they’ll let him out in 20 years. It’s a release date.

“Up til’ now there hasn’t been any hope. They’ve been so adamant about the war on drugs: Put him away and throw away the key. So I had no hope. And now there is some hope.”

While the U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent, according to Holder, who said the number of inmates is still growing even though federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. The U.S. comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, the attorney general noted, but it incarcerates almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

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For Chester, who was raised by his mother and grandmother, his introduction to federal prison came after he was involved in a drug conspiracy led by a family friend, someone he described as an uncle figure, according to information from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM.

Sherman’s role was to sell heroin and cocaine on the street and sometimes pick up money for the leader. In the course of an undercover investigation, Sherman sold quantities of one to 50 grams of cocaine to an undercover detective in an eight-month period.

After being indicted in 1992, Sherman was convicted following a trial and ultimately held accountable for just under 4 kilograms of heroin and 57.4 kilograms of cocaine, nearly the entire amount involved in the conspiracy, according to FAMM.

Although FAMM didn’t have information about Sherman’s family, the advocacy group provided portions of letters he wrote in which he described his family ties as strong.

“Whenever I call one of my many siblings (17), it’s as if they’re hearing from me for the first time,” he wrote. “I’m still very much loved, along with a few classmates who at least make it to see me once a year. I’d say all in all, that I do have very strong backing in the event that I were ever to get out of this mess. And I feel that they won’t ever let me fail again.”

Tyler was prosecuted after selling LSD and marijuana to a friend who had become a confidential informant after his arrest on drug charges, according to Tyler-Stoafer and FAMM. Tyler-Stoafer said the informant asked Tyler to send him increasing amounts of LSD, even persuading him one time to re-send some drugs after he claimed they hadn’t arrived.

“Technically, I’m in here for less than a couple grams of LSD,” Tyler said, “13 sheets of paper, 13,000 hits. ... They could have arrested me a lot sooner than they did.”

He said other inmates with him are serving time for everything from bank robbery to murder.

“There’s a lot of violent people around me,” he said. “I’m not inclined to be violent, but I’d have to defend myself if somebody came to me. Luckily, I’ve stayed out of trouble for the most part.”

Tyler was prosecuted as part of a conspiracy that also included his father, who later died in prison while serving a 10-year sentence.

Tyler said his father, whose first name also was Timothy, was well known in the Clearwater area for running a business called Fireworks City.

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Tyler-Stoafer said prison has changed her brother. “He’s real nervous now,” she said. “He’s not free. He’s not spontaneous and fun and he doesn’t laugh out loud, and he’s kind of depressed all the time.”

Prison life for her brother, “pretty much sucks,” she said. “He doesn’t complain much. He just wishes he had more vegetables to eat, fresh vegetables, because everything’s processed garbage.”

The former vegan said he now eats tuna sometimes because his choices are limited behind bars.

Tyler-Stoafer said she and her brother grew up in a chaotic family, and her brother had mental health issues, such as depression, before he became involved in drugs. The LSD, she said, aggravated his mental health problems, and he has had psychotic episodes that have resulted in hospitalizations.

One time in prison, after he was put in a medical center because of an episode, he told her he was able to touch a tree for the first time in 15 years. And so he just lay on the ground for awhile looking at the tree. She said occasionally, a frog will hop onto the prison grounds, and Tyler will keep it as a pet.

“Their whole life is the frog,” she said. “He’s so bummed when they confiscate the frog.”

Tyler, who had girlfriends before his incarceration, said he has become bisexual while in prison, in search of companionship.

“My sister used to say if you don’t have affection, you lose your mind,” he said. “I actually kind of lost it a couple times.”

Tyler said he pitches on a prison softball team, the Yankees, and excels in handball.

“I’m probably like the best in five different prisons,” he said. “Nobody would bet against me.”

Tyler said he’s grown up since he’s been in prison, although in some ways, he still feels like he’s 23 “even though my body has aged a little bit.”

Tyler-Stoafer said she wants her brother to come and live with her so she can help ease him back into society.

He said the public has nothing to fear from him: “I wouldn’t be doing anything illegal if I went back home.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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