Jay Paul Photo
A 100-to-1 Casualty
Richmond man serves almost all of a 17 ½-year crack cocaine sentence
Michael Edward Mills still insists he didn't do it.
The South Richmond resident was only 24 when he first proclaimed his innocence on a mid-August day in 1993. Police had just knocked in the door to his cousin's Hull Street home where he was visiting.
"It happened so fast, you couldn't even believe it happened to you," says Mills, an Armstrong High School dropout who had a five-year-old misdemeanor marijuana conviction on his record at the time.
A friend had driven him to the house where police found guns and drugs — including several hundred grams of crack cocaine in a ceiling. Mills, his friend, his cousin, and a woman whom he didn't know were each charged with one count of conspiracy and two counts of possession with intent to distribute the drugs. His cousin also faced two federal gun charges because he already was a felon and drugs were present.
Even as his cousin pleaded guilty and cooperated with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, Mills told the federal court he was innocent. All but one charge against his cousin were dropped. His friend opted for a trial by jury and was acquitted.
Mills instead opted for a trial by judge, declined to testify on the stand, and was convicted of all three counts he had faced, even though it was never definitively proven any of the drugs were his.
He was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in federal prison under the country's Anti-Drug Act, which allows sentences for 5 grams of crack cocaine to be the same as those for 500 grams of powdered cocaine.
Upon first entering the Allenwood Low Security Federal Correctional Institution in Deer Park, Penn., in May 1994, he noticed something odd.
"Everybody there was a crack offender. For every 10 crack cocaine cases, you'd find one gun case, maybe," and most were black, he says. "I feel it's racist."
Mills spent nearly 15 years in federal prison, proclaiming his innocence and studying the laws that had claimed his adult life. When he found out about retroactive re-sentencing for crack cases, he filed an appeal in March 2008. He was released in January, 10 months later.
At the time of his arrest, Mills' thoughts went first to how his daughter, then only a few months old, would be affected.
"That's what went through my mind, the first thing," he says.
Over a decade and a half, he would watch her grow up during regular, twice-monthly visits she made to Allenwood Low. Since returning to Richmond, he has tried to resume a normal life, but it hasn't been easy.
Mills lived in a halfway house in South Richmond for a while but has moved back in with his mother. He spent years in prison learning various skills, from computer work to air conditioning repair and maintenance, but still was unemployed for several months due both to the sour economy and his criminal record. Progress on several job leads was squelched when potential employers discovered he is a felon. He finally found an hourly job at a grocery store chain.
Today, his mind vacillates between obsession over the reasons for his time behind bars and a hard resolve to put those concerns in the past and leave them there.
"I've got to move on because I've got to move on," he says, adding tentatively, "I'm not bitter, but I was mistreated." —Bill Farrar
Eastern District Profile
- Geographic area: covers 43 counties and 21 independent cities in Eastern, Central and Northern Virginia.
- Population: just more than 6 million people, or approximately 85 percent of the state's population.
- Divisions: Alexandria, Norfolk, Newport News and Richmond
- U.S. Attorney (acting): Dana J. Boente, a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Justice who was appointed in January 2009 to serve until a permanent presidential selection is made
- Chief Judge: James R. Spencer, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and was the first African-American nominated to be a judge in the district. He has been chief judge since 2004.
- Earned the nickname "The Rocket Docket" based on its reputation for moving cases quickly through its system under Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr., who was chief judge of the district from 1985-1991.
Hundreds of Richmond residents have been caught in a quagmire involving race, excessive sentencing and the federal court for at least the past 15 years, according to a review of sentencing statistics by Richmond magazine.
Few people — even the defense attorneys closest to the situation — seem to fully understand it, and some now say an investigation may be needed to get to the bottom of it.
"This needs oversight," says attorney David Baugh, who has worked at a high level as both a prosecutor and defense attorney in the federal district court's Richmond division. "The only word you can say for it is shame."
The U.S. Sentencing Commission has estimated that 1,404 people convicted of federal crack offenses from 1992 to 2007 in Virginia's Eastern District Court — which covers the Richmond, Tidewater and Northern Virginia regions and everywhere in-between — were likely dealt excessive prison terms. Most of them were black men.
In fact, when the sentencing commission decided in December 2007 that about 19,500 federal prisoners should be allowed to ask that their sentences be shortened, those eligible in the Eastern District of Virginia far and away topped the national list of 94 districts. Its numbers were nearly twice that of the next closest contender, Middle Florida, not to mention being even higher than such dense urban areas as the District of Columbia, New York City, Detroit and Los Angeles.
And now when those eligible prisoners have their cases reviewed, Richmond division judges in some cases have denied reduced sentences to offenders who met the commission's criteria, giving no reason for their decision and leaving nothing for an appeals court to review.
Baugh, who has represented numerous federal defendants including Michael Mills ( see story at left ), had not seen the Sentencing Commission's numbers until Richmond magazine showed them to him in mid-June. Upon reviewing its report, he became angered.
"I don't know what it is, but it looks insidious. This is obscene, and somebody needs to check this out," says Baugh, who now is lead public defender in Central Virginia capital-murder cases. "These numbers make me gag. I would find it hard to imagine that there's not something wrong."
Out of Balance?
Dana J. Boente, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, and Chief Judge James R. Spencer, who was appointed in 1986 as the district's first African-American judge, each declined to be interviewed for this article. Boente's predecessor, Chuck Rosenberg, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and now is a partner in the Hogan & Hartson law firm in Washington, D.C., also did not return a phone call.
Critics say the Eastern District's trends are too drastic to be explained away as happenstance.
"Somewhere along the line, we may have gotten out of balance. In the end, you are taking street-level crime to the federal court," says David Hicks, now senior policy advisor to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones and formerly Richmond's commonwealth's attorney from 1994 to 2005, when the bulk of the federal prosecutions took place. "If you've got an elephant gun and you point it at something and shoot it, that doesn't make it an elephant."
Although it is difficult to make direct comparisons among the various federal district courts because their boundaries are not determined by population, the Eastern District of Virginia, known in legal circles for its speedy "rocket docket," does seem to outperform many peers when it comes to prosecuting drug crimes.
In 2008, a total of 1,315 felony criminal charges were filed against defendants in the district. Of those, 31 percent — nearly one in three — were drug charges.
The Central District of California is the nation's largest, covering an area of about 17 million people compared with the Eastern District of Virginia's approximately 6 million. In 2008, 1,761 felony criminal charges were filed there. Just 14.4 percent were drug charges.
In the Southern District of Texas, which is the nation's busiest federal district court for criminal cases, 6,530 charges were filed against defendants in 2008. Of those, only 12.6 percent were drug charges ( see chart below ).
Amy Austin, an assistant federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, says her office has represented defendants in cases involving as little as .08 grams of crack — basically a tiny rock of the drug — that would have been more appropriate for the state's circuit courts.
"They [the Eastern District's U.S. attorney's office] were prosecuting everybody from the user on the corner to the big-time dealer for felony charges in court," she says. "We're told that's their policy: Charge them with the maximum serious charge possible."
Sentencing Commission statistics also show that crack offenders from the Eastern District of Virginia who sought reduced sentences under the commission's retroactive guidelines were denied shortened terms in about one-third of 873 cases heard through May.
In some cases, Austin says, Richmond-based judges denied reduced sentences to offenders who clearly met the commission's eligibility criteria, frequently giving no reason for their decision. Under the process, the judges' decisions are handed down in writing without a hearing.
"The court has simply stated that the original sentence imposed is or remains appropriate and denies relief," Austin says."It is our argument that the district court must provide an adequate statement of reasons explaining what factors it considered" so that a higher court would have enough information to rule on a defendant's appeal. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the issue in one appeal and should make a ruling by the fall. —Continued