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Cracking the Penal Code

Maryland crack-cocaine convicts set free under federal sentencing reform

Photo: Ben Claassen III, License: N/A

Ben Claassen III


More than 900 people serving federal prison time for crack-cocaine crimes committed in Maryland are eligible for reduced sentences under federal reforms that went into effect Nov. 1, according to an Oct. 31 letter sent to U.S. District judges by Maryland Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Sale, the criminal-division chief. The reduced sentences are the result of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reformed a long-criticized 1986 law ordering much stiffer sentences for people convicted of possessing crack cocaine than powder cocaine, resulting in enormous numbers of mostly African-American inmates serving long prison terms.

Known as the “100-to-one rule,” the 1986 law set 10-year mandatory minimum sentences for those caught with 50 grams of crack or 5,000 grams of powder cocaine, and five-year minimums for 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder. The 2010 law reduced this sentencing disparity to 18-to-one. In June, the U.S. Sentencing Commission ordered that the new rule be applied retroactively to people sentenced between Oct. 1, 1991, and Sept. 30, 2010, unless Congress intervened by Nov. 1. Since Congress didn’t act, about 12,000 inmates nationally could see their prison terms—which average about 13 years—shortened by an average of three years, and more than 1,800 of them are eligible to be freed immediately.

City Paper was unable to obtain the precise number of Maryland convicts who could be set free immediately—by press time, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland had not provided complete data about the affected inmate population or commented about the new rules—but court documents paint a partial picture of the situation. Sale’s letter accompanied tables sent to five federal judges in Baltimore, listing a total of 24 convicts the judges sentenced who now are deemed eligible for immediate release. Though the letter pertained only to those defendants whose sentences can be reduced to time served under the new rules, “[W]e hope to provide the court with proposed dispositions in the remaining cases in the near future,” Sale wrote.

On Nov. 1, U.S. District Judge Benson Everett Legg ordered five defendants he’d sentenced to be freed from prison, thanks to the new rules. The five—37-year-old Antwan Askia, 38-year-old Dwuan Dent, 48-year-old James Sylvester Jones, 26-year-old Nicole Rorie, and 40-year-old Omar Natifie Black—were set free on Nov. 2 and 3, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which expects to save about $200 million in five years as a result of the retroactive guidelines.

Askia and Dent were on opposing sides of a late-1990s war over drug turf at East Baltimore’s O’Donnell Heights public-housing projects, which were later demolished. Both were convicted of conspiracy to sell crack in 1999, when they were in their mid-20s. In Askia’s crew were Marshawn Stokes and Ahmad Linton, who were convicted of murder by the same jury that found Askia guilty. The Nickel Boys were their rivals, headed by Dent’s co-defendant, Antonio “Big Black” Howell; another of Dent’s co-defendants, Oloyede Johnson, was convicted of murder in the case. The roster of those left dead in the violence between Askia’s and Dent’s respective crews includes Rocco Colavito Cash, an all-star Northern High School quarterback who, in a case of mistaken identity, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Jones was convicted in 1999 as the supplier of a large-scale Eastern Shore crack conspiracy—and, though the evidence showed he supplied only powder, he was convicted of crack because that’s what Jones’ powder ended up becoming. When he was arrested in April 1998, agents searched his car-detailing business and home, turning up a loaded AK-47 assault rifle, a loaded assault pistol, and a 9 mm handgun loaded with Black Talon hollow-point bullets in his bedroom. The firearms evidence was used to enhance his sentence, which initially was 292 months before being reduced twice on appeal, first to 235 months and then to 188 months.

Rorie was sentenced in September 2010 to 60 months for possessing crack. The charges arose from a February 2009 police raid of a house in the 2400 block of Greenmount Avenue, where Rorie was found with 7.5 grams of crack in her pants pocket, according to her plea agreement. When she was sentenced, the transcript reveals, Legg wrestled with the facts of Rorie’s two prior convictions—one for battery of a Department of Corrections employee and another for assault in connection with a car-jacking—and determined that they do “not mean” that she is “violent” or “cannot be redeemed.” Legg called the 60-month prison term a “very substantial sentence for that offense,” questioned why the case ended up in federal court, noted that Rorie “will still be a young woman when she is released,” and added, “I am very hopeful that she will be able to put all of this behind her and continue raising her children.”

Black was lucky to be alive when he was convicted of a federal crack conspiracy in 2004. In 1993, when he was 22 and living in Annapolis, he was shot in the face in January and then shot again—once in the chest, twice in the back—in October of that year, according to news reports at the time. Two years later, court records show, he was convicted of drug possession in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, and then, in subsequent years, racked up convictions for assault and battery before moving to New York. According to court records, he was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was indicted in 2002 by a federal grand jury in Maryland. His initial 168-month federal sentence, which was enhanced due to his career-offender status, was reduced on appeal to 135 months in 2009.

Many of the 24 Baltimore defendants whose sentences were reduced to time served were already nearing release. Martius Harding, 34, who had been a Baltimore City Public Schools special-education teacher when he received an 84-month sentence in 2006 for selling crack, was due to be released on Dec. 8. Ten had 2012 release dates, three were to finish up their terms in 2013, and five had until 2014 to serve. The one who got the greatest reduction, 44-year-old career offender Gary Singley, who received a 167-month sentence in 2007, had almost three years shaved off his time.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that presses for greater fairness in criminal penalties, is pleased with the new crack-to-powder ratio of 18-to-one, saying it will “result in less time in prison for many people who get convicted, and some reduction in the prison population.” But “the scale of change is not as great as if they had done one-to-one,” he adds, “which would have had a much greater impact. It took 20 years to get here, and it’s extremely gratifying, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively modest step.”

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