Column: In The Costly War On Drugs, Who's To Say What Is Right?
By Bill McClellan
Circuit Court Judge Julian Bush seems like a low-key fellow. He is a slight and studious-looking. He is an 11-year veteran of the bench.
Last month, he sentenced Eddie Woodfin, a career criminal who had been convicted of possession of crack cocaine. Woodfin is a tall, husky fellow with long hair. He looks younger than his 48 years.
He has been in enough trouble that there is some dispute about how much trouble he's been in. One official in the court system told me Woodfin had eight felony convictions for stealing. His attorney said he had 16.
At any rate, the Missouri Department of Corrections reports that Woodfin has done a couple of stretches in prison for stealing, and at the time of his sentencing, he was on probation in St. Louis County for stealing.
Admittedly, stealing has a certain built-in momentum. If you're a neophyte, you have to steal $750 worth of something to qualify for a felony charge. But after two convictions, all subsequent cases count as felonies. Steal a pack of cigarettes? A felony.
But while the record might indicate that Woodfin is a thief, he told Bush that stealing is only a symptom of his problem. He said that his real problem is drug addiction.
So maybe there was some kind of weird karma thing going on in January 2004 when St. Louis police thought they were getting him for stealing but ended up getting him for drugs. Police found him in a car that had been reported stolen.
It turned out the car belonged to his stepson, so no charges were issued in connection with the car. But police claimed that Woodfin was in possession of a small amount of crack cocaine and a crack pipe. He was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor.
The case slowly bumped through the system. According to his attorney, John Gourley, the state offered Woodfin a 10-year sentence. Because of his extensive record, he would have had to do a big chunk of that. He opted to go to trial. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In October '06, there was a second trial. Woodfin was convicted. Bush ordered a pre-sentence report.
The probation officer who wrote the report recommended against probation, and wrote that the presumptive sentence, according to the guidelines, would be 10 years. Mitigating factors might take it down to eight and aggravating factors might push it to 12.
At the sentencing last month, Bush asked the prosecutor whether her office had a recommendation. Because of his record as a persistent offender, our recommendation is 15 years, she said.
Bush asked Gourley whether the defense had a recommendation. Twelve years sounds appropriate, Gourley said. (He told me that if Woodfin's probation in the county were revoked, which the lawyer expected to happen, the result would be a 12-year sentence, so as long as this sentence didn't exceed 12 years, his client would lose nothing.)
Bush asked Woodfin a few questions. How long had he been locked up on this charge? Most of the time since he'd been arrested, he said. About 30 months. What did Woodfin want to do with his life? "Hopefully, I'd like to turn my life around," he said. Did he use crack while he was in jail? "No sir. I've been clean for the last 30 months."
Bush then sentenced Woodfin to seven days on the felony and one day on the misdemeanor.
Yikes. The state wanted 15 years and the defense thought 12 years would be fine. Bear in mind, too, that Woodfin had already done approximately two-and-a-half years. Bush could have sentenced him to two years and it would have accomplished the same thing. Time served. Seven days seemed so outrageous that it must have been a message.
It almost seems like judicial nullification, I said when I talked to him this past week. It's as if you're disregarding the law.
Not at all, he replied. The Legislature says an appropriate sentence is one day to 15 years. I was within that range, he said.
It seems like you lack a certain enthusiasm for the war on drugs, I said.
I do lack enthusiasm for the war on drugs, he said.
I asked about legalization. He shrugged. "Monday, Wednesday and Friday I think they should be legalized. Tuesdays and Thursdays I think they should be illegal. I don't like drugs. I strongly disapprove of them. The costs are great. But it's expensive to incarcerate somebody. The costs are enormous either way. I don't know what's right."
I stopped by the circuit attorney's office. Jennifer Joyce was out. I spoke with Shirley Rogers, the chief trial assistant.
"I have the utmost respect for Julian Bush," she said. "He knows the law. He's diligent. Sentencing is totally within the judge's discretion. Obviously, we disagree with this one, but Judge Bush is very fair. He listens to both sides. He takes this very seriously."
Woodfin remains in the City Justice Center. He is being held on a stealing charge. Court records indicate that his probation in St. Louis County was suspended after his arrest and then reinstated in October.
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