After serving more than 11 years of a life prison sentence for a drug offense he denies committing, Alvin Williams has new hope of gaining freedom.
A hearing set for Friday will allow the Benton Harbor man a chance to persuade a judge that he deserves a new trial.
Convicted under Michigan's harsh "drug lifer" law of conspiracy to deliver more than 650 grams (about 23 ounces) of cocaine, the 42-year-old Williams already has served more time than four co-defendants found guilty in his case.
Changes in state law since Williams went to prison in 1997 allow him to become eligible for parole after serving 20 years. But as things stand now, that won't be until 2017.
"I hope for the best," said Williams, who has spent his time in prison studying to become a certified mechanic and for work in maintenance.
His family has been actively involved in efforts, unsuccessful so far, to get his sentence commuted, which means to have it reduced to time already served.
Williams said the law prescribed too much time for his offense. He denies being part of a large-volume sales organization called the Lakeside Gangsters, although a narcotics officer testified he was a street-level dealer.
Williams was convicted after a nonjury trial of conspiring with four other men, one of them his brother, Sanford Williams, to sell a large amount of cocaine from 1994-96. His brother and the three others -- Henry Futrell, Alonzo Cook and Michael Cook -- were all allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges and sentenced in 1997 to prison terms with minimums ranging from 5 to 10 years.
Interviewed by telephone at the Muskegon Correctional Facility, Williams said he was once among 267 inmates in Michigan serving life terms for drug offenses. Now, the Michigan Department of Corrections says 102 inmates are serving life under statutes that mandated the sentence for delivery, manufacture or possession of 650 grams or more of narcotics. They are known as "650 lifers."
The number dropped as inmates reached the 20-year minimum now required for parole. Sentences were commuted in a few cases.
It costs about $34,000 a year to house each inmate at a time when the state is struggling to balance its budget.
Changes Offer Little Help
Williams' lawyer, Patrick McQueeney of St. Clair Shores, said a 1998 change in the law eliminated a no-parole provision for life sentences. Further changes in 2002-03 did away with most mandatory minimum prison terms in drug cases.
But he said the reforms have had little impact on many cases that predate the changes. That was a time when the state's drug laws were among the nation's toughest.
If Williams were convicted of the same conspiracy offense today, current sentence guidelines would set a minimum term of 7 to 8 years, McQueeney said.
"The law changed significantly and, unfortunately, it didn't change for people like Alvin," he said.
McQueeney said the state Legislature should have made the reforms retroactive to apply to all offenders. That would have required sentences to be re-evaluated and possibly reduced.
"People like Alvin have suffered a number of years because the Legislature was fearful" to grandfather the changes, he said.
McQueeney represents another inmate in Jackson prison now serving his 17th year as a 650 lifer. The man is in his late 50s.
Seeking a New Trial
Williams was convicted after a four-day bench trial in Berrien County Trial Court on the testimony of convicted drug kingpins Kendrick Logan and Jeremy Singleton and other witnesses.
Logan and Singleton supplied cocaine by the kilogram in the Benton Harbor area during the 1990s, according to testimony, and they stood to gain by getting their federal prison sentences cut by cooperating with authorities.
Two witnesses have signed affidavits saying that some of the people who testified against Williams at his trial lied under oath.
Futrell said in a sworn affidavit that he told defense lawyer Earl Washington of Williams' innocence. Washington, who represented all of the co-defendants, would not let Futrell testify for Williams, according to the affidavit.
Sanford Williams stated in an affidavit that he also advised Washington of Alvin Williams' innocence of the conspiracy charge. Sanford Williams said Washington told him that the only way to get his own charge reduced was to avoid testifying for Alvin.
Sanford attested that he was "basically tricked out of testifying on behalf of my brother."
Motions filed on behalf of Williams in Berrien County Trial Court allege he did not receive a fair trial in 1997 because Washington did a poor job defending him and witnesses lied.
While representing the co-defendants in Williams' case, Washington never admitted to a conflict of interest and did not take steps to disqualify himself, according to the defense pleadings. Washington also represented prosecution witnesses in the case, among them a confidential police informant.
Various organizations are continuing to work for changes in Michigan's drug sentencing laws.
Laura Sager, former director of the Michigan office of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said proposed legislation would remove barriers to parole for the 650 lifers.
FAMM was part of a large coalition of people, including prosecutors, civil rights organizations and others, that persuaded the Legislature to change sentencing laws "that had not worked as intended," Sager said.
The net meant to snare big-time dealers also caught their wives and girlfriends and "mules" who only transported drugs.
The mandatory life sentence for possession of more than 650 grams of cocaine "was at that time the most draconian (drug) law in the nation," Sager said.
Reforms of 2003 eliminated most but not all mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Before the changes, prison terms could run consecutively for some multiple offenses, keeping offenders locked up for decades.
Sager said FAMM's position is that such laws take away a judge's discretion to consider all the circumstances of a case and to impose a sentence that fits the crime.
The reform efforts had "tremendous bipartisan support," said Sager, who now heads a project that aims to reform the state's system of providing defense for poor clients.
Berrien County Prosecutor Arthur Cotter said he agrees that the sentences required by the drug laws before the changes were sometimes unfair. The laws intended to send an unambiguous message that dealing large quantities of drugs would land you in prison for life.
"Sometimes in application it didn't always turn out to be a fair dispensing of justice," Cotter said. "Sometimes they were individuals who were just mules, not guys at the top of the organization."
Cotter agrees that judges ought to have the discretion to fashion appropriate sentences, which is not possible when the sentence is dictated by statute.
"I'm saying maybe it should be life. But the judge should have a chance to look at the defendant and the case. With mandatory sentences you do away with discretion," Cotter said.
With the financially strapped state closing prisons and taking steps to reduce the inmate population and the $2 billion corrections budget, Cotter said he's more concerned about the potential for violent offenders getting out.
"We've had parole reviews on former drug cases where, frankly, I haven't written either way and left it up to the parole board," he said. "I feel more comfortable on that than on murder cases."
In motions to be heard Friday in Berrien County Trial Court by Judge Scott Schofield, Alvin Williams will seek a new trial or, as an alternative, an evidentiary hearing.
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