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Don Clark

Donnie (far right) with family

Source: St. Petersburg Times(FL)
Pubdate: Wed, 24 Jan 2001
Section: Metro&State, Page 1B
Author: Alicia Caldwell, Times Staff Writer

Donald Clark, sentenced to life in prison 10 years ago for growing marijuana, was one of the people pardoned by President Clinton in 2000.

PARRISH - The phone that Donald Clark found in his hand was curiously small.

He tried to hold it to his ear, but making a call was an awkward proposition.

It was a cellular phone, a basic tool of urban survival to many, but a novelty to someone who has spent the last decade of his life in federal prison.

Making a call was one of the first acts as a free man committed Saturday by Clark, 60, who was among 176 people who were issued pardons or commutations in the waning hours of former President Clinton's term.

Clark had been a farmer in eastern Manatee County before he was sentenced to life in prison for growing marijuana - a victim, said his family and supporters, of reactionary drug laws with minimum mandatory sentences targeting drug kingpins.

"I've been down 10 years and I ain't seen a kingpin yet," Clark quipped as he stood outside his sister's house Tuesday and talked to reporters. "They say if you dance you might have to pay the fiddler. Well, I didn't think I danced that long."

Federal prosecutors accused Clark, a successful sod and watermelon farmer, of leading an entire community in the ways of cultivating "Myakka Gold" in rural Manatee County in the 1980s - a $30-million operation that ultimately involved more than a million plants.

But Clark's lawyers argued their client got out of the pot business when he was busted on state marijuana charges in 1985, and that it was unfair to punish him for what others did after that.

The federal conspiracy charges that ultimately landed him in prison were based on the same acts that led to the state convictions - double jeopardy, contended Clark, but not according to the law.

James Wardell, a Tampa lawyer who asked for the commutation on Clark's behalf, said his client was no drug mastermind.

Clark, who acknowledges his stubborn streak, was the only one of two dozen defendants who refused to plead guilty and accept a plea bargain. He was convicted at trial and received a much more severe punishment.

"It has always been the unfairest, biggest injustice I have ever seen," Wardell said.

Wardell said the Clark case was the first he worked on after graduating from Stetson University's law school. Over the years, he kept in touch with Clark's family.

In 1996, Clark's sentence was reduced to 27 years, Wardell said, because the firearm authorities confiscated in Clark's barn was not connected to his crime. Wardell said Clark's ex-wife recently saw another opportunity to help Donald Clark: a newspaper story saying Clinton would be considering pardons and commutations over the Christmas holiday. Wardell drafted a letter asking the president to look at Clark's case.

"It was a last-ditch effort," Wardell said.

At the same time, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, also was lobbying the White House on behalf of Clark and two dozen other people unfairly imprisoned, they said, on drug charges.

"This case shouted injustice," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM.

And while she is thrilled about Clark's release, it does not address the harsh minimum mandatory sentencing laws that leave judges unable to make sentences fit the crime.

"There are thousands of Donnie Clarks in prison," Stewart said. "This doesn't solve the problem."

Clark, who is finding the adjustment to life outside prison more difficult than he imagined, said he is not sure how he'll make a living. But he definitely wants to help prisoners who are separated from their families by overly harsh sentences.

"There's got to be some sort of solution," he said. "Though I don't know what it is. Lives are being destroyed."

He also has considered going back to farming, though the economics of the business makes that difficult. While he was in prison, one of his jobs was to tend the turf on the ballfields.

"My job was growing grass - what I got put in prison for," said Clark, the son of a former Manatee County commissioner.

Since his release from the Federal Correctional Complex at Coleman, in Sumter County, he has been trying to reconnect with his family and friends. The key to surviving in prison is adjusting to a new sense of normal, which also happens to be the key to figuring out how to live outside.

Since he had only hours' notice of his release, he had little time to figure out how to acquire the necessary tools to survive in society - such as a job and a driver's license.

"I'm not a violent person, but I'm branded with this felony," he said. "That scares me right now more than anything."

(Excerpt from Dec. '97 Playboy Magazine article by James Brovard)

"...By contrast, Donald Clark, a farmer in Manatee County, Florida, was caught with 900 marijuana plants by state officials in the mid Eighties. After serving time in a Florida state prison, he assumed his debt to society was paid. But in 1988 federal prosecutors decided to pursue conspiracy charges against Clark. As the St. Petersburg Times noted, "Since he was charged under federal racketeering laws, he was considered responsible for every seedling ever grown in Manatee County during the Eighties. That added up to a million plants." He received life without the chance of parole."

Don's sons, Duane and Gary, were also sent to prison as a part of this conspiracy, receiving 10 and 7 years, respectively. Don and his son Duane are cellmates.

(Excerpt from the book, Smoke and Mirrors - The War On Drugs And The Politics Of Failure, by Dan Baum. From the chapter, Apologies to None)

Every day during Donny Clark's six week marijuana-conspiracy trial, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevick reminded Clark that the maximum sentence for the crime of which he was accused was life without parole. More than 1000 plants were involved in the conspiracy. When the other alleged conspirators were arrested, they possessed firearms. Clark himself had a drug record, had not helped the police, and had shown no remorse. Under the sentencing guidelines, that added up to life. Did he want to change his plea?

Your honor, Clark would say, I do not want to change my plea. I gave no help to the police and show no remorse because I'm not guilty. I was involved with marijuana in the early eighties, but I have since paid my debt to society for it.

Clark's lawyers repeatedly pointed out that not even the prosecutor alleged that Clark had committed any crime since the one he'd already served time a state sentence. He was being tried again for the same crime.

We've been through that, Judge Kovachevick said, The state of Florida and the United States are different sovereigns. Double jeopardy does not apply.

It took the jury four and a half days to find Clark guilty. On Nov. 5, 1991, Judge Kovachevick ordered Clark taken to federal prison for the rest of his life, with no possibility of parole.

He is there today.

Shortly after sentence, the Justice Department institutionalized the practice of sending people to federal prison for crimes for which they'd already served time in state prison.

Under Operation Triggerlock federal prosecutors were instructed to comb closed state cases for people who had, in the course of the same crime, violated federal gun or drug laws. Such people would be rearrested by federal agents, as they walked out the door of the state prison if necessary. As in Donny Clark's case, the fifth amendment protection against double jeopardy didn't apply.

"The intent," a Justice Department spokesman said, "is to get the bad guys off the street with apologies to none."

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