Mary Ritcherson

Mary’s story contains all the elements of what’s wrong with the drug war. Above all it’s another unbelievable tale of how the US government allows some criminals to walk if they only talk. And it happens this way in most federal drug indictments, the result being a conviction rate of 98 per cent due to coerced, negotiated pleas. Stories like Mary’s are shamefully too common, but help explain growth in public contempt for a criminal justice process that victimizes the least culpable while rewarding the most culpable. 

In 1988, David Ritcherson traveled from Los Angeles to Des Moines, Iowa at the request of “Ricco,” who had previously been arrested and who later recruited David––sending him on a mission to sell drugs for Ricco. There is reason to suspect that Ricco may have been cooperating with the feds in a plea agreement to lessen his sentence, and therefore was under pressure to make a new case for the feds. Reason being: Ricco was never charged in this case, even though he was the instigator.

At some point, after David arrived in Des Moines, he met Mary and they became romantically involved. He moved in with her and often drove her car. Unbeknownst to Mary or David, he was already under surveillance. On June 1, 1988, David was pulled over while driving Mary’s automobile. His sister, Lisa, was in the car with him, and she possessed one small rock of crack cocaine. Finding $350 tucked in David’s sock, police seized the money and rock, yet neither was charged or arrested.

As reported in the PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation), “On August 2, 1988, a confidential informant (C.I.) indicated that David Ritcherson would be transporting cocaine base from L.A. to Des Moines.” It is odd that the feds did not ask their C.I. to make an arranged buy, nor did they use an undercover narc to approach the suspects, David and T. Watts, in order to bust them in the act of selling drugs, which is normal procedure and would have provided the prosecution with hard, reliable evidence. Instead, after David returned from L.A. the feds issued a search warrant for Mary’s home, assuming the drugs would be there. Approximately 9-10 law enforcement people burst into her residence with drug dogs to raid the place. No drugs of any kind were found!

Because there were no drugs, the frustrated feds seized four new motor scooters on the assumption that the scooters must have been purchased with drug proceeds. While the officers were inventorying items they considered worthy of seizure, a pager went off. An officer answered it and determined the call was made by Watts from an apartment leased to C. Cofer. A warrant was quickly issued that same day, and when the feds entered Cofer’s residence, T. Watts was present.  The feds found $4,405 dollars in cash and some cocaine residue.

There is no evidence linking Mary to this conspiracy. But she was indicted, anyway, with David Ritcherson, T. Watts and C. Cofer. Cofer––the only person/residence where drugs were found––was acquitted.

Admittedly, Mary was involved in a heroin case with two other people––S. Smith and D. Williams that pre-dated this case. She was charged in 1981 for ‘possession with intent to deliver heroin’ to run concurrent with ‘possession with intent to deliver morphine.’ She received a 10-year state sentence and served time for this charge. The only evidence given at Mary’s trial against her came from two people linked to these old charges from Mary’s past, S. Smith and D. Williams, even though they had nothing to do with this case. Even in the PSI, it summarizes that “Mary was primarily involved in the distribution of heroin,” and they never link her to the conspiracy for which her co-defendants were charged. In exchange for testimony, Smith and Williams were never charged for any wrongdoing, although they were more culpable than Mary by their own admission/testimony.

The government split Mary’s aforementioned concurrently-ran priors, enabling them to charge her as a “career offender” and, thus, artificially enhance Mary’s sentence by 20 years. Without this tactic, Mary would have received a 10-year sentence. Mary was the least culpable of everyone charged, yet, though ironically typical, received the harshest sentence. Most of the ringleaders in this case are free today. Mary is the only one who remains in prison and should be granted relief based on ‘disparity of sentence’ and to correct an injustice. All her codefendants have been out for more than seven years.

There were no African Americans in Mary’s entire jury pool in Des Moines, Iowa. In Mary’s final appeal the 8th Circuit ruled that it is NOT a constitutional violation to exclude blacks from the jury process, despite several Supreme Court rulings to the contrary. Mary filed a clemency petition in 2007  that’s still pending. 

In Mary’s own words, “First of all, I would like to say that I am not a saint. I have made some mistakes for which I have dearly paid. However, the 30-year sentence that I am presently serving is extremely disproportionate to the alleged crime I was convicted for and to the sentences of my two co-defendants.

On paper, one of my priors looks bad but there are special circumstances that occur in one's life which are often outside our control. I was in an abusive relationship, which eventually called for my self-defense. In 1977 no one ever used the term "battered woman syndrome." Nor did anyone care or take it up as a political issue. I paid for that crime in 1978, and I have been paying for it ever since, even though the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.

I have endured some difficult times in prison, but the most painful and everlasting was the loss of my beloved father who passed away in 2001. I greatly regret that I could not be present during his final days, nor was I able to attend his funeral or be together with my relatives.

Although my family is supportive, it is a financial burden on them to come see me in prison. Frankly, I don't want them to see me like this. I have four grandchildren that I have not seen in the 20 years I have been incarcerated, and two of them I have never seen at all. Mere words cannot describe the pain and loss I feel relative to my family ties. I know these are not compassionate times, but I urge you to consider my age and the fact that my health is failing. I still have productive years in which I can work and benefit both my family and society.”

As if Mary needs more to bear, at sentencing in 1990 she was fined $20,000, but in 2009 she “received a bill from the Justice Department stating that I now owe $50,000. I will never be able to pay this fine, especially with interest compiling daily. I turned 65 in May 2010. Where will I get a job that will pay this fine? A gross example of how cruelty piled upon cruelty works, the fine was added to give me more stress, as if 30 years was not already enough.”

According to BoP policy, Mary should qualify for the elderly program for prisoners 65 and older, but her priors unfairly disqualify her. If Mary serves her entire sentence she will be 71 when released. Her education and rehabilitation record shows she’s been using all those years productively. “I have changed. I am not the same person who walked through those doors handcuffed and shackled 20 years ago. I am not bitter because I received such a lengthy sentence. But it doesn’t take this long to rehabilitate anyone.”

“I have been trusted in all the institutions I’ve been held. They have allowed me to travel over 4000 miles alone to three different camps, three different times. If I can travel across America unescorted, can’t I be home on house arrest? A man in my home state killed his neighbor, drug his body across the yard and dropped it in a well. He got six years and served four. I kill no one, get 30 years, and have served 20. Tell me, someone, what’s right about this picture?”

We can help bring Mary home now by contacting: The United States Department of Justice, Office of the Pardon Attorney, 1425 New York Avenue, NW, Suite 11000, Washington, DC 20530. Her prison number is 03956-030. Urge the Pardon Attorney to, please, review and respond to Mary’s Petition for Clemency.

For more details on her Petition visit CAN Do Clemency.

Appreciation goes to Can-Do Foundation for first posting Mary’s story online, now presented here with additional text from personal correspondence.