By Alex LaGanke, Appleseed Staff Attorney

In 1994, Alonzo Hurth was sentenced to life without parole for a robbery conviction without physical injury. On June 21, 2021, Mr. Hurth walked out of Donaldson Correctional Facility a free man after a Jefferson County judge ordered him released on time served.

If sentenced today, Mr. Hurth would be eligible for a 13-year sentence with 3 to 5 years to serve in prison. Yet, he served 27 years of a death-in-prison sentence from which he tirelessly sought relief without legal representation until now. 

Forgery convictions were used to enhance Mr. Hurth’s sentence: a Georgia forgery and two Alabama check forgeries, the latter arising from a single incident. Due to changes in the law in both states, those priors would be too minor to use for sentence enhancement today. Put another way, if sentenced today, Mr. Hurth’s conviction would not be eligible for the Habitual Felony Offender Act.

Alonzo Hurth walked free from Donaldson Correctional Facility after 27 years of incarceration for robbery.

 

I began corresponding with Mr. Hurth and investigating his case in the summer of 2020. We featured his case in our Condemned report highlighting the wrongs of Alabama’s merciless Habitual Felony Offender Act.

At Appleseed, we receive a lot of letters from incarcerated Alabamians. His were distinctive and always opened with this line: “May we first acknowledge our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in whom we move and breathe and have our being. (Amen.)” Like many of our clients, Mr. Hurth’s commitment to his faith unquestionably kept his hope alive despite his life without parole sentence. In fact, Mr. Hurth’s relationship to God was possibly the most meaningful relationship in his life when we met him at age 68. His adoptive parents had passed away, and relationships with his remaining friends and family had strained after 27 years of incarceration.  Still, Mr. Hurth displayed a gift we often observe in older, incarcerated clients, his ability to channel crippling isolation into something positive and productive in an environment rife with self-destructive coping mechanisms, like violence and substance abuse.

During the early 2000s, Mr. Hurth became a licensed minister after years of study and written assignments through an out-of-state mail-in certification program. Mr. Hurth spent most of his incarceration in the prison chapel. He would begin his days around 3 o’clock every morning. He’d open the day in prayer and study, share an “encouraging word” on a bulletin board in the honor dorm where he resided, and before retiring to the chapel, Mr. Hurth might draft a poem and add it to his book of poems. Even before learning that there was any hope of his release, he displayed profound optimism: “I believe that everything that happened to me has brought me closer to God. After more than 25 years, I see God working in my life. When we strive to sincerely follow Christ, great things happen!” 

Alonzo Hurth requested one thing for his first day of freedom: a salad.

To be clear, Mr. Hurth’s disposition toward his circumstances was not delusional. He was aware of the death trap  he lived in, witnessing traumatic events regularly.  Even after nearly 50 days in the free world, the stain of incarceration on Mr. Hurth’s life is palpable. But as an incredible testament to the human will, Mr. Hurth chose to make the most of the worst situation. Even at nearly 70 years of age and undergoing cancer treatment twice while in the Department of Corrections, Mr. Hurth chose to view every day, every moment rather, as a blessing and “testimony.” 

Tragically, violence and substance abuse were ubiquitous in Mr. Hurth’s life leading up to prison as well. As a child, Mr. Hurth suffered physical abuse and abandonment and was once sent to a foster home, where he and other black foster children were held back from school to pick cotton on a farm in Moulton. He battled substance abuse until his 40s, including the day he was charged with robbery after using crack cocaine. Mr. Hurth sat in jail for a year and a half awaiting trial, an eccentric trial at that, including  one truly golden nugget when the defense attorney called himself as a witness.

Mr. Hurth’s case obviously struck us at Alabama Appleseed. We were able to take on his case in part because a University of Alabama School of Law third-year student joined us for an internship, adding much-needed capacity to our small legal team. Allen Slater provided extraordinary legal research and writing skills. 

Appleseed Staff Attorney Alex LaGanke and Allen Slater, Appleseed’s Legal Extern and a third-year law student at University of Alabama School of Law, joined to draft Mr. Hurth’s petition. Here they are celebrating following the filing of the petition.

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, after close review of the case file, agreed not to oppose re-sentencing, noting in his response, “Due to changes in the law since he was convicted and sentenced, Mr. Hurth could not be sentenced to life without parole under any available sentencing scheme; he would be eligible for a much shorter sentence today.”  Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Shanta Owens granted the petition.

One of the most important aspects of our direct representation work at Appleseed is ensuring that every client has the support for a successful transition back into society upon release. The reentry work required to undo decades of incarceration is extensive, and we are grateful to our partners who join us in this effort. One of those partners is Shepherd’s Fold, a re-entry center that opened its doors to Mr. Hurth. Shepherd’s Fold Executive Director Jack Hausen and Mr. Hurth became friends during Mr. Hurth’s stint in prison, and the pair were elated to be reunited again in the free world.   

Mr. Hurth prepares for his first church service outside of prison.

Already, Mr. Hurth is enrolled in a job readiness class at the Salvation Army. He jumped at the chance for employment just a few days following release. But we encouraged him to slow down, get some basic computer training, and secure identification before joining the workforce again. He turns 70 next month, but you wouldn’t know it! In his zest to recapture the years lost to prison, he keeps moving forward. And I can’t wait to see what he does next! 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Motis Wright, who was originally sentenced to die in prison under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act for a 1994 robbery conviction, was released on time served after being represented by Alabama Appleseed.

Mr. Wright walked free in May, greeted by his son, Chris Burton, whom he had not seen in 15 years. They climbed into Mr. Burton’s gleaming black pickup truck and traveled through the night to Columbus, Ohio, where Mr. Wright reunited with his extended family. He has begun a re-entry program run by the Columbus Urban League and, at age 58, is enrolled in robotics classes.

Greeted by his son, Motis Wright leaves Staton prison after 27 years of incarceration.

Mr. Wright’s case is yet another example of an older person in Alabama sentenced more harshly for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences today. Because a series of sentencing reforms passed by the Legislature are not retroactive, Alabama punishes our elders with extreme sentences; the state’s unconstitutional prisons are crowded with men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Many, like Motis Wright, live in honor dorms and have long aged out of criminality.

During his 27 years of incarceration, Mr. Wright developed an exceptional record of service and leadership. He aided in the establishment of the first honor dorm offered through the Alabama Department of Corrections and was instrumental in bringing the nationally recognized Long Distance Dads prison program to the state of Alabama.  Hundreds of incarcerated people have access to productive and rehabilitative programming because of Mr. Wright’s leadership.  Teachers, chaplains, and correctional officers all recommended Mr. Wright for release.

Mr. Wright’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole was originally reduced to life with parole in March of 2019. In his order, Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Ray Martin concluded that Mr. Wright “has taken advantage of his time as best he can, has accepted the consequences of his actions, and returned to the Court as a humble, changed man.”

With a life sentence, Mr. Wright became eligible for parole last year. Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne alerted Appleseed about the case.

Appleseed lawyers submitted a comprehensive parole packet including character references from ADOC staff, documentation of Mr. Wright’s participation in numerous classes and programs, a re-entry plan at a certified re-entry facility, support from 17 family members, and the 2019 court order declaring that Mr. Wright deserved another chance.  There was no victim opposition to his release.

Motis Wright emerged from Staton Correctional Facility and was greeted by his sister, niece, and son, who are just a few members of his large extended family.

Nevertheless, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole denied parole and set off his next consideration date five years, the longest possible set off. It appeared that Mr. Wright’s well-earned opportunity for a new life with his family would have to wait, at least until he was 63.

Beginning in fiscal year 2019, the Parole Board reduced the number of parole hearings to a 30-year low. That same year, then-Director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Charlie Graddick indicated that individuals with violent convictions would not be granted parole because of the nature of their convictions, despite parole eligibility for such offenses per Alabama law. “Just because they’re eligible doesn’t mean they’re going to get out,” the Director stated, adding “[W]e don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. [We] just don’t.”

Fortunately, the Parole Board did not have the last word.

Alabama Appleseed lawyers filed a post-conviction petition on behalf of Mr. Wright, arguing that for the Court’s 2019 order “to have meaningful impact and for Mr. Wright to be able to secure employment and support himself before old age becomes an impediment, resentencing to time-served is appropriate.”

Judge Martin agreed, noting in his order: “The Court is well aware of the accomplishments of the Petitioner during his years of incarceration. The Court is also aware that his sentence would have been much different under the current Sentencing Guidelines.”

Motis Wright and Appleseed Staff Attorney Alex LaGanke stop for ice cream at Peach Park following his release from Staton.

Mr. Wright now lives with his 82-year-old mother and one of his sisters in Columbus, Ohio. He is eager to obtain employment, to use his agile mind and positive energy to contribute to society, and has been slowed only by the obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face in obtaining identification. “The biggest thing I noticed that I had to get used to was not having somebody watching me, or having to ask permission to ask or move. It was hard to get used to that,” he told us. “I had to get used to that feeling of being at home.”

This 58-year-old father and grandfather can now spend unlimited time with his sons and grandchildren.

He helped start the prison system’s “Long Distance Dad” program. He stayed connected with his sons during 27 grueling years in Alabama’s prison system. And now he’s creating a bond with his granddaughters. The first time they met, he recalled, they wanted to tell him all of their talents and what they like to do. One of his granddaughters even played the piano for him.

 

By: Akiesha Anderson, Policy Director

This legislative session, Alabama Appleseed had four main legislative priorities: (1) Repeal or reform the Habitual Felony Offender Act; (2) Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture; (3) End Needless Driver’s License Suspensions; and (4) Create a Diversion Program Study Commission. Below is a summary of these priority issues that were deliberated by the 2021 Legislature. 

The Habitual Felony Offender Act

Report: Condemned
Bills we supported: HB 107, HB 24 

Legislation to repeal Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Act (“HFOA”) is desperately needed. The HFOA currently ensnares hundreds of older people with life or life without parole sentences for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences under today’s laws. That is why we supported HB 107, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, designed to repeal the HFOA. This bill successfully made it out of the House Judiciary Committee with strong bi-partisan support, though it never reached the full chamber of the House of Origin for a vote. Appleseed thanks the 150+ Alabama judges, law professors, former prosecutors, and lawyers who signed on in support of a Dear Lawmaker letter and the countless constituents that sent emails or made phone calls urging legislators to support this important piece of legislation.  

In addition to supporting a full repeal of the HFOA, Appleseed supported HB 24, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, that was designed to reform the HFOA. If passed, this legislation would have allowed people who were sentenced under the HFOA for committing nonviolent offenses to petition the court for a review of their case and potentially be resentenced under current sentencing guidelines. We also supported an amendment to HB 24 that was offered by Sen. Arthur Orr that was designed to expand the class of people eligible for relief to include people who had “strikes” that led to an enhanced sentence arising from offenses that are now considered Class D felonies yet were Class C felonies at the time of initial sentencing. Although HB 24 came very close to passing out of both chambers, on the last day of session it failed to make it to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Report: Forfeiting Your Rights: How Alabama’s Profit-Driven Civil Asset Forfeiture Scheme Undercuts Due Process and Property Rights
Bills we supported: SB 210 (passed), HB 394

For too long, civil asset forfeiture has been improperly used as a revenue generator for law enforcement entities throughout the state. As currently structured, civil asset forfeiture empowers police to seize cash or other assets based on probable cause that they are connected in some way to certain criminal activity, even if no one is ever charged with a crime. We believe that this violates a host of due process rights and that civil asset forfeiture ought to be replaced with a system that ensures due process protections. 

That is why, this session Alabama Appleseed supported SB 210 and HB 394, companion bills by Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Andrew Sorrell, that were designed to replace civil asset forfeiture with criminal asset forfeiture. We believe that as originally written, these bills would have been good for the State of Alabama due to them: (1) requiring transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process; and (2) prohibiting Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from individuals who have not been convicted of a crime. 

Although SB 210 did ultimately pass, the substitute version that made it out of the State House was significantly diluted in comparison to the original version of the bill. While the bill that passed adds some minimal due process protections to existing civil asset forfeiture laws, Appleseed hopes that in the future, civil asset forfeiture is replaced altogether with criminal asset forfeiture. 

Driver’s License Suspensions

Report: Stalled: How Alabama’s Destructive Practice of Suspending Drivers Licenses for Unpaid Traffic Debt Hurts People and Slows Economic Progress
Bills we supported: HJR 31 (passed), HB 129

At the beginning of this year, nearly 100,000 Alabamians had a suspended license for things unrelated to unsafe driving – namely failure to appear in court, failure to pay a traffic ticket, or an alcohol or drug offense (excluding DUIs). Suspending driver’s licenses for things unrelated to road safety hurts families by making breadwinners forego necessities; slows the economy by keeping people out of work; and leads people to commit crimes to pay off their tickets. That is why Alabama Appleseed worked closely on HJR 31 and HB 129, legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Pringle and designed to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for frivolous reasons. Although HB 129 ultimately did not come up for a vote to pass out of the House Judiciary committee this session, HJR 31 which provides the mechanism for the State to opt out of requiring license suspensions for petty drug offenses successfully made it out of the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk.

Diversion Programs

Report: In Trouble: How the Promise of Diversion Clashes with the Reality of Poverty, Addiction, and Structural Racism in Alabama’s Justice System
Bills we supported: HB 71, HB 73

A goal of Alabama Appleseed is to increase access to alternatives to incarceration, and beyond-the-prison-walls public safety solutions. It is no secret that Alabama’s men’s prison system is currently in crisis. Our history of tough on crime laws have led to us having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the highest prison homicide rate in the nation, and a men’s prison system that is dangerously overcrowded. We are also in the process of being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice, as a lawsuit that was filed under the Trump Administration has argued that our prisons violate the constitutional rights of all men housed in them. Appleseed believes that it is time for State leaders to seriously invest in alternatives to incarceration such as pre-trial diversion and Community Corrections programs, as one of many solutions to the human rights crisis in state prisons.

Although diversion programs currently exist throughout most of the state, not all Alabamians have access to them. That is why we supported HB 73, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, that would have required every judicial circuit to establish a Community Corrections program. Although this bill made it out of the House of Origin and Senate Judiciary committee, it never made it to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote.  

Despite the existence of diversion programs and drug courts throughout most of the State, they are all participant-funded. This means that the budget to run and operate these programs is derived from the pockets of the people who utilize the programs. So this year we also supported HB 71, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, because we believe in establishing universal eligibility and completion requirements to safeguard against the existing practice of the completion of diversion programs being determined by whether all fees have been paid. If passed, HB 71 would have created an Accountability Court Commission tasked with overseeing, studying, and creating uniformity amongst all existing diversion programs. Although this bill made it out of both the House Judiciary Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, it never made it to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. 

Other Legislation 

In addition to the aforementioned central areas of focus, we also monitored, worked on, or supported several other key pieces of criminal justice reform legislation this session. Below is a summary of some of those other key pieces of legislation.

Criminal Justice – Prison Reform

Report: Death Traps
Bills we supported: HB 92, HB 106 (passed), HB 361

This session we also supported several pieces of legislation that we believed could have provided meaningful relief to Alabama’s current prison crisis. We were strongly in favor of bills such as HB 92, by Rep. Jim Hill, designed to create a second parole board; HB 106, by Rep. Chris England, designed to require the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) submit to more legislative oversight; and HB 361, by Rep. David Faulkner, designed to require ADOC to assist people with getting a non-driver’s license identification card prior to release from prison. 

While HB 92 made it out of the House Judiciary committee, it stalled when re-assigned to the House Ways and Means committee. Similarly, although HB 361 made it out of the House of Origin, it never made it on the agenda in the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund committee. In contrast, HB 106 successfully made it out of both chambers and was sent to the Governor’s office for her signature. 

Fines & Fees

Report: Under Pressure
Bills we supported: HB 499, SB 177

Stopping the State’s overreliance on court costs, fines, and fees was another area of legislative interest this session. That is why we supported companion bills HB 499, sponsored by Rep. Chris England and SB 177, sponsored by Sen. Roger Smitherman. If passed, these bills would have created an Alabama Court Cost Commission designed to review existing court costs to determine if they are reasonably related to the cost of running a court system. Unfortunately, although both bills made it out of the Judiciary committee in their respective House of Origin, neither of these bills received a vote by their full chamber. Thus, neither bill passed this session.

Criminal Justice – Drug Policy

Report: Alabama’s War on Marijuana
Bills we supported: SB 59 (passed), SB 149

It is time for Alabama to pass smart alternatives to criminalizing marijuana possession and use. That is why this session we supported SB 59, by Sen. Tim Melson that was designed to legalize medical marijuana. We also supported SB 149, by Sen. Bobby Singleton that was designed to decriminalize marijuana use and possession. Ultimately, SB 59 passed out of both chambers and was sent the Governor; and SB 149 passed out of the Senate Judiciary committee yet never made it to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. 

State Transparency

Bills we supported: HB 392 (passed), SB 165, SB 290 

Alabama Appleseed strongly supports bills designed to strengthen government transparency in all regards. That is why this session we closely watched HB 392, sponsored by Rep. Mike Jones; SB 165, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr; and SB 290, sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton. SB 165 was designed to strengthen Alabama’s existing open records law and both HB 392 and SB 290 were designed to increase checks-and-balance between the legislative and executive branch by requiring the executive branch to run multi-million dollar contracts and agreements past the legislature for legislative approval before such contracts could be finalized. 

This session, SB 165 and SB 290 made it out of the Senate committees they were assigned to yet not to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. In contrast, HB 392 made it out of both the House and Senate to the Governor’s desk. Unfortunately, however, the final version of HB 392 was significantly watered down before leaving the State House. The version of this bill sent to the Governor does not require legislative approval for the state to enter into large multi-million dollar contracts (as was the initial intent); rather, it simply requires legislative review of large contracts. 

Juvenile Justice

Report: Hall Monitors with Handcuffs
Bills we supported: SB 203

Alabama’s public K-12 school children deserve due-process rights and protections against suspensions and expulsions. That is why we strongly supported SB 203, sponsored by Sen. Roger Smitherman and designed to create such due process protections. Although this bill made it out of the Senate Education committee and House or Origin, it failed to pass out of the House Education committee. 

By Alabama Appleseed Staff

The 2021 Alabama Regular Session will begin on February 2, 2021.

Below is a summary of key human rights and criminal justice issues we anticipate will be under active, serious deliberation by the legislature in 2021.

To make our communities safer, reduce the burden on taxpayers, and begin to address the staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system, the Alabama legislature should:

Repeal or reform the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA or “three strikes” law)

HB107 and HB24

Legislation will be introduced to repeal Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Act which ensnares hundreds of older individuals for life or life without parole sentences for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences under today’s laws.

We support reform or repeal of the current HFOA law for the following reasons:

  • Hundreds of people in Alabama are serving life without parole sentences for crimes that resulted in no physical injury
  • The 1980s-era law has been applied with staggering racial bias as 75% of people sentenced to die in prison under the HFOA are Black
  • This group of prisoners is disproportionately older (50 and above), including many with strong records of rehabilitation, thus low risk for recidivism. It is counterproductive to research and evidence to keep them incarcerated
  • Alabama taxpayers continue to spend exhaustive amounts of money on housing incarcerated individuals who have been rehabilitated for decades

Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture

We expect legislation to be introduced that would end civil asset forfeiture (replacing it with the criminal forfeiture process in all instances), require transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process, and prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from the federal civil asset forfeiture programs. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because civil asset forfeiture:

  • Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable;
  • Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice;
  • Turns the presumption of innocence on its head by forcing property owners to defend their property’s “innocence.”
  • Builds on the 2019 bill we passed creating a public database on forfeiture cases.

Report: Forfeiting Your Rights: How Alabama’s Profit-Driven Civil Asset Forfeiture Scheme Undercuts Due Process and Property Rights

End Needless Drivers License Suspensions

HB 129

Legislation will be introduced that would stop the practice of driver’s license suspensions for things unrelated to dangerous driving – namely unpaid fines and fees, and failure to appear in court. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because our research has found that this practice:

  • Hurts families by making breadwinners forego basic necessities or take out high-interest payday loans to pay what they owe
  • Slows the economy by keeping people out of work
  • Leads people to commit crimes to pay off their tickets, such as theft or sale of drugs

Report: Stalled: How Alabama’s Destructive Practice of Suspending Drivers Licenses for Unpaid Traffic Debt Hurts People and Slows Economic Progress

Create Diversion Program Study Commission

HB 71

Legislation will be introduced that creates a commission to study the use and effectiveness of diversion programs throughout the state. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation for all of the following reasons:

  • Alabama’s tangle of overlapping, unaccountable, and expensive diversion programs are not equally available to people who most need them
  • Structural obstacles force participants to make unconscionable choices in order to succeed
  • Costs, requirements, and access vary widely among counties and programs, providing opportunities for success only to those with greater resources
  • Without accessibility, transparency, and reforms that account for the lived reality of people across Alabama, diversion will remain one more element of Alabama’s two-tiered system of punishment

Report: In Trouble: How the Promise of Diversion Clashes with the Reality of Poverty, Addiction, and Structural Racism in Alabama’s Justice System

 

By Ronald McKeithen, Appleseed guest blogger

Birmingham, AL — Doubts of ever leaving prison had been embedded deep within me. I couldn’t shake them. At least not completely. Even after everything that I’d prayed for and dreamed of for decades had finally been granted: a dedicated legal team and a mountain of supporters that had worked tirelessly to bring my plight to the attention of the world. Yet that fearful, nasty taste of doubt still lingered in the back of my throat. Even after being told that I might leave the following morning.

And what’s more disturbing, I wasn’t ready to leave. There was too much I had to complete, guys to give that last encouraging talk to, and so much to distribute to guys that didn’t have much. I needed more time. At least two more days. Which is the most crazy thing that’s entered my mind since the day I refused the 15 year plea deal the District Attorney offered me in a robbery case. Especially after having served 37 years on a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. I should have been running towards the front entrance as shameless tears fell from my eyes. But I’d been shackled down too long in the insane asylum that is Alabama prison that it shouldn’t surprise anyone if I’d gone a little mad myself.

Regardless of the doubt, hope wouldn’t allow me sleep. I found myself rushing to complete greeting cards I’d started for friends, while contemplating the possibility of actually leaving this place in a matter of hours. Then exhaustion won. I couldn’t stay awake any longer. And if I dreamed of freedom, I wasn’t given a chance to recall it. Because I was awakened from a deep sleep by an officer yelling my name. Telling me to pack my belongings. That I had five minutes. I was confused, disoriented, not fully understanding where I was or what those words actually meant. Wondering why I was hearing applause. I realized that nearly the whole dorm was on their feet, smiling and clapping. Then it hit me. I was going home. If I were alone, I would’ve cried like a baby, but my masculinity wouldn’t allow it.

No hugs in the time of Covid, as Carla Crowder greets Ronald McKeithen on his first day of freedom.

By Gus Troncale

It was just a few weeks ago that I found myself fighting back tears while sitting in that very spot. After numerous conversations with my lawyers and mailing every document that I possessed that would reveal my activities since my incarceration, and why I’ve spent nearly 40 years of my life in prison, the petition that would be filed to the court had finally arrived. It was the most astounding document I’d ever laid my eyes upon. It may as well have been the Holy Grail. I had made several attempts to the courts pleading my case. Copying other guy’s petitions then rearranging them to fit my case, not fully knowing what I was doing, but knowing I had to do something. Feeling like a mute that didn’t know sign language, straining my throat to be understood, and having to endure the hurt of knowing that they clearly understood yet choose to ignore me. But this petition. It was the first one I’d seen in decades with my name and wasn’t done by me or some jailhouse lawyer. I had to look away several times before reading half of it. And I had to practically run away from it twice to keep my bunkie from seeing tears hanging from my eyelids.

The morning of my release, as the applause died down, I became even more confused. I didn’t have any idea of what to do next. What to pack, what to leave, or where to go. I’ve been ordered to gather all my belongings hundreds of times, to move from one cell, block, dorm or one prison to another prison. But never this. Freedom. And as guys began to surround my bed, each trying to shake my hand or pat my back to congratulate me, I realized that gathering things I should take was useless. That I needed to get out of there. Men began asking me to leave them something, which is expected in such circumstances. So I gave everything away.

Each time I had previously imagined walking out that gate; I either kissed the ground, stepped into a waiting limousine, or turned around and gave whoever was in the tower a finger from both hands. But the only thing that was on my mind was seeing my lawyer and friends. It hurt not being able to hug any of them. Covid wouldn’t allow it. But the hugs may have been too much to bear, since it’s something I’ve long to do to each of them but never could. I’ve never in my life seen so many people so happy to see me. And it touched me to the core. Their smiles felt like rays from the sun as raindrops fell from a gray sky onto my bald head. I’d given all my caps away. But those raindrops felt so good.

By Bernard Troncale

They were all wearing masks, yet the first person I recognized was Beth Shelburne, the woman that started my path to freedom. Through some kind of luck, I was chosen to be interviewed by her for a Fox 6 news story called “Prison Professors” about the UAB Lecture Series that I’d participated in for several years. Retired UAB Professor Connie Kohler was also there. I recognized her from the amount of time I’d spent in our Body & Health class, creating podcasts and newsletters. And there was Pat Vander Meer, the instructor of my book club, who also oversaw the prisons newsletters. I was overjoyed to see her. And there was this tall, elegant lady that I had never seen, yet appeared to be more pleased to see me than the others. She was Carla Crowder of Alabama Appleseed, my attorney, whom I’d only spoken with by phone. God knows how badly I wanted to hug her. There was also Connie’s husband, John. As well as Cedric, who I later learned is the brother of Dena Dickerson, the director of the Offender Alumni Association, who was prepared to help with my re-entry.

I didn’t know what to say. What can you say to people who have saved your life? “Thank you,” or “I owe you one?” None of these responses came close to describing the gratitude that was screaming within. There was so much I needed to say but couldn’t begin to express. To be incarcerated at the age 21, too young and naive to comprehend how willingly I was destroying my life, viewing every arrest as an occupational hazard, whether it be juvenile detention, the city or county jail, or prison. And having to endure decades before the realization that I will die in prison hit home, regardless of how many work reports, classes I complete or certificates I earned, that my life will fade away behind these walls as thousands of others have. And then a miracle happened. Someone noticed me. Then others. And the next thing I knew, people were supporting me. And some of them were standing before me.

I’d never had a good experience with a District Attorney. The one at my trial said in his closing argument that he wished I was dead, as if I’d done something so despicable, so loathsome, that it required death. Another DA placed in his response to one of my petitions that I had a rape case, which wasn’t true. But this time God blessed me with a fair and just DA to review the post-conviction petition. Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr took the time to look at my case and realized that I didn’t deserve to die in prison.

I hadn’t seen the outside of Donaldson Correctional Facility in over 16 years. The sky even looked different. During the drive from the prison, I wanted to ask Cedric to slow down, especially on the curves. I’ve never been on a roller coaster, but this must be how it felt. The constant swerving made me nauseous, and the pictures flashing past my window were making me queasy, but it was the best ride of my life. So much has changed. Unlike the kid that kept repeating ” Are we there yet?” I kept repeating “Where are we?”

I’m still doing it. Birmingham has become a whole new world, and I’m finding everything fascinating and so new. I would notice a squirrel or a small sparrow and become amazed. I’m struggling to stay calm, trying my best to control the googly-eyed expression that just won’t go away. The City of Birmingham may as well have been New York. It was hard to believe that I was gone long enough for all of those buildings to be built. Yet my old neighborhood, Titusville, hadn’t changed, which was very disappointing. The houses that had not rotted away appeared to have nearly 40 years of dust covering them. Yet the Birmingham City Jail looks brand new. I can’t understand how such neglect could occur when so much growth surrounds it.

Friends gathered for a socially distanced dinner in Ron’s honor the night he was released.

My transition back into society would have been a struggle without my support team; I would have been lost. One of my biggest fans is James Sokol, a retired businessman who believes in me and expects great things from me. The two people that have also played a major role in life since being out is Dena Dickerson, of the Offenders Alumni Association (OAA), and Alex LaGanke, Appleseed’s legal fellow. Dena, a formerly incarcerated person herself, is well aware of what I had endured, and what I would face upon my release – things one can’t learn in a classroom. She and her organization have made my transition beautiful. And Alex has been so instrumental in getting my much-needed documents in order and helping me grasp technological advancements. She’s such a store of knowledge and a delight to be around. I become a student when I’m with either of them.

To say that I’ve settled in and found my balance after six weeks would be a lie, even though I feel that I have. But to be honest, I doubt if I ever will. I spent too much time there. Each day was a constant battle to not give in to that prison mentality and become just another lost soul that fades into nothing. If I hadn’t kept my mind active from classes, I might have lost my mind. I did not have the luxury of being unproductive in prison, nor do I have that luxury out here. I’m experiencing a rebirth, a second chance at life, and every day has been a blessing. I fall asleep in anticipation of the next.

By Leah Nelson

leah.nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

In August 2016, a disabled Black veteran named Sean Worsley brought his legally prescribed medical marijuana with him on a road trip from Arizona to North Carolina. On his way through Alabama, Worsley, who earned a Purple Heart in connection with injuries sustained during his 15 months disabling bombs and retrieving the body parts of dead comrades as a Combat Engineer in Iraq, stopped for gas. He played air guitar and clowned around to entertain his wife while waiting for the tank to fill.

Sean Worsley served in the U.S. Army before becoming disabled with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.

Worsley’s playful behavior and the music the couple was playing caught the attention of a police officer who approached and asked to search the vehicle. The couple agreed, even volunteering that he would find Worsley’s medical marijuana and attempting to show him Worsley’s medical marijuana card.

The officer found roughly a third of an ounce of marijuana and arrested both of them. Convinced that the grinder and digital scale Worsley had with him to measure out his doses was evidence that he was a drug dealer, he charged Worsley with possession “for other than personal use,” a felony in Alabama. Worsley, who due to his combat injuries is considered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to be 100 percent disabled and in need of “maximal assistance” with basic day-to-day activities, pleaded guilty a year later. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and permitted to serve that sentence in Arizona, where he had lived at the time of the arrest.

But keeping up with probation requirements isn’t always easy, or even possible. Probation officers require their charges to have a stable address, but Worsley and his wife, Eboni, had become homeless in the turmoil that followed his conviction. Another Catch-22 stemmed from the Alabama court’s requirement that Worsley participate in substance abuse treatment as part of his sentence. Worsley tried to get into such a program, but the Phoenix Department of Veteran’s Affairs turned him away, citing the fact that he does not have a substance abuse issue and was only using marijuana as legally prescribed by a doctor. 

From Alabama’s point of view, Worsley’s inability to comply with the terms of his probation was unacceptable. Worsley had three prior felonies at the time of his 2016 arrest, connected with an incident involving a bad check and some marijuana that occurred a few months after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army Reserves. Alabama could have used those felonies to imprison him immediately after his guilty plea, but it didn’t. That was as generous as the state was willing to be. He incurred another felony in January 2020: His Arizona medical marijuana card expired and he did not have the $250 to renew it but kept medicating himself anyway. He was charged with felony possession in Arizona when police pulled him over for a routine traffic stop. 

In March 2020, Alabama extradited Worsley from Arizona and sentenced him to five years in prison. 

Since April of 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice has twice determined that conditions in Alabama’s prison system for men are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama’s prisons for men are the most deadly in the nation, suffer from corrupt staffing and management, and are flooded with drugs. In 2017, a federal judge found their mental health services to be “horrendously inadequate” and this week ordered federal monitoring because of the system’s inability to sustain improvements without oversight. 

Knowing this, Worsley’s wife and mother were terrified about what would happen to him behind bars. They marshalled a coalition of the unlikeliest of allies in an effort to get him out: A friend of Worsley’s from kindergarten who grew up to become a Republican operative; an Alabama legislator and his husband who are former U.S. Marines; a formerly incarcerated music producer turned advocate who is friendly with Snoop Dogg and Charles Koch; a retired federal magistrate judge; retired Alabama corrections officials; a battalion of veteran’s rights advocates and cannabis advocates. And human rights advocates, including the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, the Montgomery-based public policy organization where I work as research director. 

Everyone got to work. The veterans organized a rally outside the jail where Worsley was being held, holding signs that read “He’s my brother” and “We leave no one behind.” The advocates and lawyers found a statutory mechanism by which Worsley could be permitted to serve his sentence under supervision in the community rather than behind razor wire. We found him a full-time job and lined up pro bono counseling services with a therapist who specializes in treating traumatized veterans. 

More than 2,000 people donated a total of nearly $100,000 dollars online. Some of that helped Eboni Worsley move to Alabama and rent a home in Birmingham, where the judge who oversees Veteran’s Treatment Court agreed to supervise Worsley if he were transferred to Community Corrections. Dozens of people came together across professions and political divides to assemble an airtight re-entry plan with extraordinary levels of support. Worsley paid Pickens County the $3,858.40 in fines, fees, and court costs that had been assessed against him. The Alabama Department of Corrections deemed him suitable for transfer. 

All that the plan required was for the judge to exercise his lawful discretion to accept Worsley’s transfer into this community-based supervision in light of what so many people recognized to be a clear injustice and a waste of state resources.

That is not what happened. In a Sept. 3 order that focused on Worsley’s history of low-level, nonviolent offenses and probation violations, the judge denied the Community Corrections transfer request:  “Because the Defendant has fled this jurisdiction both times he was released, failed to comply with any condition of bond or probation and has 5 felony convictions, including one he received while on probation from this Court’s sentence, this Court finds that the Defendant is not a suitable candidate for placement in the Community Corrections Program,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, the request is DENIED.”

Pickens County District Attorney Andy Hamlin has repeatedly said that he could have pushed for Mr. Worsley’s immediate incarceration from the start. “Remember, at the time of the plea, he was a four-time convicted felon. Given his circumstances and military service, I used discretion and asked the court to put him on probation. I must apply the law consistently and fairly with every case that comes through my office. Any special treatment to Mr. Worsley would have set a precedent that would have been unfair to others with similar histories and charges,” Mr. Hamlin wrote in an email to Appleseed.

“We find ourselves here not because of failed policies or any nefarious act by anyone that works in law  enforcement or the court system, but because Mr. Worsley failed to exercise any personal responsibility or agency,” Hamlin wrote.  

Any day now, a fragile, disabled man who sacrificed his health and youth to serve his country will be thrown into the most dangerous prisons in America – prisons that have been declared unconstitutional, and which do not have any semblance of functioning mental health services – because he made the mistake of bringing legally prescribed medication into a state where that medication is not legal, and because his homelessness, disability, and the differences between Alabama and Arizona drug laws prevented him from successfully complying with probation. 

Sean and Eboni Worsley

It’s tempting to describe what was done to Sean Worsley as a travesty of justice. But that would imply that what happened to him is a distortion of how our justice system is meant to work. In Worsley’s case, our state’s justice system operated exactly as we have designed it to. What was done to Worsley was the result of Alabama laws being followed to the letter.

Over the years, Alabama lawmakers have had before them an array of bills that could have radically changed the outcome of Worsley’s unintentional violation of Alabama law. They knew that Black people are more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama despite both races using marijuana at roughly the same rate, yet declined to decriminalize simple possession of even small amounts. They knew that disparities in how Black and white communities are policed mean that Black people are far more likely to have criminal histories, yet took few steps to reduce the weight prior convictions would carry in determining a person’s sentence. They knew probation was costly and that people who lack resources struggle to comply with its demands, yet they took no steps to fix it. They knew our prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded and deadly but have refused to act with urgency about the causes of the crisis. 

This is a summer of racial reckoning. On August 31, the white coach of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide led his mostly Black team in a Black Lives Matter march to the Tuscaloosa schoolhouse door that George Wallace once blocked. Four days later, in a courthouse just one county over, Alabama’s criminal punishment system shambled on, working exactly how it’s meant to – exactly as we let it work, despite knowing the terrible consequences. 

 

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

Carla.Crowder@alabamaappleseed.org

One year ago, Alvin Kennard stood in a Bessemer courtroom nervous and uncertain. Striped jailhouse scrubs swallowed his rail-thin, shivering frame. After 36 years in a sweltering, unairconditioned prison, the chilled air of Judge David Carpenter’s courtroom was a shock to his system.

What came next was a shock to the justice system.  In 1983, Mr. Kennard had been sentenced to life without parole for a $50 robbery at a bakery. Judge Carpenter scrapped that and resentenced him to time served. A courtroom filled with Mr. Kennard’s friends and family erupted in hallelujahs. The television cameras started rolling.  As his attorney, and a worrier by nature, I immediately started thinking about next steps: This 58-year-old man had been incarcerated nearly two-thirds of his life. How on earth was he going to adjust to the outside world?

Extremely well, it turned out. Alvin Kennard filed a tax return this year. He tithes at church. He hasn’t even been affected by Covid-19, other than limits on the family gatherings he loves.

Alvin Kennard outside his home in Bessemer. August 28 marks the year anniversary of his freedom from a sentence of Life Without Parole for a $50 robbery. By Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard’s large, supportive family was critical to his successful re-entry. A room was ready in his brother’s home. A niece, who is a Bessemer businessowner, helped with transportation. Church connections helped him secure employment within six weeks at Town and Country Ford, where he works in the body shop buffing cars. Every so often, he calls me on his lunch break and lets me know things are still going just fine.  During the holidays, he texted me photos of him at the staff holiday party, standing next to a huge inflatable polar bear. Imagine returning from Alabama’s hellish prisons to a world where holidays are filled with enormous glowing inflatables. Mr. Kennard embraces it all – with joy.

“It’s almost a year I’ve had my job,” he remarked recently. “It’s been a blessing, it’s been wonderful. It’s not about how much money I’m making, it’s about what God allowed me to do.”

He loves listening to the birds chatter in the mornings, wandering down to the creek of his childhood and watching turtles and snakes. He’s got a favorite meat-and-three restaurant, Kayla’s, that’s helped him put on much-needed weight.

Mr. Kennard at work over the holidays. He’s employed in the body shop at a Ford dealership in Bessemer.

 

All conversations with Alvin Kennard eventually lead toward God. No matter how hard I try to give him credit for how hard he worked, how much he suffered, how he deserves a good life, he invokes God and the conversation becomes a prayer.

I wish more Alabama legislators, judges, and prosecutors could pray with Mr. Kennard.

Until last year, he was labeled a “violent felon” based on his robbery conviction at age 22.  Because of three minor non-violent convictions stemming from the same arrest at age 18, he was labeled a habitual offender.  Based on the calls and mail that poured into Alabama Appleseed’s office following news of Mr. Kennard’s freedom, there is a world out there that does not see him as a violent felon.  “A few month ago, I heard about you. My father was from Alabama, Bessemer, too,” wrote Elizabeth, from Spokane, Washington, who mailed him a little cash – “a gift, so that your days moving forward are hopeful, full of love and belonging.”

Elizabeth acknowledged something else about Mr. Kennard’s story: “I’m learning more about how horrible the police and jail systems are (& the laws, too). It’s not new … but the depth of the corrupt mission is being seen.”

At Appleseed, we’ve also gotten mail from those still stranded in prison honor dorms. Men in their 60s, 70s, one who is 86, sentenced to die in prison for the sins of their youth under Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Law. They tell us about their kidney problems, their high blood pressure, their crack-cocaine addictions from the 1980s that led to convenience-store hold ups and courthouse decisions that they were forever beyond redemption. Except now, they are the prisons’ hospice workers, GED teachers, barbers, launderers, preachers, peacemakers, and clean-up crew.  “The [whole] time I’ve been in, I’ve worked as a hall runner, shift office runner, infirmary runner and have seen so much brutal violence and had to clean up so much blood out of cells, off of walls and hallways and had to help pick up dead inmates or seem dead and get them to the infirmary,” wrote one man whose conviction dates back to the first Bush Presidency. “I’ve had so much prison blood on my hands, I see it in my sleep.”

Due to the limitations and complexities of Alabama criminal procedure, there is currently no clear vehicle for second chances for these old men in the honor dorms.  Mr. Kennard is free only through extraordinary mercy and grace from Judge Carpenter and the Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney’s Office led by Lynneice Washington.

Mr. Kennard in court on the day he was resentenced.

Mr. Kennard turns 60 this year. He will celebrate a full year of employment and get a week’s paid vacation. Most likely he’ll purchase a new suit or two. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Mr. Kennard this year – beyond his faith and his work ethic – is that he is a sharp dresser, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the cameras were rolling on him while he wore faded jailhouse scrubs.

He is much more himself in his Sunday best.

Alvin Kennard rarely speaks of his freedom without acknowledging his faith in God. By Bernard Troncale

 

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director | Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

PICKENS COUNTY — Sean and Eboni Worsley’s nightmare began with music a police officer found too loud for his liking.

It was August 2016, and the Worsleys were on their way east, heading from a visit with Eboni’s folks in Mississippi to surprise Sean’s family in North Carolina. Sean’s grandmother had been displaced by a hurricane and he was hoping to help rebuild her house. The couple had some venison in the trunk of their car, a gift from Eboni’s dad, a hunter, that they planned to share with Sean’s family. 

Army veteran Sean Worsley earned a Purple Heart in Iraq

Sean, now 33, is a disabled veteran with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his deployment in Iraq. He uses medical marijuana to calm his nightmares and soothe his back pain. His medical marijuana was in the back seat. He got the prescription in Arizona, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2011.

Sean was walking into the gas station when Officer Carl Abramo of the Gordo, Ala. police department approached the car. He told the Worsleys their music was too loud. He asked to search the vehicle. 

The Worsleys assented. Sean’s marijuana was legally prescribed. They thought they had nothing to hide. 

They were wrong. And now Sean has been sentenced to five years in Alabama’s violent, drug-filled, corrupt prison system because of it.

Playing Air Guitar while Black

On August 15, 2016, at 11:08 PM, Officer Carl Abramo was stationed across from the Jet Pep on Highway 82, a major east-west thoroughfare that runs from New Mexico to Georgia. According to an arrest report filed five days after the incident, he heard loud music coming from a vehicle and “observed a Black male get out of the passenger side vehicle. They were pulled up at a pump and the Black male began playing air guitar, dancing, and shaking his head. He was laughing and joking around and looking at the driver while doing all this.”

The couple was Sean and Eboni Worsley, who had stopped a few miles from the Pickens County border to refuel their car. Abramo told them their music was so loud it violated the town’s noise ordinance. They turned it down. According to the arrest report, he smelled marijuana and asked the couple about it. Sean told him he was a disabled veteran and tried to give him his medical marijuana card.

“I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in hand cuffs,” the report reads. 

Abramo called for backup and three more officers arrived. Eboni explained that they were unaware that medical marijuana was prohibited in Alabama. According to the arrest report, she told Abramo the marijuana was in the back seat. 

Abramo searched the car. He found the marijuana and the rolling papers and pipe Sean used to smoke it, along with a six-pack of beer, a bottle of vodka, and some pain pills Eboni had a prescription for. He arrested them for all of it. Pickens is one of Alabama’s 23 partially dry counties, so it is technically illegal to possess most alcohol there — though in practice, the rule is only enforced against violators who are profiting from its sale. He arrested them for that, and for violating the noise ordinance and for illegal possession of marijuana and paraphernalia. Eboni’s pills weren’t in the original bottle, which Abramo claimed constituted a felony. He put the handcuffs on her himself. 

Sean Worsley, and his wife Eboni, in happier days

In 2016, the year the Worsleys were arrested, Black people were more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana in Alabama.

The Worsleys spent six days in jail. Their lives would never be the same.

Marijuana is a Schedule One Controlled Substance, meaning that the federal government views it as illegal in all instances. Alabama hews to much the same line: except for extremely narrow exemptions involving CBD, possession of any amount can be a felony. First-time possession is charged as a misdemeanor if the arresting officer thinks it was for personal use; all subsequent instances of possession are felonies. If the arresting officer believes the marijuana is for “other than personal use,” then possession of any amount can be charged as a felony even if it’s an individual’s first time being arrested for possession.

That’s what happened to the Worsleys. Even though Sean’s marijuana was legally obtained via a prescription and packaged in a prescription bottle, Abramo booked him in for possession for other than personal use, a Class C felony. Eboni received the same charge, though it was later dropped.

Abramo, who no longer works for the Gordo Police Department and could not be reached for comment, takes a dim view of those he deems to be criminals. His Facebook page is a mishmash of pro-law enforcement videos and memes that demean Muslims, Mexicans, and Democrats. Nearly all the pro-law enforcement posts feature Black people taking up for the police, a common tactic among conservatives seeking to demonstrate that they are not racist. Many of the rest of his Facebook posts promote racist birther conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama and villainize non-white people and ethnic or religious minorities. One meme, shared in July 2019, states, “Homeless Veterans Should Be Taken Care Of BEFORE Muslim ‘Refugees.’”

“We watched people die. We watched helicopters shoot people down.”

Things would have gone differently if the Worsleys had been traveling through most other states. Recreational use of marijuana is legal in 14 states; medical marijuana is legal in 33. It is commonly used by veterans and others to manage the symptoms of a wide range of ailments, including PTSD and pain. Sean suffered from both as a result of his military service, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart.

In fact, when Sean was 28, the VA determined that he was “totally and permanently disabled due solely to [his] service-connected disabilities,” according to a February 2015 benefits summary letter included in his Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) records. He suffered from a traumatic brain injury that seriously impaired his short-term memory, as well as PTSD, depression, nightmares, and back and shoulder pain. In 2015, Sean’s impulsivity, cognitive difficulties, sleep disturbances and depression were so debilitating that the VHA determined he required a caregiver. Eboni, then 30, took on that role. Sean’s “dependence level” was high, requiring “maximal assistance” with planning and organizing, safety risks, sleep regulation, and recent memory, and “total assistance” with self-regulation. He responded poorly to the various antidepressants, antipsychotics, and pain medications doctors prescribed. 

At times, that meant Eboni couldn’t work, leaving the couple dependent on Sean’s check from the VA. When he could, he supplemented that with part-time work as a roofer and gigs as a recording engineer. Eboni went with him to doctor’s appointments. She helped him keep track of his schoolwork when he sought a business degree to transform his freelance work as a recording engineer into a business. 

The VA does not prescribe or fill prescriptions for medical marijuana, nor may VA clinicians recommend its use. However, in light of marijuana’s efficacy in treating ailments common among veterans such as pain and PTSD, the VA is tolerant of veterans who use legally prescribed marijuana. In its official policy document regarding medical marijuana, the VA encourages clinicians and pharmacists to “discuss marijuana use with any Veterans requesting information about marijuana.” A social worker at the VA in Arizona where Sean received care said medical marijuana use is common among her clients and that she has seen how helpful it can be for people suffering PTSD.

Ellis English was Sean’s first-line supervisor while they were deployed together in Iraq in 2006-07. Like Sean, he suffers from PTSD as a result of his deployment. Unlike Sean, he has been unable to use medical marijuana. 

English retired from the Army in 2018. He now lives in Honolulu, where medical marijuana has been legal for two decades. He reports that most of his fellow Army veterans there treat their symptoms with medical marijuana. English wishes he could do the same. But because he works for the federal government, he cannot use marijuana without risking his job. 

He tried it once anyway when he was overwhelmed by a PTSD flare-up following his retirement. “It was really good. For once I felt relaxed. I didn’t have any pain. No headaches,” he said. “I felt almost normal.”

English remembers what Sean was like before the traumatic brain injury and the PTSD. He also remembers the incidents that caused them. Sean was English’s driver in Iraq, taking him and other troops on dangerous missions to look for and dismantle improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Often, those devices exploded while the troops were there.

It was dangerous, terrifying work. “We were constantly going. We watched people die. We watched helicopters shoot people down. Had to go pick up the bodies,” English said.

English was with Sean when he received the traumatic brain injury that led to Sean being awarded a Purple Heart. Sean was knocked unconscious and had to be pulled out of the driver’s seat. One soldier lost his hearing on the mission. 

Sean changed after that, English said. The young soldier who used to work hard and get things done quickly became unreliable. He zoned out in the middle of work. He stopped taking care of himself. His personal hygiene declined. 

One night, he showed up in English’s room weeping and clutching his rifle. English was afraid he was going to kill himself and referred him to mental health. He no longer felt safe having Sean drive him. 

“I got him into mental health, he was off the mission for a while,” English said. “Finally, he came back but he wasn’t the same.”

Altogether, Sean spent five years in the military. His deployment to Iraq spanned 14 months, and he was honorably discharged September 22, 2008. Even after his injuries, he served in the Army Reserve until late 2010.  

Neither his service, nor his Purple Heart, nor his prescription mattered in Pickens County, Alabama.

What happened next

After six days in jail, the Worsleys were released on bond. It wasn’t cheap: On top of fees to the bail bondsman, they had to pay $400 to get their car out of impound. The meat in the trunk had gone bad after six days locked in a car in Alabama’s brutal summer heat, so the car needed to be professionally cleaned. But at least they were free.

That freedom was short-lived. For a state so eager to honor veterans, Alabama’s justice system produces some confounding results. This system’s determination to punish Sean set off a spiral of job loss, homelessness, additional criminal charges, and eventually incarceration in the country’s most violent prison system — all for a substance that’s legal in states where half of Americans live. 

But first, Sean and Eboni drove back home to Arizona. They found the charges made it difficult for them to maintain housing and stability, so they moved to Nevada, where they acquired a home and lived peacefully while their case progressed.  

Almost a year later, the bail bondsman called. He told the Worsleys that the judge was revoking bonds on all the cases he managed. He said they had to rush back or he would lose the money he had put up for their bond and they would be charged with failing to appear in court. 

They felt the bondsman had been kind to them when they were in Pickens County, so they borrowed money to make the trip and hit the road. They were due in court the next day. 

When they got to court, the Worsleys were taken to separate rooms. Eboni was horrified. She explained that Sean was disabled with serious cognitive issues, that he had PTSD, that he needed a guardian to help him understand the process and ensure he made an informed decision. If a legal guardian couldn’t be appointed, she offered to serve as his advocate in court as she served as his caregiver at home.

“They said no, and they literally locked me in a room separate from him. And his conversation with me is that they told him that if he didn’t sign the plea agreement that we would have to stay incarcerated until December and that they would charge me with the same charges as they charged him,” Eboni said. “He said because of that, he just signed it.”

Sean’s plea agreement included 60 months of probation, plus drug treatment and thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and court costs. Because the Worsleys had lived in Arizona at the time of their arrest, his probation was transferred to Arizona, instead of Nevada, where they lived. Transferring it again would mean another lengthy delay and more jail time while the paperwork was sorted out, they were told. 

Sean could not bear to stay. The Worsleys got a two-week pass from the probation officer in Alabama, drove home, broke their lease, and packed their things. When they arrived in Arizona, the only housing they could find on short notice was a costly month-to-month rental. Their funds were depleted, but at least they had a place to stay. 

The Worsleys were ready to start rebuilding their lives. But when they checked in with the Arizona probation officer, she told them that their month-to-month rental did not constitute a permanent address. She would not approve it for purposes of supervision and told them to contact probation in Alabama. They did, and the Alabama probation officer told them they would have to return to Pickens County to sign paperwork to redo the transfer. They didn’t have the money to do that, so they asked their Alabama lawyer if it could be done by proxy and proceeded with attempting to comply with the other terms of Sean’s probation.

Among those was drug treatment. Had he been an Alabama resident, Sean would have participated in mandatory programming through Alabama’s Court Referral, one of several diversion programs operating across the state. The terms of his probation required him to seek similar services where he lived, so in February 2018, Sean went to the VA to take an assessment for placement in drug treatment. 

The VA rejected him. A letter from VA Mental Health Integrated Specialty Services reads in part, “Mr. Worsley reports smoking Cannabis for medical purposes and has legal documentation to support his use and therefore does not meet criteria for a substance use disorder or meet need for substance abuse treatment.”

The Worsleys maintained contact with their Alabama lawyer and probation officer as best they could, but things were difficult. Eboni, a certified nursing assistant who works with traumatized children, had a job offer rescinded due to the felony charge in Alabama. She also lost her clearance to work with sensitive information to which she needed access to do her job. For a while, the Worsleys slept in their car or lived with family.

In January 2019, they again found themselves homeless. They requested assistance from a program that helps homeless veterans. Just as they completed the six-month program, the VA notified Sean that his benefits would be stopped because Alabama had issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest. Unknown to Sean, he had missed a February court date in Pickens County and the Pickens County Supervision Program had terminated his supervision, citing “failure to attend” and “failure to pay court-ordered moneys.” The case was referred to the district attorney’s office in March 2019.

The Worsleys were in a terrible situation. Eboni needed heart surgery, and Sean had to stop taking on extra gigs so he could help her recover. Rent was expensive, anywhere from $1,200-$1,500 a month, and they had a car loan as well. To cover costs, the couple took out a title loan, but they were unable to keep up with it. They lost Eboni’s truck. They lost their home and again had to move into a temporary rental, paying $400 a week to live in a suburb about an hour from the hospital where Eboni still had frequent appointments.

Sean was able to get his check started up again around August 2019, but the financial hole they were in was so deep that he didn’t have the $250 to renew his medical marijuana card. It expired.

In early 2020, Sean was pulled over on his way to Eboni’s sister’s home, where he was going to help with a minor repair. He had some marijuana with him. The officers who pulled him over noticed he was terrified. They asked him why. According to Eboni, he told them everything: about this PTSD, his traumatic brain injury, the expired card, the outstanding warrant from Alabama. The officers told him not to worry; Alabama would never extradite him over a little marijuana. It would be OK.

But when they called to make sure, Alabama said it wanted to bring Sean back to Pickens County. When the Arizona police told him, he ran. He fell. He was taken to jail, and eventually, he was transported to Pickens County at a cost to the state of Alabama of $4,345. The state moved to make Sean pay that money himself, on top of the $3,833.40 he already owed in fines, fees, and court costs.

“I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for.”

Sean has been in the Pickens County jail since early 2020. On April 28, the judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to 60 months in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Over the last three years, there have been robust efforts in the Alabama legislature to modify the state’s marijuana laws. A bill legalizing medical marijuana under controlled conditions passed the full Senate this year before the session ended due to Covid-19. A bill reclassifying possession of two ounces or less as a civil offense passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019. Reforms that could have created a vastly different outcome for Sean Worsley are on the horizon.

At the same time, lawmakers who support changes to the law undermine their urgency by insisting that marijuana possession does not land people in prison. Sen. Cam Ward, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told a reporter in 2018, “The only people in state prisons on possession of any kind of marijuana are those trafficking the truckloads of it.”  

Them, and disabled Black veterans playing air guitar at the wrong time while passing through Alabama.

Sean’s mother hired an attorney to appeal the case, and that process has begun. But sometime in the next several weeks, Sean will almost certainly go to prison. His transport there will be delayed due to Covid-19, which has sickened prisoners at several facilities and killed at least five. He’ll be quarantined for a couple of weeks at Draper Correctional Facility, which was condemned as unsafe and unsanitary for occupation, then refurbished for Covid-19 quarantines this year. Assuming he’s well, Sean will then be released to whichever prison has space for him. 

Alabama’s entire prison system for men was found by the U.S. Department of Justice to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. A U.S. District Judge has deemed its mental health services “horrendously inadequate.” It is almost certain Sean’s mental health will decline further in prison. The Alabama Department of Corrections, which has the highest homicide rate in the country, cannot keep him safe. 

Eboni in the hospital for heart surgery

He’ll leave behind two children from a prior relationship, ages 12 and 14, who according to Eboni have already struggled with his absence. He’ll leave behind Eboni, who is due to have another major surgery without her husband and best friend by her side. 

In a letter to Alabama Appleseed from the Pickens County jail, Sean expressed despair at being away from his children and from Eboni. He feels humiliated at having to call them from jail, crushed that he is, as he put it, “letting them down” over an arrest stemming from efforts he was making to keep himself healthy. “I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” he wrote. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”

Ellis English, Sean’s friend and former supervisor — another Black veteran who has himself been pulled over more times than he can count — feels the same way. “You go over there. You come home messed up. Then you still get targeted” by police, English said. “That’s what hurts the most.”

 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Birmingham, Ala. — A little more justice slowly made its way into Alabama this week.

Roberto Cruz, a 71-year-old man who had been sentenced to die in prison for a case involving marijuana – that’s right, only marijuana – was resentenced to time served and will soon be released from Donaldson prison.

Mr. Cruz’s odyssey through the Alabama court system contains so many remarkable elements it’s hard to know where to start. In 2003, he was charged with drug trafficking when the vehicle he was a passenger in was pulled over in Warrior and police found 25 pounds of marijuana in the trunk.  The driver received a 3-year split sentence and was deported.  Mr. Cruz was sentenced to Life Without Parole.

Roberto Cruz was ensnared in a system that has some of the country’s harshest sentences and lowest weight thresholds for marijuana offenses, Jefferson County Judge Stephen Wallace found, when he resentenced Mr. Cruz to time served.

The State’s primary evidence, according to Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace’s order: “[C]ircumstantial evidence suggesting that since the defendant was a passenger in the vehicle and marijuana has a strong odor, then he must have known about the drugs.”

At trial in 2005, Mr. Cruz’s attorney offered no mitigating evidence nor objection to the State’s use of prior convictions from 1985 to enhance his sentence under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. It took almost 16 years for the Alabama justice system to correct this error. Turns out, the State was not permitted to use those old convictions, all of which were drug crimes stemming from a single incident in Georgia.  Well-established Alabama case law excludes drug convictions prior to 1987 for use in HFOA sentencing because drug crimes had their own recidivist statute until then. But no one in Judge Gloria Bahakel’s Jefferson County courtroom 15 years ago could be bothered to point that out.

The story of how this error got corrected speaks volumes about the frailties in Alabama’s justice system and the harm done to defendants without access to money. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.  Incarcerated and without the benefit of counsel, Mr. Cruz filed post-conviction petitions that went nowhere. Then investigators with the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered his case while researching marijuana trafficking cases. They put Mr. Cruz’s plight on the radar of Jefferson County Public Defender Adam Danneman, who vigorously took on the case.

Judge Wallace’s order, most importantly, provides immediate release to a 71-year-old man who has no business at Donaldson prison. But it goes further in pointing out the “disturbing” reality that Alabama is still sending people to prison forever for marijuana, a substance legal in 11 states, and decriminalized in 16 more. “Commercial distribution of cannabis is allowed in all jurisdictions where it has been legalized, except for Vermont and the District of Columbia,” he wrote.  Even in the surrounding southern states of Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee, Alabama’s weight threshold for a trafficking conviction – greater than 2.2 pounds – is way out of line.

“Judge Wallace’s order hits the nail on the head. We have the lowest thresholds and the harshest punishments in the country for marijuana in this state,” Mr. Danneman told me. “Regardless of how you feel about the legalization/decriminalization of weed, 15 plus years in prison is a shockingly harsh punishment. I’m glad we were able to do something about it.”

Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on Alabama’s harsh marijuana laws in our report, Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Accessing the Fiscal and Human Toll of Criminalization. We found that marijuana enforcement costs Alabama taxpayers $22 million per year, a cost worth examining given the enormous state budget shortfalls anticipated by the COVID-related economic downturn and court closures.

The human costs are much worse.

In leaving prison as an older person once sentenced to die there, Mr. Cruz is in good company.  Within the last year, 72-year-old Geneva Cooley and 58-year-old Alvin Kennard have walked free, in large part because of Jefferson County judges and prosecutors who were unafraid to take a second look at how the mistakes of our past are wasting lives and hurting people.  Like Mr. Cruz, Ms. Cooley’s LWOP sentence was for drug trafficking.

Mr. Kennard at his Bessemer home a few months after his release from prison. Photo by Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard was my client and I still see him on a regular basis. Within 6 weeks of release, he secured a job at a car dealership. He talks about going to work like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Work, family, and church are his priorities.  In fact, Mr. Kennard and Bessemer District Attorney Lynniece Washington attend the same church. And she is fine with that, she once told me. After all, she saw no purpose in opposing Mr. Kennard’s resentencing. He had served 36 years for a $50 robbery.

But there are so many more like them. According to data from the Alabama Sentencing Commission that Judge Wallace included in his order, 22 people in Alabama are serving sentences of Life Without Parole for drug convictions, 255 for robbery – all crimes that require no physical injury for a conviction.  But under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, that does not matter.

More than 100 of these people are over 60 years old. As COVID-19 spreads through the Alabama Department of Corrections, with now 25 confirmed cases among staff and incarcerated people, the potential consequences of these sentencing decisions become more fraught.

We celebrate with Roberto Cruz. And still we search for the ways Alabama’s criminal punishment system will somehow provide justice to the many others like him.

For a full account of Mr. Cruz’s case, please read Kathryn Casteel’s detailed report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.