Michael Short knows he was wrong to sell crack cocaine, but he questions whether he needed 15 years in prison to learn his lesson. Now some of the politicians who helped put him there are wondering, too.
By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, June 1, 2008; W18
ON HIS 18TH DAY OF FREEDOM, Michael Short awakened before dawn. In prison, corrections officers had paced the halls at night, jingling keys and shining flashlights. Now Mike slept fitfully, even in a king-size bed.
It was a damp, gray Tuesday late in February. He slipped on a pinstriped shirt that hid his tattoos, slid his feet into shiny new loafers and rubbed coconut oil into his hair, cut razor-straight at the temples and flecked with gray. He was 36, with a basketball player's long-legged gait and the lined brow of a man well acquainted with consequences. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, he nervously knotted a silver-and-white tie that his girlfriend had bought him at Macy's.
On days like this, he wished the past were a room with a door you could close, a place you could walk away from, as he had walked away from prison after President Bush commuted his sentence. But the past wasn't like that, at least not for him. Over breakfast, he practiced the testimony he was scheduled to deliver that afternoon before a congressional subcommittee: My name is Michael Short. I am here because in 1992 I was sentenced for selling crack cocaine. Before that, I had never spent a day in prison. I came from a good family. I had no criminal history. I was not a violent offender. But I was sentenced to serve nearly 20 years. I was 21 years old.
As he navigated traffic from his girlfriend's house in Charles County and boarded the subway to Capitol Hill, he braced himself for the inevitable questions, the scrutiny of his crime, the dissection of his punishment. His commutation had taken half a dozen years to materialize and, by Mike's calculation, had shaved only six months off the time he would have served. He had spent more years in prison than many murderers.
He arrived at the basement room in the Rayburn House Office Building a half-hour early and looked around, taking in the raised dais, the plaque that said "Ways and Means." He might have spent this drizzly morning at the Greenbelt health club where he had recently landed a job as a personal trainer. Instead, he was here, wondering what was meant by the term "majority whip" and hoping that he wouldn't stutter.
The room slowly filled with the most sympathetic crowd he would encounter all day: lawyers, ex-prisoners and advocates who believed that federal crack cocaine laws were unfair and had gathered to lobby for new ones. The subcommittee hearing would not take place until afternoon; this was just a practice session to give Mike and other lobbyists some last-minute pointers. Someone handed him a big red button that said, "CRACK the disparity," a reference to the vast difference in prison terms to which crack and powder cocaine offenders are sentenced. He pinned it to his shirt.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas who has introduced a bill to remedy the disparity, walked to the lectern. An imposing woman in an emerald green suit, she wondered aloud what America's founders would have thought, had they been able to look into the future and see how many times the country fell short of its ideals.
"They set up these models, these principles, that indicated that we had the right of free speech, that we had the right of a trial by our peers," Jackson Lee said, her voice rising. "And for those of us [whose forebears] came here in the bottom of the belly of a slave boat, the 13th and 14th and 15th amendments suggested that there was a road map to freedom in this nation. But we have sometimes lost our way."
She spoke of how, in the Bible, no one stopped to help the beaten, stripped man on the roadside until the Good Samaritan came along. In much the same way, she said, members of Congress had long ignored broken crack cocaine laws that disproportionately affected African Americans. Husbands, brothers and sisters had disappeared from their communities for years over relatively minor drug crimes, she said.
Mike pulled a crumpled tissue from his pocket and wiped his eyes. The packed room felt like church on Sunday morning. As Jackson Lee spoke, people yelled, "Yes!" and "All right now!" When she finished, Mike clapped long and hard.
And then, unexpectedly, someone introduced him. He walked to the lectern and stood there, hunching his shoulders as if he were ashamed of his 6-foot-2-inch frame. His voice was gravelly with emotion.
He began his spiel: his name, his crime -- the distribution of 63 grams of crack cocaine -- the almost-20-year sentence, the 15 years and eight months he'd spent in prison.
"How many?" someone called out, incredulous.
"Fifteen years and eight months of my 19 years," Mike said. He paused, searching for a way to explain without asking for sympathy. He tried to maintain his composure.
"I made a mistake. And it didn't take me 15 years to understand that what I did was wrong. I deserved to go to prison. But I don't feel as though I deserved to go to prison for 15 years."
IN THE SUMMER OF 1986, WHEN MIKE WAS 15, the Boston Celtics selected Len Bias as their first pick in the NBA draft. A Celtics scout compared him to Michael Jordan, and Bias told a reporter that the first thing he planned to buy was a Mercedes. Two days later, he collapsed in his dorm suite at the University of Maryland, dead of a cocaine overdose. The community that had cheered for him staggered like a man punched in the gut. Here was a kid from Prince George's County who had laid claim to the American dream with all the ease of a pro executing a layup. "I can't see why we would lose someone like this," the director of a recreation center where Bias had played as a kid told The Washington Post. "Someone so important to us."
Initial medical reports indicated, incorrectly, that the high concentration of cocaine in Bias's blood suggested that he had died after smoking crack, then the latest drug to hit America's city streets. Made from powder cocaine cooked with baking soda, crack was cheaper than powder, and, because it was smoked, the high was more intense.
Living in Hyattsville, the son of a legal secretary and a car salesman, Mike absorbed the news, but he was too young to make sense of it. Drugs were not a part of his world. His parents had separated when he was a boy, and his mother raised him and his brother and sister in quiet suburban neighborhoods before moving to a neat brick house on Hawaii Avenue in Northeast Washington after Mike graduated from high school. He was a quiet kid, obsessed with basketball. His friends called him a "mama's boy" because he used to meet his mother at the bus stop when she got home from work. "I wouldn't have known what cocaine was if you put it on my dinner plate," he said.
Nevertheless, his world reverberated with Len Bias's loss. At Northwestern High School, Bias's alma mater, Mike played on the varsity basketball team with the star's younger brother Jay. Mike wanted to comfort Jay, who was visibly distraught, but he didn't know what to say.
In Congress, then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democrat whose Boston constituents couldn't stop talking about Bias's death, saw a political opportunity. Throughout the 1980s, the federal government had waded deeper into the war on drugs, part of a trend spawned by the turmoil of the 1960s and '70s. Bias's death offered a perfect chance to capitalize on the growing public outcry, especially over crack. "The speaker realizes, if the Democrats take the lead on this, if we play it right, maybe we can win the Senate back," Eric E. Sterling said recently. He was assistant counsel to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime in 1986 and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Silver Spring nonprofit that educates the public about criminal justice issues.
O'Neill convened the steering and policy committee of the House Democrats and moved the formation of tougher drug laws to the top of the agenda. Sterling and other staffers were told to draft a law that would punish high-level traffickers, but they didn't know what amount of drugs would qualify someone as "high-level" and, with the midterm election campaign season just a few days away, they didn't have time to determine that, Sterling said. No hearings were held.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established the mandatory minimum drug sentences that remain in effect today. It imposed a five-year mandatory prison term for first-time trafficking of five or more grams of crack or 500 grams of powder, and a 10-year mandatory minimum for first-time trafficking of 50 grams of crack or five kilos of powder. In drug policy circles, this is known as the "100-to-1 drug quantity ratio," and it has hit African Americans hardest because they are more likely to live in the neighborhoods where crack cocaine is used and sold, even though, in absolute numbers, most crack users are white. In 2006, 82 percent of crack offenders sentenced under federal law were African American, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency set up to develop a national sentencing policy for the federal courts.
In 1988, Congress got even tougher, passing a law that made simple possession of five grams of crack punishable by a mandatory minimum five-year prison term. First-time possession of any amount of any other controlled substance, including powder cocaine, is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of a year in prison. The only exception is flunitrazepan, also known as Rohypnol, the "date rape drug," which carries a maximum three-year penalty for first-time possession.
Five basic suppositions guided lawmakers in setting such high penalties for crack, according to research by the Sentencing Commission.
Crack is extremely addictive, and because crack users needed to get high more frequently and tended to have less money than powder users, they were more likely to engage in criminal behavior to support their addictions, creating at least a perceived link between crack use and violence. Crack was considered especially dangerous, particularly to fetuses. Children were also used as lookouts by dealers and exposed to the drug as addicts. And crack's potency and low price -- about $10 for two small pieces compared with $100 for a gram of powder cocaine in 1986-- meant that almost anyone could afford it.
President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in late October 1986. The following week, the Democrats took back the Senate. Over the next two decades, the federal prison population would grow from about 38,000 to more than 200,000; more than half the current inmates are drug offenders. The average amount of crack that federal offenders were convicted of trafficking in 2006 was 51 grams, about the weight of a candy bar; their average prison sentence was 10 years, according to the Sentencing Commission.
"If we were sophisticated in the metric system, we would have known that the people we're interested in, like [Colombian Pablo] Escobar, are moving a ton, a million grams," Sterling said. "Are we winning the war on drugs? No. The federal government is wasting the resources."
THE YEAR AFTER LEN BIAS DIED, Mike Short's team at Northwestern won the state championship. He and his teammates stormed the court at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House in jubilation, and some leapt for the rim and held on, shattering a fiberglass backboard. Their joy signaled intense relief. It had been a tough season, with rival players mocking Jay Bias over his brother's drug-induced death and Northwestern players fighting back. Several had been suspended.
Mike, a sophmore, wasn't among them, but in his senior year he was cut from the team over "differences of opinion" with a new coach, he said. His mother met with teachers and administrators, who offered to reinstate him, but Mike refused. "It's my fault for being angry like that, holding resentment," he said. "That's something that still haunts me."
He switched to pickup games on street courts in suburban Maryland, where drug dealers and athletes mingled like mismatched dancing partners. Dealers would sometimes hand out money to winning players or buy them clothes. People noticed Mike's skill and started paying him as much as $500 to play in high-stakes games, he said. He knew drugs were illegal, and his training as an athlete dissuaded him from using them. He says he never tried cocaine and only smoked marijuana once. He didn't need money. "But then some of us would see how easy it is, and it's hard to turn down $1,000 or $2,000 when you don't have to do anything," he said.
His dealing began with casual conversations with people from school, the neighborhood and guys he met on the courts. He wasn't asked to do much -- most of the time, he just made a phone call or delivered a package, often to people he knew and trusted -- and dealing became part of the fabric of his social life. He would go bowling and meet someone else in the business, or arrange a handoff to a friend at a local barbershop. He bought himself stylish new clothes, but he didn't buy a car because he worried that his mother, Shirley Short, would catch on. Even so, when he showed up in a pair of $100 tennis shoes that she hadn't bought for him, when his friends parked their own flashy cars outside, she guessed the truth. About a year before Mike got arrested, his mother told him to stop. He didn't see why he should.
"I was like, Man, it's just too sweet of a deal," he recalled. "There's no violence involved. Why not sell it, make my $500, and go on about my business?"
The violence that was invisible to him was apparent to anyone who read the newspaper or had the misfortune to live in one of the impoverished urban neighborhoods favored by street dealers. In 1989, Washington had 434 homicides, more per capita than any other U.S. city. But Mike didn't frequent open-air drug markets, and he told himself that the cops weren't looking for someone like him. I'm a peon, he thought. They want the guys who are selling thousands and thousands of dollars' worth.
And then he walked into their cross hairs.
The investigation that put him in prison, like the law that kept him there, began with Bias's death. In 1987, Brian Tribble, a former Maryland student and friend of Bias's, went on trial for supplying the cocaine that killed the basketball star. A former player testified that he and three others, including Tribble and Bias, snorted about one-third of a cup of powder cocaine the night they were celebrating Bias's ascension to the Celtics.
Relying heavily on the testimony of former teammates who snorted cocaine with Bias and a 17-year-old with an extensive juvenile record who said he had sold large amounts of cocaine for Tribble, prosecutors built a case that they later acknowledged was largely circumstantial. Tribble was acquitted, the jury foreman explained after the trial, because prosecutors failed to present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that he had any connection to the drugs that killed Bias. Tribble wept when the verdict was read, but his success in beating the charges vaulted him to superstardom in the local drug-dealing community, said J. Andrew McColl, the lead FBI agent on the investigation that led to Mike's arrest. "Brian was Mr. Teflon," McColl said. "Nobody could touch him."
In 1988, the D.C. police and the FBI went after Tribble, who was working with a network of dealers in the Woodridge neighborhood in Northeast. The FBI planned to have undercover agents supply the dealers with cellphones in exchange for crack cocaine and to record their conversations. At the time, cellphones were rare and expensive; you needed good credit to get one, something most drug dealers didn't have.
A few days before Christmas in 1989, an undercover FBI agent showed up to collect a monthly cellphone payment in crack from a dealer named Norman Brown. Brown told the agent to drive over to his "man" and collect the drugs. On this day, his man was Mike Short. Mike handed the agent a paper bag containing 63 grams of crack cocaine. The agent gave him $1,800.
In 1990, after a two-year investigation, federal authorities charged Mike, then 19, and 28 others with selling powder cocaine and crack as part of a sprawling drug ring. Nearly two decades later, McColl called Mike "a very minor player." Mike said he had never been suspended from school. Unlike some of his codefendants, he had worked steadily, including helping his father at Mattress Discounters in Langley Park.
Meanwhile, Brian Tribble agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute powder cocaine, admitting that he and associates had sold more than 110 pounds of drugs in an 18-month period. He was sentenced to 10 years, almost exactly half the length of Mike's crack sentence of 19 years and seven months. In addition to the 63 grams Mike handed to the undercover agent, the court held him accountable for helping to distribute another five kilos of crack, based on witness testimony, which added considerably to his sentence.
AFTER HE WAS FREED, MIKE RETURNED TO WASHINGTON ON THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 18, 2007, on a Trailways bus from West Virginia, wearing a prison-issue sweat suit and a denim jacket that whipped in the wind. He had ridden since morning, staring out the window, too anxious to sleep. He felt like everyone was looking at him, like they all knew that he had just been released from prison.
He was released just ahead of a stream of crack offenders expected to get out an average of two years early under changes enacted last fall by the Sentencing Commission. About 20,000 federal crack inmates will be eligible for the reductions over the next 30 years. The largest number -- about 1,400 -- were sentenced in the Eastern District of Virginia; 279 were sentenced in Maryland and 269 in the District.
On average, they are male, black and 35 years old, a profile that Mike fit almost exactly, and many will return to neighborhoods scarred by drugs. The Anacostia halfway house where Mike would spend the next six weeks sat across from a rundown apartment complex on a desolate street. It was called Hope Village, but he quickly sized up the neighborhood. "You would find your choice of drugs around there, easy," he said.
He had been behind bars for nearly 16 years, most of it in Petersburg, Va. His mother had died in 1997, and he had gone to her funeral in his khaki inmate's uniform, chained at the waist and ankles, escorted by corrections officers. Mike's father, whom he had seen periodically over the years, also attended the funeral, along with Mike's brother, sister and nephews. His father sometimes visited him in prison, and the two developed a closer relationship, though they were never as close as he and his mother had been.
At first, he was angry -- at the people who'd testified against him, at the government and at his lawyer. Having never been much of a churchgoer, he blamed God. Then somewhere along the way, he grew tired of the repetitive drone of his own rage. "I didn't want to come out of prison being bitter, hating anyone," he said. "I wasn't raised like that, and I didn't want to come home like that."
Vowing not to waste a day, he earned an associate's degree in business management and worked long hours in a prison business office.
"Why did you go to prison for so long?" Mike recalls his nephew asking when he visited. "Did you kill anybody?"
"I sold drugs," Mike told him.
"But you haven't been home since I been living." After a while, he stopped asking.
Another visitor began making the 2 1/2-hour trip from Washington to see him, first with Mike's sister, then on her own. Vanessa Bolden was 5-foot-2, with smooth chestnut skin and the righteous toughness of a woman who had been working since she was 16 and now owned her home and drove a sleek blue Lexus. She and Mike had started dating a few months before he was convicted, but neither thought it would last. She was a 31-year-old single mother with her own apartment and a job at the U.S. Customs Service. He was 21, living with his mother and going to federal court every day for his trial on drug charges.