Vanessa and Mike would go to Hains Point or Rock Creek Park and drink Heinekens and talk. Sometimes they would sit in her car in front of his mother's house, listening to the radio and laughing. If he was nervous about going to prison, she never guessed. "I never had no idea that they would give him 1,001 years," she said.
In the prison visiting room, she was impressed by what she saw. "He started educating himself; he started reading a lot, getting a lot of knowledge," she said. After receiving his management degree, Mike earned his personal trainer certification and completed courses in nutrition and plyometric training.
Vanessa and Mike exchanged letters and talked on the phone. Their relationship began to shape Vanessa's life. She watched her girlfriends fall prey to cheating men. She would hang out with her brothers or go to a happy hour, but she wouldn't let a man buy her a drink. Mike was her excuse. When she went out, she imagined he was at the table next to her. "I always thought Mikey was watching me," she said.
By the time his release date neared, she was going to see him nearly every weekend, getting up at 5 a.m. on Sundays and driving all morning to sit next to him in the crowded visiting room and hold his hand. "I was like, 'What is wrong with me?'?" she said. They talked for hours about their families, their future. When Vanessa woke up troubled in the middle of the night, she would write to him. "He'd write me back and make me feel better. I was like, Damn, if it was that simple, why couldn't I figure it out?"
In 2002, he applied for executive clemency, which is one of the few remedies available to federal prisoners sentenced to mandatory minimums because there is no parole in the federal system. A year earlier, President Bill Clinton had handed out dozens of last-minute pardons and commutations. One of the recipients was Mike's codefendant and childhood friend Derrick Curry. In recent administrations, clemency has become rare. Bush has approved only six commutations since taking office, fewer than any president except his father, who served only one term.
Mike's petition, including letters from prison officials, his sister and family friends, landed in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in early 2002. It would take more than five years to reach the White House, just three blocks away. At first, his request seemed headed for denial, according to documents. Three years passed before then-Pardon Attorney Roger Adams sent a letter to the U.S. attorney in Baltimore and to Judge William Nickerson, who had presided over Mike's case, asking them to weigh in on his clemency petition.
A veteran judge, Nickerson had long been frustrated by the sentencing guidelines that took discretion out of the hands of judges. Mike's case had bothered him for years, so much so that it contributed to his decision to stop handling drug cases. Mike and his codefendants were kids from hard-
working families who "kind of got sidetracked," Nickerson said. "It made it doubly tragic to ship them off to jail." When it came time in 2005 to offer an opinion on Mike's clemency petition, Nickerson endorsed it.
Two years later, on December 11, 2007, the White House announced the commutation. It had been so long that Mike had forgotten he had applied. His unit manager found him eating lunch in the prison cafeteria.
"Are you Michael Short?" he asked.
"Why?" Mike barked. He assumed he was in trouble, though he knew he had done nothing wrong.
"Relax," the unit manager told him. "You got immediate release."
Mike's face broke into a smile. "Oh, really? Can I leave right now?"
When Vanessa learned that he was coming home early, she found herself trembling. "I didn't know what kind of man he really was, as far as living with him," she said.
The night he arrived, he climbed into her car. They sat side by side, just the two of them in silence. She glanced over at him, wondering if this was for real.
WHEN HE GOT OUT OF THE HALFWAY HOUSE THIS PAST FEBRUARY, Mike moved into Vanessa's three-bedroom house in Charles County. Golden cherubs hung on the walls in the bathroom, and a stuffed anteater with a pink ribbon around its neck occupied the overstuffed living room couch. After the constant noise of men and cells, Vanessa's house was quiet and strange. Mike didn't like being alone there. After so long in prison, he felt awkward most places. At the mall, he stumbled when getting on escalators. Electronic gas pumps bewildered him. Vanessa rolled down her window to help: "Baby, push that button over there."
He and the other inmates had fantasized about running the streets when they got out, but Mike found that he didn't even want to leave the house. He and Vanessa talked on the phone a dozen times a day. On Valentine's Day, he made steak and shrimp fried rice and laid roses on their bed. He cooked her breakfast and packed her lunch -- a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a granola bar, a peach. He mopped and vacuumed, washed clothes and painted the laundry room.
In his last years in prison, they had almost broken up when he told her he wanted children. She was in her late 40s and had already raised a son. "I'm not stopping you," she told him then. "But, if you want to do it, then go do it. I can't be a part." When she stopped answering his calls, he repented. "I want to do the right thing," he said. "I want to make her happy."
Now she called him "my blessing," "my heart." He said she was his perfect soul mate. They went to a jewelry store to look at rings and cuddled in the kitchen, sipping Sutter Home rosé while their dinner warmed in the oven. "He is not the average guy, 'cause the average guy's not cooking all that for you," she said.
Mike ordered business cards and printed his résumé, which listed his associate's degree, training and nutrition certificates, as well as his work experience in prison. He applied for jobs at several big health clubs, handing over copies of his commutation bearing the president's signature. When one of the gyms turned Mike down, a supervisor who believed in second chances put in a good word for him. Two weeks later, Mike got the job.
He wanted to work seven days a week. "I have the energy and the motivation for it right now," he said, "and I need the money."
He said nothing to his co-workers and clients about his past, but one day, during a training session, a client asked if he had been in prison. "I knew it, I knew it," she said when he told her. She was a corrections officer. Mike's biceps, swelled from years lifting weights in a prison gym, had given him away.
ON THAT DAMP, GRAY TUESDAY IN FEBRUARY, Mike stood amid the marble columns of the Capitol Rotunda and dialed Vanessa's number on his cellphone. He had spent the morning meeting with a congressman and walking beneath crystal chandeliers and elaborate archways, past a portrait of Joseph Hayne Rainey, the first African American elected to the House of Representatives. Mike had grown up a few miles from the Capitol, but he had never been there. Now he told Vanessa how beautiful it was.
Shortly after Mike left the halfway house, an advocate from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that lobbies for fair and proportionate sentencing, asked for his help. Members of Congress had proposed a handful of bills to reduce or remove the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and FAMM wanted Mike to tell his story on the Hill.
He was working long days at the health club, and he couldn't afford a suit to wear to the hearing, but felt he owed it to the men he had left behind in prison. By now, even some legislators who had voted for the 1986 mandatory minimum laws expressed regret. One former supporter, Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, had recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the sentencing disparity could not be justified: "Our intentions were good, but much of our information turns out not to be as good as our intentions."
It is true, medical experts say, that crack is more addictive than powder cocaine; smoking and injecting offer quicker routes to the bloodstream than snorting, and the faster, more intense highs lead to an increased rate of addiction. But statistics have not borne out fears of widespread violence associated with crack. In 2005, only 6 percent of powder cocaine offenses and 10 percent of crack offenses involved violence or a threat of violence, according to the Sentencing Commission. The predicted "crack babies" did not materialize, either. Although some early studies of individual children suggested that crack had devastating effects on fetuses, long-term case studies showed that alcohol is more dangerous to a fetus than any form of cocaine, including crack, and has affected a far greater number of children, said Harolyn Belcher, a neuro-developmental pediatrician and director of research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Family Center in Baltimore.
"This was one of the few times when [Congress] really rushed to complete and formulate the sentencing before the science was really there," Belcher said.
Over the years, some lawmakers had tried to lessen crack penalties, but the political moment had never been right. Then, last fall, the wind seemed to be shifting. The Sentencing Commission, which had long criticized the disparity, proposed the guideline changes that made thousands of crack offenders eligible for reduced sentences. Two Supreme Court rulings allowed federal judges a measure of freedom in drug sentencing, permitting them to exercise greater leniency if they felt the circumstances demanded it. And amid it all, Bush commuted Mike's sentence.
After the morning practice session and lunch in a congressional cafeteria, Mike entered the hearing room, calming his nerves and distracting himself from what was coming by replaying in his head a basketball game he had seen recently on TV. The cameras from C-SPAN swiveled toward him and the other witnesses seated at a long table planted with microphones. Mike was the only one without a law degree.
Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, banged the gavel. He had proposed a bill to close the disparity, and he urged members of Congress to help end "two decades of legal discrimination."
"There is certainly no sound basis for a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the mere possession of five grams of crack, when you could get probation for possessing a ton of powder," Scott said.
Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, chair of the Sentencing Commission, ran down the statistics. In 2007, he said, crack sentences were about 50 percent longer than powder sentences. "The commission believes there is no justification for the current statutory penalty scheme for powder and crack cocaine offenses," he said.
In the weeks before the hearing, Attorney General Michael Mukasey had spoken forcefully against the Sentencing Commission's decision to make the guideline changes retroactive, saying that "nearly 1,600 convicted crack dealers, many of them violent gang members, will be eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide." Gretchen Shappert, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, had come to present the Justice Department's position.
She said that her career had been "defined by the ravages of crack cocaine." She spoke about open-air drug markets, people sleeping in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets, dealers recruiting kids to sell drugs. "We continue to believe that a variety of factors fully justify higher penalties for crack offenses," Shappert said. "It has been said, and certainly it has been my experience, that whereas powder cocaine destroys an individual, crack cocaine destroys a community."
Mike listened, the muscles in his forehead tightening. He sipped his water. When it was his turn to speak, his voice was low and scratchy. "To be clear, I know that what I did was wrong," he read from his prepared testimony. "I sold illegal drugs, and I deserved to be punished. But what I did and who I was did not justify the sentence I received . . .
"I have heard some of the comments some people in positions of power have made about crack cocaine prisoners -- that we are violent gang members and that this is why our sentences have to be so much longer. I am not that person, and most of the people that I leave behind in prison aren't, either."
When the testimony was over, Scott asked whether it was true that many offenders eligible for reduced sentences were already nearing the end of their prison terms.
"Many of them, that would be the case. Mr. Short's situation is not unique," said Reggie B. Walton, a federal judge in Washington who was seated a few chairs down from Mike. "And I think it's just a waste of the taxpayers' money to keep somebody like Mr. Short locked up for as long as he was locked up. I'll be the first to tell him that he should have been punished. But to keep somebody locked up for as long as we kept him locked up, who could have come back into the community and been a positive contributor to society, I think is a loss to the community where he comes from."
People in the audience began to clap, and then, like a dam breaking, Mike hunched his shoulders and burst into tears.
MIKE STOOD BEHIND THE COUNTER at the health club in Greenbelt. It was a March Saturday, one of the busiest days of the week, and he was the only one there. This was his chance to score new clients and build experience, and he had been looking forward to it.
A woman approached him. She told him she wanted a personal trainer, but only if he could promise her that she would lose 20 pounds by May. In prison, Mike had become something of a moral hardliner. He knew some trainers who would have taken her money and told her what she wanted to hear, but he wasn't one of them. "First and foremost, I'm not going to promise you nothing," he says he told her. It would depend on how disciplined she was during her workouts, he explained, and what she ate when she wasn't at the gym.
"Well, how much is it per hour?"
The sessions were priced in packages, not by the hour. He looked for a calculator.
"You ought to know that!"
"Miss, I don't work in sales. I'm a personal trainer."
"Well, I want to talk to somebody else."
"You are free to talk to whoever you want to talk to."
She turned and stormed out, Mike said.
When he walked out to the parking lot at the end of his shift, Mike thought, I don't need any more days like this. But the truth was, apart from computer glitches and the occasional cranky client, Mike loved being a personal trainer. The main problem was money. He had hoped to make from $12,000 to $18,000 in his first six months of freedom, and he was nowhere close. He was paid $15 for each hour-long training session, but the club took nearly three times that much. "It's robbery," he said. "You getting paid peanuts for doing all the work."
His first paycheck had been for $17, but recently his biweekly pay had risen to $266. He quickly spent it on gas, an oil change, fixing a punctured tire and paying his and Vanessa's cellphone bills. He had planned to take over their shared bills one by one, paying them in ascending order until they were sharing costs equally. But on this day he had $15 in his bank account.
His framed training certificates still hung on the wall in the downstairs rec room, but he felt his dream slipping away. Vanessa paid every time they went out. He tried to make up for it by cooking and cleaning, but he had his pride. "It's got to be something better than this," he said.
One morning in March, he didn't get up to make Vanessa breakfast or pack her lunch. "I'm tired," he told her. He rolled over and slept until after she had left for work. A little later, frustrated and near tears, he sat at the computer, searching the Internet for openings at Safeway, Giant, FedEx and the post office. "I just got to be patient," he told himself, his voice breaking.
That afternoon, he was washing dishes in the kitchen when Vanessa called to say that she would be home soon, and she was starving. She asked him to put some salmon in the oven, and maybe make some rice.
"What kind of rice you want me to make, Vanessa?" he asked.
"Baby, when you talk like that, I know you don't want to do it."
Mike laughed. "You trying to read me through the phone now?" He took the fish out of the refrigerator.
"Get to cooking, man. I'm hungry."
"Relax already. I got you."
A few minutes later, she called back. "Do you miss me?"
"Only on Thursdays and Saturdays. I don't miss you today."
"All right, don't forget you have to heat the oven up first and then let that fresh salmon cook for 30 minutes."
Mike had already put the fish into the oven. "Are you going to let a true player do this, or what? Please!"
He had learned to cook and clean from his mother. She assigned him and his siblings chores, but because Mike was an early riser, he often ended up doing his brother and sister's chores as well, he said. In Vanessa's house, he would turn on the music and lose himself in the repetitive strokes of a mop on a tile floor. Cooking also relaxed him.
He had been playful on the phone, but after he hung up, his mood darkened. He took down a box of cornbread mix and buttered a pan. He wore long nylon shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt and black slippers. He seemed too big for the room, with its cloth lilies in a pot by the sink.
"I don't normally curse," he said. "I know I [expletive] up. I should have never went to prison . . . I know that this is not where I should be at this point in my life, 36 years old, struggling. I shouldn't."
He was making his mother's macaroni and cheese. He poured the pasta into a buttered pan, shook on black pepper, laid on slices of cheese and poured milk and eggs over the top.
Outside, the neutral-colored houses with their slate blue and burgundy shutters stood quiet in the middle of the day, their numbered parking spaces empty. He and Vanessa were going out that night, and he hadn't found another job. "Before I know it, I'll have to go back to work tomorrow." He sighed. "I didn't even really do nothing."
MIKE'S CONCERNS ABOUT MONEY SEEMED BLISSFULLY REMOTE as he climbed a flight of stairs at the Verizon Center one Saturday in March and settled into the second-to-last row to watch Duke play West Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament. He had dreamed of going to an NCAA game since he was a kid, and now his friend and codefendant Derrick Curry, who also had been freed by presidential decree, sat beside him.
Derrick wore a gray sweat suit and ate fried chicken off a cardboard tray, and Mike leaned forward expectantly as they waited for the game to begin.
Mike had been a Duke fan since he was 13. He despised West Virginia. He had spent the last year of his prison sentence in the state, which had no professional team, and corrections officers cheered raucously for their college players.
"I hope we beat them by 50," he said.
West Virginia dominated from the start. A Duke player sped down the court heading for the hoop and missed.
"He can't shoot," Derrick said.
"He can't shoot," Mike agreed. "A wide-open shot there! No guard. He's supposed to make that."
Mike leaned forward, hands crossed at the wrists, palms on his knees. As people shuffled past with trays of pretzels and kettle corn, West Virginia scored again. Mike shook his head. A Duke player dribbled the length of the court, rose to the basket and fumbled the shot. "Please, man!" Mike yelled. "I don't understand! That's unreal, man!"
The game went on, but Mike furrowed his brow. If anyone understood the consequences of a missed opportunity, it was him. As he and Derrick sat in the Verizon Center, Congress was considering seven bills that would reduce or remove the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, but other issues took priority: the teetering economy, the presidential race, Gen. David Petraeus talking about the effects of the troop surge in Iraq. It was, and still is, hard to know when or whether anything would change.
When the clock ran out, West Virginia had upset Duke, 73-67, in the day's first game. Mike had been paid on Friday, but he rolled his eyes as he handed over $5 for an ice cream. On the way back to his seat, an usher eyed his cone. "It's good," he told her, "but it cost too much." As Purdue and Xavier chased each other in the second game, Mike and Derrick sat as silent as boys absorbed in their ice cream, biting into the cones wrapped in paper sleeves decorated with stars and stripes.
THE SKY WAS STILL DARK WHEN MIKE LOCKED THE DOOR of Vanessa's house behind him. He wore black pants and a long-sleeved white shirt and lugged a large gym bag and a gallon jug of water. In the burgundy Nissan that Vanessa had lent him, he navigated the streets at a crawl, flashing his turn signals even though the neighborhood was deserted. The prospect of a routine traffic stop filled him with dread. Given his record, he worried that even a minor violation might end with him face down on the asphalt surrounded by dogs.
It was just after 4 a.m., and a thin crescent moon hung overhead. Mike liked this time of day, before the sun rose and rush-hour traffic clogged the highways. The soul classic "Natural High" played on the radio, and he leaned back in his seat and stared out at the dark road.
He was on his way to a new job that promised everything he'd hoped for when he left prison. A week earlier, he had quit his job at the health club. His new employer, Getem Tight Fitness, rented a mirrored ground-floor studio in an expansive home in a Prince George's County subdivision of mansions and landscaped lawns.
Mike was making $25 an hour to train a small but dedicated clientele, almost twice the rate of his previous job. For once, his past had not hurt him. The gym's manager, Richard Gartmon, had spent 10 years in prison on federal money laundering and fraud charges. He and Mike had met years earlier in prison, and Mike got the job right away.
The streets were silent as he pulled into an empty cul-de-sac and switched off the engine. A few minutes later, another trainer parked beside him. Mike lifted his bag and water jug from the trunk and followed her down a brick walkway behind a nearby house.
Inside, he greeted his first clients, a handful of smiling, middle-aged women in black workout suits. Red and green mats went down on the wood floors, and the iPod speakers blared Gwen Stefani. Mike changed into a shiny new Adidas shirt and pants that Richard had given him and stood at the front of the room to lead the day's first exercise class.
"Feet together, hands together, rotate to the right first," he called, spinning his torso. He didn't smile, but the furrows in his brow faded, and his face shone. He led the class through leg raises -- "Do not let the feet hit the ground!" -- and minute-long side-plank exercises that left several women sweating and groaning. One collapsed on her mat.
"Stomach on fire?" Mike asked.
"Yes!" a woman called out.
"That's what I like."
A man named Ray Smith stepped uncertainly into the gym, guided by his wife. A church deacon and an operations manager for a law firm, he had recently lost his eyesight to diabetes. Mike turned the class over to another instructor and, with an arm around Ray's waist, gently escorted him to a weight room in back.
"We did 10 pounds last time, right?" he asked. Ray nodded. Mike carefully placed the weights in the older man's hands and counted under his breath. "Good, good," Mike told him. "Fantastic."
His next client was a man with a shaved head and a peace sign tattooed on one muscled arm. Mike strapped on weightlifting gloves and worked out alongside him. A 38-year-old owner of a legal services company, Darnell Self sweated at the pull-up bar. "Keep pushing!" Mike told him. "Two more. Good money, man, good money!"
They did one-arm rolls, Darnell lifting 50 pounds, Mike 65. The room grew hot, the mirror fogged. Mike loaded weights onto barbells. Darnell looked doubtful. "That 90's not for me," he said. "I mean, one day I think I'll be there . . ."
"My bad," Mike told him, switching the weights. "I normally work out with 120."
Darnell picked up the barbells, grimacing. "Do it till it burns," Mike told him.
"It's already burning."
"That's how you do it. You're going to have forearms like Popeye."
Darnell groaned and dropped the weights. He stood panting.
"Last set," Mike told him.
Finally, Darnell laid the weights down. He tried to clasp Mike's hand, but he was too weak. "I was like a girl, man," he said, laughing. "I couldn't even really give you five."
Outside, the sun had risen. Mike stepped onto the brick walkway. Years ago, before the big houses came up, he and his brother used to drive out here with a carload of friends after the movies. It was all woods then, and they went joyriding and chased one another through the trees screaming about Jason, the hockey-masked killer from "Friday the 13th."
Now he stood still, gazing into the trees. There was no escaping the past, nor any way to separate the crooked pathways of his own personal history from whatever lay ahead. It was 7:36 a.m. The next wave of clients would be there soon. Mike turned and walked back into the gym.
Vanessa M. Gezari is a writer who lives in Washington. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.