In 1991, as a young drug dealer, Ray Brown made his territory in the neighborhoods of north St. Louis County. That year, he met a fourteen-year-old high school dropout named Dimetrious Woods. Brown, eight years older, fronted the teen his first scraps of crack cocaine for cooking.
"He was just a little kid in the neighborhood — bad," says Brown, laughing. "Like most of us were."
Brown, 49, works for a towing company in Wellston. On his lunch break on a recent afternoon, he stoops to pet a sleepy German shepherd, Neka, who lays curled on a mattress outside the dispatch office.
On May 19, 2006, Brown drove as he and Woods embarked on a fateful trip to Kansas City in a gold Buick Lucerne. After picking up nearly twenty pounds of cocaine, Brown made an abrupt decision to taken an exit on Interstate 70 after spotting signs for a drug checkpoint — he'd fallen into a trap of what law enforcement refer to as a "ruse checkpoint." There was no checkpoint. The signs were intended to spook and reveal possible drug traffickers.
For a highway trooper, it was as simple as pulling Brown's sedan over for an alleged illegal lane change and calling a drug-sniffing dog. That day, both men were arrested holding thousands in cash.
"We had an opportunity, or so we thought, to make some quick money," Brown says now. "It was a bad day for both of us."
As co-defendants, both men decided to fight the charges, believing they could prove the search of the car was illegal. But as the trial date approached, Brown began leaning toward taking the plea deal offered by prosecutors, which would sentence him to 30 years in prison. Brown recalls talking with other inmates in the holding pod, who warned him against taking his case to trial with a criminal record that included multiple past drug convictions.
Indeed, Brown had a fairly serious rap sheet. At the time of his arrest, he was already on probation for federal drug charges for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. In 1994, Brown had pleaded guilty to peace disturbance, resisting arrest and assault, and one year later, he added a charge for illegally possessing a weapon. All were crimes he'd committed in his mid-to-late twenties.
And while Woods was also a prior drug felon, his criminal history was skewed toward his childhood. At the time of the arrest, he was on probation for a 2005 case involving an unlicensed firearm. But his first felony had come at the age of sixteen, when he was convicted as an adult of assault. Two years later, when Woods was seventeen, he was convicted of second-degree drug trafficking and served four years in prison.
But in 2006, both men faced the same charges and evidence in the form of the massive pile of cocaine that was pulled out of the trunk.
"I started thinking of my age," Brown says. At the time, he was 35 years old, facing charges that could put him in prison for decades. "I didn't want to come home at 50."
On the day before trial, Brown changed tactics and pleaded guilty to second-degree drug trafficking, taking the prosecutors' deal for a 30-year sentence. Crucially, Brown's plea did not slap him with the label of a prior or persistent drug offender. That meant he was eligible for parole.
Here the stories of Brown and Woods diverged.
In general, while the total years of a prison sentence tend to grab headlines, the under-acknowledged reality is that the vast majority of criminals, including those convicted of violent crime, can get a parole hearing after serving as little as 25 percent of those sentences.
That was the way it was with Brown. After seven years doing time with Woods at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, Brown remembers the day in 2013 when he met his former co-defendant on the track during recreation hour, and for the last time, the friends embraced, cried and said their goodbyes. The next day Brown walked out of the front gates on parole. He lived under the terms o his supervised release for the next three years — while at the same time, Woods was embroiled in the last of his doomed appeals.
In 2017, the year Woods began spending hours in the prison's law library looking for new tactics, parole officials deemed Brown fully rehabilitated and released him from probation. Between prison and parole, Brown served a total sentence of about ten years.
The two remained in close contact over the years. Brown watched his friend struggle to maintain a life inside prison. At the graduation of Woods' children, Brown played photographer, dutifully mailing the images to a father who was watching life pass him by.
"Part of me felt bad leaving, like, 'Damn, he's still there,'" Brown says. "My mom, my wife, they told me, 'You have a life to live.' You can't live with regret. My grandkids will never have to know that about their granddad, they never got to see me behind no glass, they never had to be violated to come see me or get talked to by some prison guard."
He adds, "It just doesn't make sense. He didn't shoot nobody, he didn't rape nobody, and look at the time he's doing."
The justice system doesn't have to make sense. Its laws may have been written by humans, but that doesn't mean the results are necessarily fair. It doesn't guarantee that that the arcs of its moral universe will bend toward a justice any human can recognize.
According to Missouri's justice system, Woods must serve the time he owes, all 25 years, which sets his release date for October 11, 2034.
The past is sliding back into place. For the past two years, Dimetrious Woods has lived a kind of half-charmed life as a business owner and citizen, an existence built on hope.
The wheels of justice have turned, and the window is closed. For Woods, what has taken years to argue in various courts has been effectively un-argued, the decisions undecided, his rehabilitation unwound into chains that now seek to drag him away from his businesses, his children and his life.
Soon, the reversal will be complete. In two months, perhaps sooner, he will wake up early in the morning, unable to fall back asleep. He'll listen to the breathing of his bunk mate, of the sounds of hundreds of men sleeping nearby. He'll stare at the ceiling of his prison cell, imagining the open road, leading him home, his grandchild and freedom — and it will have been just a dream.