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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dime Bag Kingpins: How Two Grams Can Get You Twenty Years

Posted By on Wed, Oct 22, 2014 at 9:00 AM

  • Adria Fruitos

Michael Mayo was on his way to get some new braids. He didn't know he would end up spending the next two decades in prison.

Police were watching as Mayo, then in his early twenties, made his way through his north St. Louis neighborhood back in July 2001. And Mayo, a street-level drug dealer, decided to do a little business before getting his hair done. That's when police say they saw Mayo make a hand-to-hand transaction with somebody in the middle of the road. Without hesitation, the cops jumped out of an unmarked vehicle and placed Mayo in handcuffs.

On his person, police found roughly two grams of crack, a joint's worth of marijuana and $176 in cash. Mayo said the money was for the braids he was on his way to get, not profits from drug sales. Besides, what kind of legit drug dealer has only a couple grams of crack?

Such a small amount of drugs usually fetches a person probation, drug court or, at most, a year or two in prison. But not for Mayo. He already had been busted for possession twice — racking up a total of five felonies during those two busts — and was currently on probation after receiving shock time in jail.

This time prosecutors would teach Mayo a lesson by charging him under Missouri's Prior and Persistent Offender statute, a law that doles out a minimum ten-year, no-parole sentence to repeat drug offenders.

In October 2001 a jury found Mayo guilty of second-degree drug trafficking. At his sentencing a few weeks later, Mayo's mother, Ester, urged the judge to be lenient.

"Give him a try so he can raise his kids," she pleaded. "He just got off with the wrong crew and into the wrong people, and he will probably do better if you just give him a try."

"You understand though, ma'am, that during the course of the trial your son was found as a prior and persistent drug offender," responded Judge Henry Autrey.

"I don't understand," Ester said.

"Under the laws of the State of Missouri, that means that your son is not eligible for probation or parole," said Autrey.

He continued: "[Mayo] gets a minimum of ten years up to thirty without probation or parole. The only flexibility the court has is that the sentence be between that minimum range and that maximum range. Probation is not an option, and [the court] has no discretion."

It was then Mayo's turn to speak, but he deferred to his lawyer, Eric Barnhart.

"There are people all the time in this courthouse that get lesser punishments [for crimes like] murder second and robbery," Barnhart said. "I just think that the drug laws are harsh, and you should not give him more time than someone who has murdered somebody, or raped somebody, or hurt somebody."

But prosecutor Krista Boston strongly disagreed and argued for a harsh penalty.

"This is a case in which, with five prior felonies, this young man is clearly never going to see the light," Boston emphatically told the judge. "He didn't see it on those five cases. He is not going to see it now. The state is asking for twenty years. He is a drug dealer, and the state is asking for twenty years without probation or parole."

After hearing both lawyers state their cases, Autrey, a bespectacled and bearded man who would soon be appointed to a federal judgeship by President George W. Bush, lashed out at Mayo.

"In comparing or balancing this offense with other more serious offenses like homicide, it seems to me that considering your past history, that the legislators in their wisdom created this particular circumstance for people like you," he said.

Autrey then railed against drugs and the damage they cause to society and America in general. And being a low-level drug dealer, Mayo was no better than the terrorists who had flown planes into the World Trade Center just weeks earlier.

Michael Mayo and Arnold Taylor each received twenty years for drug crimes that ordinarily would have far lighter sentences.
  • Michael Mayo and Arnold Taylor each received twenty years for drug crimes that ordinarily would have far lighter sentences.

"What America promises everybody is the ability to lead a decent and protected life. Today, Mr. Mayo, we are at war with people in foreign lands because of that principle," he continued. "We work hard at not allowing anybody to disrupt or interfere with America's ability to prosper.... But some people, Mr. Mayo, have decided, such as yourself, to interfere with that ability."

And finally, after a few more words about how drugs threaten democracy, Autrey announced the sentence and gave the prosecutors what they wanted:

"It will be the order and judgment of the court that the defendant will be sentenced to twenty years in the Missouri Department of Corrections."

Similar sentences for nonviolent drug dealers are not uncommon in St. Louis, where city prosecutors employ the Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute far more often than their counterparts elsewhere in Missouri. But it's necessary, says the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office, in order to stamp out street slingers and keep the city safe.

"It's a tool that the legislature has given us to inform the court and to protect our community," says Boston, who now heads the CAO's Drug Enforcement Task Force.

Critics of the sentencing tactic say that there's little evidence that the Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute helps curb drug dealing. One place it does make an impact, however, is in the black community, where African American males most often see their drug offenses enhanced under PPDO sentencing.

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