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Monday, January 14, 2019

Missouri Supreme Court to Weigh Whether Drug Offenders Can Get Parole

Posted By on Mon, Jan 14, 2019 at 10:57 AM

click to enlarge Dimetrious Woods, photographed in a prison visitation room with three of his sons. - COURTESY OF WOODS FAMILY
  • Dimetrious Woods, photographed in a prison visitation room with three of his sons.

Like dozens of other inmates in Missouri prisons, Dimetrious Woods was convicted under a uniquely harsh law that barred parole for repeat drug offenders. And yet, last year Woods managed to walk free on parole. A Cole County judge had ruled that, despite the law, the father of six could serve the remainder of his 29-year sentence near his family in St. Louis County rather than in prison.

Central to that ruling was a statehouse reform bill that went into effect in 2017. The reforms did away with Missouri's no-parole stipulation for "prior and persistent drug offenders" like Woods. Whether that repeal was retroactive is the question that will soon be taken up in the Missouri Supreme Court.

Woods and his lawyers, of course, argue that it was. But last week, the Western District Court of Appeals issued its ruling as to whether Woods should have been allowed to make parole — and the majority of the court ruled against him. Writing for the majority in the 2-1 decision, Judge Mark D. Pfeiffer concluded that the Cole County Circuit Court had erred in giving Woods a parole hearing.

Woods had argued that a precedent set in a previous case gave the courts permission to retroactively apply a new law to inmates convicted under an old one, just as long as the new law didn't lessen the sentence already meted out.

Essentially, Woods was arguing that his parole status was a separate issue from his 29-year sentence. The sentence would still be in effect even if he served his time on parole, he argued — ergo, parole was an option. In 2018, a Cole County judge agreed, and Woods, who had entered prison on a non-violent drug trafficking charges in 2007, was given a parole hearing and subsequently released.

Before those events, Woods' release had been set for 2032.

"Why are they wasting money and time fighting me?" Woods said in an interview last week. He acknowledges that if the state Supreme Court rules against him, it likely means going back to prison. "Right now I'm out and doing the right thing after I've already done eleven years. That's why I have to fight it."

Woods wasn't the only drug offender serving a lengthy, no-parole sentence. In 2016, records obtained by RFT showed that more than 140 inmates were then serving sentences under Missouri's three-strike drug law, which could land even small-time dealers — including one man whose strikes were connected solely to selling weed — with minimum prison sentences of ten years and no chance of parole.

After Woods' success, other drug offenders began filing their own motions. But Missouri's then-Attorney General, Josh Hawley, appealed the Cole County decision that led to Wood's release. The appellate court sided with the Attorney General's Office office, which, in the wake of Hawley's departure to the U.S. Senate, is now led by Eric Schmitt.

In the opinion dated January 8, Judge Pfeiffer wrote that Cole County Judge Daniel Green had been wrong to apply the 2017 law retroactively to Woods, and that the no-parole stipulation was indeed part of Woods' sentence.

But instead of simply sending Woods' case back to Cole County, Pfeiffer transferred the case up, to the Missouri Supreme Court. Pfeiffer conceded that "alternative interpretations...may lead to some degree of fair disagreement on the issue."

Pfeiffer concluded, "We believe clarity in the law on this topic by the Supreme court is vital and necessary to the courts of the state of Missouri moving forward."

Woods does have an ally on the court. Writing in dissent, Judge Alok Ahuja argued that the appellate court, not Woods, is misapplying the law.

"The General Assembly has chosen to remove the prohibition on parole for persons convicted of non-violent drug offenses like the one Woods committed," Ahuja wrote, adding emphasis to his dissent. "We should fully implement this legislative decision by recognizing that all persons convicted of the relevant offenses are now parole-eligible, whether their offenses occurred before or after 2017."

Now the argument over Missouri's no-parole drug law moves to the Supreme Court. Hanging in the balance isn't just Woods' freedom, but that of more than a 100 other drug offenders.

Woods' attorney, Kent Gipson, estimates that the court could issue a ruling as early as this summer.

"Conservatives and liberals alike agree that it's stupid to lock people up forever on drug charges," says Gipson. "Dimetrious has been out a year, and now they want to send him back. It's stupid on a lot of levels.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]

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