The Disappearing Freedom of Dimetrious Woods

The Disappearing Freedom of Dimetrious Woods
DESIGN BY EVAN SULT FROM A PHOTO BY TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS

On a normal day in the unusual life of Dimetrious Woods, the 40-year-old convicted drug dealer climbs into the neat white trailer parked next to the Woods Auto Spa in Columbia, Missouri. He flicks on the trailer's ventilation system, tugs on a pair of plastic gloves and reaches for the first of several plastic containers.

The oil sizzles and pops as the first chicken wings drop into the fryer. Woods talks as he cooks.

"My mama taught me, you season it up, throw it in the fryer, and you just let the chicken float," he says, carefully folding the plastic baggie of marinade. Woods doesn't measure out the spices, and he doesn't work off a recipe. As he twists his wiry frame around the narrow confines of the trailer, he preps the fries, lays out the sauces and seals up ingredients for later orders. Every few moments, he checks if the pieces in the fryer are floating yet.

It's like chemistry, he explains, but it's also a feeling. It's an awareness of time.

"This will sound crazy, like ... I'm inflating myself," Woods says hesitantly. "I knew how to cook growing up, taking care of my brother and sister. But really I learned from cooking cocaine."

It's not really so outlandish. In 1991, an older friend fronted Woods his first scraps of crack cocaine, which he carefully mixed in a coffee cup and microwaved with a bit of water. The recipe called for an ice cube, which hardened the mixture into a single, sellable rock. He made $40 on the deal.

He continues, "I'd been selling and cooking cocaine since I was fourteen. So as a kid, trying to figure out how to do that, if you make the wrong gesture or put too much heat or something" — he flicks his hand in a gesture of negation.

Woods scoops out the sizzling chicken wings with a pair of metal tongs, placing them gently into the center of a paper-lined cardboard box.

"With cocaine, you gotta learn that," he notes. "That might be $10,000 in that bowl. That might be your life in that bowl."

Woods' life as a drug dealer ended abruptly in 2007, when he was convicted at trial for trafficking 9,000 grams of cocaine, likely worth well over a million dollars on the street. (The quantity shocked even the trial judge, who remarked, "That may be the most amount of cocaine I've seen, and I've seen a lot of cocaine cases.")

At the bench trial, the judge sentenced Woods to 25 years. He was not eligible for parole.

And then, after an unexpected court ruling in his favor, he was.

Since Woods' release on parole from a maximum-security prison in 2018, he's opened two businesses, starting with a drably painted former service station that he and his father renovated by hand. They repainted the exterior a vibrant blue and named it Woods Auto Spa, and for the last year, the ex-con has spent his workdays tinting windows and managing the shop. Of course, at Munchi's Fish & Chicc'n food trailer, which Woods opened in December, he is the head chef.

As he readies the chicken order, Woods keeps up a running monologue, repeatimg the ingredients to himself and counting the wings as he withdraws them from the hot oil. He drops a pizza puff into the fryer. "Lemon pepper wings," he murmurs, "three, four, five, six ... blue cheese ..." He makes a gagging sound. "Who chooses blue cheese over ranch?"

Woods' phone buzzes on a counter, and although he is busy with several tasks, he takes the call, cradling the phone shoulder-to-ear while he packs up the food and gets another batch of wings ready for frying. He listens, and then instructs the caller to contact his assistant at the shop.

"Just explain that your man got a case, and I just gave you the number, and that you my family. Girl, I'm here to help."

"That was another one," he says after the call ends. "They're just hoping. They call me and they want me to give them some hope, give them some information. I just give them the truth."

A one-of-a-kind parole hearing gave Dimetrious Woods his freedom in 2018. But that freedom is likely temporary. - TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
A one-of-a-kind parole hearing gave Dimetrious Woods his freedom in 2018. But that freedom is likely temporary.

Here is the truth: Dimetrious Woods is not supposed to be outside a prison. He's not supposed to be serving boxes of hot food through a trailer window or tinting windows or paying rent, and certainly not being a father to his children outside the confines of a secure prison visitation room. According to the Missouri Supreme Court, he should have never been paroled from prison in the first place.

The decision by the state's highest court last month stood as a victory for the Missouri Attorney General's Office, which spent years fighting Woods' various appeals as the state sought to claw back its inmate to a cellblock, even while Woods was building a life on the outside.

By Woods' count, he's fielded about a dozen inquiries from the relatives and loved ones of inmates serving no-parole drug sentences; just like him, the inmates are marked by what is arguably Missouri's harshest anti-drug sentencing enhancement law. He fields their questions and listens to their worries, but he admits, "I can't give people direct answers. I can't tell them what to do."

For now, Woods' attorneys have filed a last-ditch motion asking the state supreme court to reconsider their ruling, and presently that's the only thing staying the warrant for his arrest. All that's done is buy Woods a bit more time before the court responds. But time is not on his side. He has weeks, maybe months.

The front of Woods Auto functions as a kind of convenience store, but behind the cashier, in the converted garage, Woods has built a tinting studio. Today, he's working on a black Kia sedan.

The possibility of escape has crossed his mind. He could try and cross the border, to leave behind a legal system that can't seem to give up the war on drugs. But he has much to lose, especially when it comes to his two youngest children, one in middle school, the other just starting high school. He watched them grow up in photographs and prison visits. He wants to be a father to them, and if he has to, he knows he can do that from prison. He can't be a parent if he's on the lam.

"Running, it ain't an option," he says with finality. "No judge, nobody can stop me from being a father."

Woods sprays down the Kia's front passenger window, preparing it for the eventual tinting. He unrolls a small tape measure — this task, unlike his other culinary skills, requires precise measurement — just as Meek Mill's "Save Me" comes on the shop's speakers. Woods hums along. The song describes an inmate's daily schedule: 23 hours in a cell, one hour outside in the yard.

Woods pauses his spraying for a moment and listens as the beats and lyrics describe life on the inside. He picks up the words as the chorus breaks.

"Somebody save me, save me. Twenty-three and one, it almost drove me crazy. In a cell all alone, can't let it phase me. I just wanna make it home to see my baby."

To understand why the case of Dimetrious Woods is so unusual, you have to go back a bit — not to the day of his arrest in 2006, when he sat in a passenger seat of a gold Buick Lucerne bound for St. Louis with 9,000 grams of powdered cocaine in the trunk, but to a day in March 2018. For Woods, the day was the worst kind of normal. It was prison.

It was early morning, and in a space not much larger than the Munchi's Fish & Chicc'n food trailer, inmate #331953 stared at the ceiling of his cell, too anxious to drift back to sleep. By then, he'd completed eleven years of his sentence, not even halfway through his full term. Still, he couldn't help but think about driving on Highway 63, the road that would take him north, back to Columbia. He imagined holding a grandchild he had only met through photos.

These were not dreams, but anticipations. That week, he'd learned that the state's probation authorities had approved his release from prison in a matter of weeks.

Later that day, over the staticky prison phone line, he updated a Riverfront Times reporter about his pending release. "I can barely believe it worked," he says. "I mean, how often do they make laws that benefit a convict?"

Woods' release marked the first time that a judge's order had forced the Missouri Department of Corrections to provide a parole hearing to a drug offender sentenced under the state's unique three-strike, ten-year-minimum, no-parole drug sentencing enhancement. That law was known as the "prior and persistent drug offender" statute, or PPDO, and prosecutors could use it to guarantee that defendants' third felony convictions automatically canceled their parole eligibility. The law made no distinction between violent and non-violent crimes. It also set a mandatory prison sentence at ten years to life.

Woods' case was first featured in an RFT investigation in 2016, part of a series of cover stories that documented the enduring impact of PPDO, which targeted drug offenders for special punishment.

As the RFT would come to report, Woods was far from the only drug offender who was serving an outsized sentence. At the time, according to data from the Missouri Department of Corrections, 149 drug offenders were serving these special, no-parole sentences in Missouri prisons, mostly for trafficking and distribution. Among them are Michael Mayo, sentenced to twenty years for two grams of crack and a joint's worth of marijuana; Lewis Grant, who received ten years in prison for 2.78 grams of crack cocaine; Robert Franklin, still serving a 22-year sentence for transporting a pound of marijuana; and Darryl Walton, whose possession of two grams of crack got him twelve years behind bars.

Then there was the case of Jeff Mizanskey. Sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for charges related to trafficking marijuana, the case generated public outrage, eventually rising to the desk of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. In 2015, the governor commuted Mizanskey's sentence and gave the 60-year-old inmate a parole hearing, which led to his release after 21 years in prison.

For Woods, Mizanskey's release was a ray of hope. He still remembers what that felt like, the memory of reading the news coverage in the prison library, the powerful emotional attachment to the possibility, no matter how slight, that in the world of locked doors there was a new window opening.

And so today, when Woods gets calls from strange numbers, he picks up the call, no matter how many other tasks he's juggling. He talks to wives and girlfriends, relatives of drug offenders who read news stories about his ongoing case. He tries to answer their questions, because he knows what they're going through.

"When people are sending you messages like 'You changed my life' and 'The whole camp is rooting for you' and 'I believe in you' — you gotta answer that. They want hope."

Woods, though, never wanted that responsibility. It's not easy carrying someone else's hope.

"It's like I'm a vessel, that's all it is," Woods says. "I'm open with it, but I'm not cool with it. I'm not cool with talking to y'all right now. I wasn't raised with it. I was a shy kid, I'd duck off in the corner and do my thing, or I was off in my criminality. But now it's bigger than me."

The sheer size of the problem, however, is far bigger than just one man. For the past two years, Woods has been the one who got away. But he always knew that it might end like this.

For drug offenders trapped in Missouri prisons, Woods is a kind of celebrity. "They call me and they want me to give them some hope," he says. - TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
For drug offenders trapped in Missouri prisons, Woods is a kind of celebrity. "They call me and they want me to give them some hope," he says.

In 2007, the year Woods was convicted at trial, the average sentence for drug trafficking was about nine years. Woods' sentence of 25 years, without possibility of parole, exceeded the average for every crime recorded that year — including rape, assault, burglary, forgery and theft — with the only exception being murder.

Woods' family ran a used car lot in Ferguson, so he had more resources than the average impoverished drug offender. He hired several criminal defense attorneys who would spend the better part of a decade trying, and failing, to challenge the legality of the police search that had led to Woods' arrest in 2006.

By 2017, Woods and his lawyers were ready with a new tactic. They sued the Missouri Department of Corrections. And this time, improbably, they won. After more than a decade in prison, Woods got the call he never thought he'd hear. He had a parole hearing. ("It was surreal," he says now. "I almost fainted, like, 'This is actually happening, and they're treating me like normal.'")

According to Woods' attorney, Kent Gipson, Woods had spent hours in the prison law library writing the first draft of the motion that eventually led to his release. Among other arguments, the motion submitted to Cole County Judge Daniel Green focused on the fact that Missouri's legislature had repealed the PPDO statute in 2014, amending the state's criminal code to treat drug offenders much like other crimes when it came to parole.

"Changes to a prisoner's parole eligibility are clearly retroactive," Woods' attorneys argued.

But there was some ambiguity. The legislature's repeal did not directly address whether its effects were retroactive. Woods' motion argued that the law's intent, however, was obvious; the bill's sponsors intended their repeal to aid those whom the law had trapped in prison — after all, why else enact criminal justice reform, if not to strike "an unwise and unproductive law" from those currently suffering from its disproportionate sentences?

The argument worked. In a one-page judgment sent in November 2017, Judge Green ordered the department of corrections to "apply existing laws" to Woods' parole eligibility. It wasn't a release order, per se, but it was opportunity for Woods to make his case for rehabilitation, which was a good one. He'd been convicted of a nonviolent drug crime and spent eleven years as a model prisoner. He'd already served a sentence far longer than those charged with the exact same crime.

Woods walked free on March 23, 2018. And like with Mizanskey's case beforehand, other convicted drug offenders took note of Woods' freedom — and they moved to follow the path he'd set down. They submitted their own motions (some becoming clients of Woods' attorney) and sought to make the same argument about their eligibility for parole.

The window was wide open. And that's when Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley stepped in and slammed it shut.

As the lawyers representing the state, the Missouri Attorney General's Office moved to defend what it argued was the state's actual intent around its drug laws. To paraphrase: Woods had been convicted. The law said no parole. He owed 25 years. End of story.

While representing the Missouri Department of Corrections, the state's attorneys did everything they could to keep Woods in prison, which, however inadvertently, also demonstrated the absurd cruelty of the situation. In a December 2017 motion opposing Woods' parole eligibility, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane argued that "the possibility of erroneous release" would cause "irreparable harm" to all parties involved — including Woods.

Essentially, the state argued that keeping Woods in prison during the legal challenge would protect him from the pain of tasting temporary freedom, given the possibility that he would be "pulled back from the community to complete the service of his sentence." Woods, the state's argument continued, was also a dangerous felon — and while he had had been convicted of two violent crimes, those cases occurred before Woods' eighteenth birthday, more than three decades prior to his current legal problems.

Still, the attorney general's brief suggested, without citing further evidence, that "Due to Woods' criminal history it may be difficult, if not impossible, to safely return him to the Department's custody."

Even after the judge ordered Woods' parole eligibility restored, the state correctional systems resisted the command by simply not doing anything. In response, Woods' attorney asked the court to hold the department of corrections in contempt for failing to obey the court order, and the threat worked. Finally, the wheels of justice turned in Woods' favor.

And yet, while Woods eventually got his hearing and release date, the victory began the inexorable process of those same wheels spinning back around to crush his second chance at life.

First, in 2019, an appeals court ruled against Woods but referred the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, believing "clarity" was needed on the legal issues. In the meantime, the pending cases involving the other drug offenders trying to obtain their own parole hearings were stalled, and so they too watched Woods' case anxiously, seeing their fates tied up in the deliberations.

In the end, the high court also ruled against Woods. Writing for the majority, Judge Patricia Breckenridge wrote that Woods should never have been released and that his previous arguments — which had worked on Judge Daniel Green in Cole County — were misapplied and in violation of another state law, which explicitly bans retroactively applying new laws to previous cases where offenders had already been tried and sentenced.

To attorney Kent Gipson, the consequences that the court's ruling represent are worse than absurd. Gipson represents multiple nonviolent drug offenders serving longer prison sentences than most criminals convicted of violent crimes — and something is wrong, he argues, when your legal system doesn't seem to distinguish much difference between a murderer and a drug dealer.

"This could have all been avoided," Gipson says. "The department of corrections and attorney general could have just taken the position from the get-go, they could have said, 'This is a great idea, let's apply this law retroactively and help reduce the prison overcrowding,' or, 'Freeing up beds for murderers and rapists by letting out nonviolent drug guys seems to be eminently sensible.'"

But that's not how things work, and at this point of the interview, Gipson laughs at his own suggestion that Missouri's corrections system would do something sensible, let alone eminently.

"I've been doing this too long to be a natural optimist," he admits. "It's not in their DNA or something, to give a prisoner a break."

As Woods' attorney, Gipson has very few cards left to play. A rehearing motion pending with the Missouri Supreme Court "is rarely if ever granted," he concedes. He's also filed a petition with the governor to commute Woods' sentence, and a local legislator, Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (R-Columbia) filed a bill last month to "[specify] that certain offenders found guilty trafficking drugs in the second degree shall be eligible for parole after serving ten years," which would include Woods and dozens (but not all) of the remaining 100-plus cases left behind by the repeal of PPDO.

But the process of lawmaking is slow, and the bill has yet to pass its first vote in committee.

There's one other tactic in Gipson's pocket. In a February 12 letter to the Missouri Attorney General's Office — now led by Eric Schmitt after Josh Hawley became a U.S. senator — he charged that the state's plan to put his client back in prison is "inhumane, cruel, and fundamentally unjust."

But there was still time to make it right, Gipson added, if only the Attorney General would move to voluntarily dismiss its own appeal, negating, in theory, the Supreme Court's order.

"In light of a prosecutor's solemn duty to do justice, we believe that it is not a close call that justice dictates the dismissal of this appeal," Gipson wrote. He added that "this action ... will not impact the 120 men and women in Missouri who have similar circumstances."

To put it another way, Gipson's offer amounted to, "You can keep the rest in prison, but save my client."

Gipson acknowledges, "It would screw everyone else."

Earlier this month, the RFT contacted the attorney general's office, and we submitted questions about the state's interest in putting Woods back in prison and whether it was even legally possible, as Gipson suggests, for the office to dismiss its open appeal in order to keep Woods free while keeping the other drug offenders imprisoned. A spokesman declined to comment.

Woods’ co-defendant Ray Brown served just seven years in prison for the same crime. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Woods’ co-defendant Ray Brown served just seven years in prison for the same crime.

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.

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