All but two of the other co-conspirators in the case pleaded guilty, but the Garrisons — maintaining their innocence throughout — insisted on going to trial. When the verdict convicting her sons was read, Karen Garrison fainted on the courtroom floor.
Under the sentencing guidelines, Lamont got an extra four years — 19 ½ instead of 15 ½ — for testifying in his own defense.
Karen Garrison put together a packet of information about her sons and began shopping it to the media.
“Once I was on the news, it was a breakthrough, but it wasn’t a solution,” she said.
She soon learned of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and attended her first meeting at Christ Church on Capitol Hill in 1999.
“When it came time for Karen to tell her story, she was kind of quiet,” said Monica Pratt Raffanel, FAMM’s spokeswoman. “It’s hard to imagine that with her, because she has such a big personality, but families struggle a lot with just the feelings of shame and isolation and not knowing if anybody’s going to understand.”
But Garrison spoke out. And she told her story again and again, at more meetings with more organizations — the Sentencing Project, Open Society Institute, Justice Policy Alliance.
She credits Angelyn Frazer, a former FAMM staffer who now works at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, with helping her figure out which meetings to go to, how to navigate the legislative process, how to lobby members of Congress. She built a big display board covered with photographs of herself and her sons and took it to conferences across the country.
Garrison started volunteering at FAMM. In 2003, she started working there part time. Soon she became a full-time staff member. The bubbly personality she honed as a traveling makeup artist, combined with the no-nonsense attitude that helped her raise twin boys, powered her push for legal reform.
“She was so clearly committed to understanding sentencing as much as she could, and to fighting for her sons’ freedom or some sense of justice in her sons’ case, that I was impressed with that level of drive,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart, a former staffer at the libertarian Cato Institute who founded the nonprofit after her brother spent five years in prison on marijuana charges.
“She wasn’t going to roll over,” Stewart said of Garrison. “She was going to fight.”
But Garrison’s sons remained in prison.
She found over the years that people didn’t know as much about the criminal justice system as she thought they would. So she started her own online radio show to spread the word. She dubbed herself the “Mommie Activist.”