By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Willie Mays Aikens is a part of baseball lore. As a member of the 1980 Kansas City Royals, he became the only man to hit more than one home run in two games of the same World Series.
But 27 years after his feat, Aikens languishes in a federal prison in Jessup, Ga., brought low by cocaine addiction and a federal law that mandated long prison sentences for crack cocaine offenses.
From a face on a baseball card, Aikens is now a poster child for what some jurists and civil rights activists say is the absurdity of the difference between the way federal law treats people convicted of crack cocaine offenses and those found guilty of crimes involving powder cocaine.
Aikens received more than 15 years for possession of 64 grams of crack -- about the weight of a large Snickers bar. To receive an equivalent sentence, he would have had to possess nearly 6 1/2 kilos -- more than 14 pounds -- of powder cocaine.
"You can supply a whole neighborhood with 6 1/2 kilos," Aikens said by telephone from prison, where he is in the 13th year of his sentence.
Activists, lawyers and many federal judges say cases such as Aikens's demonstrate the inequity of cocaine sentencing laws and validate the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recent decision to ease prison time guidelines for crack offenders. The new guidelines will apply retroactively to about 19,500 inmates.
Within hours of the decision, Aikens said he was on the telephone with his lawyers, asking them to request a sentence reduction. They calculated that the new guidelines could shave nearly 2 1/2 years off his sentence.
"The disparity, as far as I'm concerned, is totally wrong," said Aikens, a nonviolent offender. "This took me away from my family. My girls were 4 and 5 years old when I was sentenced. Now they're 18 and 19."
The Bush administration fought the new guidelines, saying inmate petitions would overburden the federal court system, and hardened criminals, some violent, might go free.
Thousands of cases will have to be litigated again in the courts where they were heard, and "those cases are going to detract from the many cases that are already pending in overworked, understaffed U.S. attorney's offices," said Steve Cook, vice president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.
Commission members have said it is highly unlikely that judges would free inmates with violent pasts.
The sentencing disparity is more than two decades old. It was established after the cocaine-related death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias prompted Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It allowed sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine, seen at the time as the more dangerous form of the drug, to be 100 times more severe than for crimes involving powder cocaine.
The law was intended to curb the violence associated with the crack cocaine trade in black communities. But opponents say it was fraught with problems.
More than 80 percent of defendants were, like Aikens, African American. According to this year's sentencing commission report to Congress, the median weight of the crack carried by offenders was 51 grams. The median weight carried by powder cocaine offenders was 6,000 grams.
"Most of these crack dealers are, in fact, low-level offenders," said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Most of them aren't violent. There is this vicious stereotype of black dope dealers armed to the teeth. But it's not true. It's a shame that this type of stereotype started coming out again in the debate over drug sentencing."
The disparity prompted police to concentrate on black crack cocaine distributors more than the mostly white and Latino powder cocaine dealers, said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Some attorneys contend that undercover police and informants, posing as users or distributors, encouraged powder cocaine users to cook crack and turned the cases over to federal authorities because those prosecutions resulted in more prison time.
"The disparity created by the guidelines . . . increased the impact of . . . this procedure," Reimer added. "It creates the opportunity to turn a person with one level of criminality to another level with profound consequences."
Such was the case with Aikens.
A big man from South Carolina, he was a natural at slugging a baseball. The California Angels drafted him but soon traded him to the Kansas City Royals.
In the 1980 World Series won by the Philadelphia Phillies, Aikens hit two home runs in the first game and another two in the fourth game, a first in major league history and a record that stands, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum.
Two years later, he was walking in a hotel hallway and saw a few teammates huddled together in a room. He entered the room and eventually tried powder cocaine for the first time. A year later, he was arrested in a sting with other players, including Royals outfielder Willie Wilson and pitcher Vida Blue.
Aikens went to prison and later failed to recapture his hitting prowess with the Toronto Blue Jays. He went on to play in Mexico. In 1992, he returned to Kansas City, still an addict.
In December 1993, an undercover Kansas City police officer in a car approached Aikens. According to court records, she told him she was lost and asked for directions. Minutes later, she asked for narcotics. Aikens told her, "I can get whatever you want."
Over two months, Aikens bought powder and cooked it into crack when asked. "He was encouraged in a manner that was calculated to maximize his prison sentence," said his attorney, Margaret Colgate Love.
Cook, of the assistant U.S. attorneys association, said he is not aware of such tactics. "It's not something I've seen in my experience. . . . There's no shortage of crack dealers for us to prosecute," he said.
But during the last drug buy in February 1994, Love said the officer, Ginger Locke, made her intentions clear. Locke said in court testimony that she asked for drugs, and Aikens returned from his supplier with a bag of powder.
"I thought you said that you were going to get crack," Locke said, according to transcripts of her testimony.
Aikens tried to return the drug, but his dealer would not accept it, so he purchased a glass beaker at a toy store and cooked the powder into crack.
"If she hadn't asked me to cook it up for her, I probably never would have done that," Aikens said from prison. "If all she wanted was cocaine, she would have taken the powder and left."
The next month, officers kicked down the door of Aikens's Kansas City home and arrested him. Aikens was charged with six counts of distributing "cocaine base," or crack.
In prison, Aikens went through three rehabilitation programs to overcome his drug addiction and now calls his incarceration a godsend.
"Before, I used to blame this undercover cop," he said. "Yes, I do believe she entrapped me, but . . . Ginger Locke wasn't the foundation of my problem. My drug use is the foundation of my problem."
But, his lawyers said, the prison time Aikens received was excessive, and he should no longer be behind bars.
"I think he got a raw deal," Love said. "There are murderers who get less time. Now we've changed our minds and we've decided that we were too hard on people. All you can say is, it's about time."