Cover Story

Cracking Open

By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, June 1, 2008

ON HIS 18TH DAY OF FREEDOM, Michael Short awakened before dawn. In prison, corrections officers had paced the halls at night, jingling keys and shining flashlights. Now Mike slept fitfully, even in a king-size bed.

It was a damp, gray Tuesday late in February. He slipped on a pinstriped shirt that hid his tattoos, slid his feet into shiny new loafers and rubbed coconut oil into his hair, cut razor-straight at the temples and flecked with gray. He was 36, with a basketball player's long-legged gait and the lined brow of a man well acquainted with consequences. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, he nervously knotted a silver-and-white tie that his girlfriend had bought him at Macy's.

On days like this, he wished the past were a room with a door you could close, a place you could walk away from, as he had walked away from prison after President Bush commuted his sentence. But the past wasn't like that, at least not for him. Over breakfast, he practiced the testimony he was scheduled to deliver that afternoon before a congressional subcommittee: My name is Michael Short. I am here because in 1992 I was sentenced for selling crack cocaine. Before that, I had never spent a day in prison. I came from a good family. I had no criminal history. I was not a violent offender. But I was sentenced to serve nearly 20 years. I was 21 years old.

As he navigated traffic from his girlfriend's house in Charles County and boarded the subway to Capitol Hill, he braced himself for the inevitable questions, the scrutiny of his crime, the dissection of his punishment. His commutation had taken half a dozen years to materialize and, by Mike's calculation, had shaved only six months off the time he would have served. He had spent more years in prison than many murderers.

He arrived at the basement room in the Rayburn House Office Building a half-hour early and looked around, taking in the raised dais, the plaque that said "Ways and Means." He might have spent this drizzly morning at the Greenbelt health club where he had recently landed a job as a personal trainer. Instead, he was here, wondering what was meant by the term "majority whip" and hoping that he wouldn't stutter.

The room slowly filled with the most sympathetic crowd he would encounter all day: lawyers, ex-prisoners and advocates who believed that federal crack cocaine laws were unfair and had gathered to lobby for new ones. The subcommittee hearing would not take place until afternoon; this was just a practice session to give Mike and other lobbyists some last-minute pointers. Someone handed him a big red button that said, "CRACK the disparity," a reference to the vast difference in prison terms to which crack and powder cocaine offenders are sentenced. He pinned it to his shirt.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas who has introduced a bill to remedy the disparity, walked to the lectern. An imposing woman in an emerald green suit, she wondered aloud what America's founders would have thought, had they been able to look into the future and see how many times the country fell short of its ideals.

"They set up these models, these principles, that indicated that we had the right of free speech, that we had the right of a trial by our peers," Jackson Lee said, her voice rising. "And for those of us [whose forebears] came here in the bottom of the belly of a slave boat, the 13th and 14th and 15th amendments suggested that there was a road map to freedom in this nation. But we have sometimes lost our way."

She spoke of how, in the Bible, no one stopped to help the beaten, stripped man on the roadside until the Good Samaritan came along. In much the same way, she said, members of Congress had long ignored broken crack cocaine laws that disproportionately affected African Americans. Husbands, brothers and sisters had disappeared from their communities for years over relatively minor drug crimes, she said.

Mike pulled a crumpled tissue from his pocket and wiped his eyes. The packed room felt like church on Sunday morning. As Jackson Lee spoke, people yelled, "Yes!" and "All right now!" When she finished, Mike clapped long and hard.

And then, unexpectedly, someone introduced him. He walked to the lectern and stood there, hunching his shoulders as if he were ashamed of his 6-foot-2-inch frame. His voice was gravelly with emotion.

He began his spiel: his name, his crime -- the distribution of 63 grams of crack cocaine -- the almost-20-year sentence, the 15 years and eight months he'd spent in prison.

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