Four years ago a Norfolk, Va. jury sentenced David Alan Etheridge to 120 years in jail for selling one ounce of marijuana, 49 LSD tablets and 1/8 of an ounce of phenobarbitol to an undercover police agent. The three separate sales brought Etheridge $105.
During a recent interview, Etheridge, now 27, sat stop a formica picnic table in Virginia's maximum-security penitentiary at Powhatan and asked "What could I do at 22 to deserve 120 years here? How am I [WORD ILLEGIBLE] society?"
Etheridge's Marijuana sentence, reduced by a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] years by making his three [WORD ILLEGIBLE] concurrently, is not a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in Virginia's criminal justice system. He is one of about [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and women now in state [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for marijuana offense. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] these, besides Etheridge, are [WORD ILLEGIBLE] 40-year terms and 33 have [WORD ILLEGIBLE] ranging from 10 to 35 years according to Marvin R. Reed, management information director of Virginia's Department of Corrections.
Recently, government and law enforcement officials have begun to draw distinctions between marijuana and more dangerous narcotic drugs. A small, but growing movement is asking prison and political officials to reevaluate the criminal penalties meted out in the early 1970s for selling small amounts of marijuana.
"If the criminal justice system is to have any credibility, we've got to get the marijuana offenses back into perspective," said Keith Stroup, director of the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
As the Drug Abuse Council reports that almost 30 million Americans have smoked marijuana at least once; as the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana is not more dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes, and as three U.S Congressmen and the nation's President speak in favor of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, there are efforts to alter some of these long sentences. Courts occasionally are asked to overturn them as "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
A veteran who came back from Vietnam with a Purple Heart and a drug addiction, Etheridge was one of six young persons arrested in a 1972 drug bust when the press was saturated with drug stores and law enforcement agencies were under pressure to crack down on drug activities.
Etheridge joined the U.S. Marine Corps when he was 17 and said he "went overseas when I didn't know what America was." He became hooked on drugs during his 11 months in Vietnam. "It (drugs) was just like candy is here. It was just part of life and a majority of the guys used it," he said.
According to Marine Corps records, Etheridge, who was hit in the head and left foot by shrapnel, was evacuated from Vietnam because of his wounds. He spent 11 /12 months in Portsmouth Naval Hospital before being discharged from teh Marines in 1970. Etheridge said his discharge was an undesirable one.
When he arrived home Etheridge found he was no longer a hero. "I felt like a hero when I was in the jungle 400 miles from the North Vietnamese border with gooks all around me," he recalled. Back in Norfolk, "everyone had turned against the war. I felt degraded, like I had done something wrong."
It was during this period that Etheridge threw his six combat medals into the trash because "I felt they were worthless," he said.
After leaving Portsmouth, Etheridge became involved in Norfolk's drug culture, experimenting with a wide assortment of drugs and eventually getting arrested.
Etheridge's five codefendants avoided a jury trial by pleading guilty. The longest sentences any one of them received was five years. Etheridge insisted on a trial even though, said James A. Wakefield, the agnet who arrested Etheridge, "Being tried for drugs (in 1972) was like being tried as a Communist in the 50s."
He took he stand in his own defense and claimed he had been in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when two of the three drug transactions took place, but he could not produce any witnesses to corroborate his story. He also told the jury that he was a drug addict.
When the jury returned its verdict after 51 minutes of deliberation, etheridge said he felt "like Jesus Christ-crucified."
In newspaper interviews shortly after the trial, some of the jurors said they thought it was necessary "to make an example" of Etheridge in order to halt the drug menace. Wakefield recently recalled how a juror told him the heavy verdict was the juror's way of "doing their part" to fight the drug problem.
Norfolk Circuit Court Judge Alfred W. Whitehurst reduced Etheridge's 120-year sentence to 40 years by ordering the jury's three 40-year consecutive sentences to run concurrently. Etheridge will be eligible for parole in 1982 after spending 10 years in prison.
His 40-year prison term for the $105 drug sales exceeds the maximum sentence a Virginia juru can legally mete out for such crimes as second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, mob shooting, abduction and child molesting.
"I think giving me a sentence like that was pretty sick," Etheridge declared, nodding his head up and down. What do the other inmates do when he tells them why he's doing 40 years?
Shortly after his conviction, Etheridge, a short, thick-set man with large, dark eyes and wavy sideburns, who says he's "easy to get along with" was transferred to the Central State Hospital in Petersburg to be treated for his drug addiction.He was released last August, described by the hospital as recovered.
While in prison Etheridge has earned his high school equivalency diploma, gotten his military discharge upgraded to honorable and has played guitar in a band. During the day he works as a fabric cutter at Powhatan and at night he is taking four courses at freshman college legal.
In the meantime, Etheridge's attorney, John D. Hooker, is preparing a pardon request for Etheridge. Since 1970, Virginia governors have granted 16 pardons for drug offenses. Only four of the 16 were granted while the person was still incarcerated, the most recent being last October to a woman serving 10 years for a heroin sale.
Lewis W. Hurst, executive director of the Virginia State Crime commission, supports Etheridge's efforts to secure a pardon. "I feel that justice would have been best served had his sentence been in accordance with sentences given others (involved) in the same investigation," he said. Taking a jury trial in 1972, Hurst said in a letter to Hooker, "was tantamount to suicide."
Officer Wakefield, now a Norfolk city, traffic policeman, agrees. "I have no objections to a pardon for David," he said. "I was sorry to see him get such a large sentence. He wasn't a large trafficker, he was a go-between and an addict. A victim of circumstance," Wakefield said.
Hurst, who once headed Norfolk city police department's drug squad and whose son was killed in a drug raid while he was working on the Chesapeake city police force, said that "the enforcement of marijuana laws by state and local police especially in the metropolitan area creates a stumbling block in so far as getting at narcotic, that is, heroin traffic which does our state the most harm both in human suffering and in crime."
Hurst personally supports the idea of treating minor marijuana sales and possession like traffic violations, that is, by issuing court summons an instead of making arrest and, for first offenders, imposing fines instead of jail sentence.
Reed agrees with Hurst. The 160 persons in Virginia's prisons for marijuana offenses are "too many," Reed said. "They're taking up beds and they're not all that dangerous," he added.
Meanwhile back at Powhatan Etheridge pads about in red tennis shoes. "SOS" is penciled on the plastic toe patch of the right one.
"There's one thing about prison you got to learn," he said. "You hope you'll live."
"I feel a loss of faith in a system which doesn't want to accept its own mistakes. If I were a policeman I would enforce the drug laws but I would also try to see that everyone is punished equally," he said.