Selling drugs in the streets had become a daily routine for Francina Price. The money she earned peddling Preludin not only helped feed her three small children, but what her lawyer said was a heroin habit that should have exempted her from a mandatory prison term.
But the law for Price was a hopeless jumble. She had been in and out of psychiatric clinics for her chronic emotional problems. And when she took the witness stand, she talked her way right into a mandatory prison term, telling the judge she wasn't an addict when many in the courtroom were convinced she was.
Price, then 23, had been on probation after police found an unlicensed pistol in a car from which she was allegedly selling Preludin, an appetite suppressant.
And she was awaiting trial on a separate Preludin distribution charge when an undercover police officer on Nov. 21, 1983, walked into the pill market near 11th and O streets NW looking to make a bust.
The officer first approached a man named Edward L. Jenkins and asked, "Who got that Bam [a street term for Preludin]?" Jenkins turned to Price, who was walking by. She handed a pill to Jenkins, who in turn sold it to the officer for $13 in registered bills. Police later found $12 in recorded bills in Price's pocket.
The best deal prosecutors would offer was a guilty plea to one of the distribution counts in exchange for the second being dropped. At sentencing before Judge Ronald P. Wertheim, Price's attorney, Alfred J. Merlie, said he had made an important discovery.
A probation officer preparing the court's presentencing report on Price concluded that she had "a serious drug abuse problem."
"Through my dealings with Miss Price, I have also believed that she has had a serious drug abuse problem, but she would never admit it to me," Merlie told the judge. "Miss Price admitted to me yesterday that she does, in fact, have a serious heroin problem. Although she doesn't inject it, she does snort it, and she tells me she does it every opportunity she can get, three or four times a day."
Wertheim had experience with defendants who were reluctant to talk about their drug problems. "Occasionally, the addict won't be prepared by their lawyer, and they think they're going to get in trouble by admitting that they're a narcotics addict," he said. "And they want to deny it. And we stop and they huddle with their lawyer and then they change their statements entirely."
Price, who was pregnant with her fourth child, took the stand and said she had been snorting heroin since she was 17, usually three or four times a day. But Merlie's hopes of avoiding a mandatory sentence crumbled when she told the judge, "No, I don't feel -- I don't pray for it. I don't have no after-effects from it."
Wertheim ruled he had no choice but to impose a minimum sentence of 20 months to five years because Price "doesn't use heroin enough to get a craving for it."
"I personally think she was a genuine addict, but I don't think she ever comprehended that she was supposed to actually get up and tell somebody she was a heroin addict," Merlie said recently. "The mentality up to that point was to deny the entire thing."
Wertheim remembers it as "a sad case. I thought she was just somebody who had gotten into this habit and I thought she was telling the truth. She was supporting herself and her three children and she's pregnant with a fourth and she's only how old? Twenty-three at the time.
"I think it's a pretty sad life. I'm sad for her children, too."
Price was released from a federal prison after serving 23 months. Now she's staying with relatives on L Street NW. Her children live with their father.
She said she's tried to get a job but "that's the first thing they ask you: have you ever been convicted?"