By the headlines and opening paragraphs of countless articles about the push to grant clemency to a “nonviolent first-time drug offender,” you’d think President Trump had just commuted the life sentence of a little old lady with five children who hit hard times in the ’90s and fell in with the wrong crowd when she needed to make ends meet.
What a great day for drug law reform, right? What sort of “first-time offender” deserves a life sentence in prison? In a short article Alice Johnson wrote for CNN, she says, “I am only one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders given mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing crimes under financial distress….It’s hard to imagine that I have now served 20 years of my life sentence for that one mistake.”
Johnson confessed that she served as a “telephone mule, passing messages between distributors and sellers.” Mic framed it similarly: “Johnson was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 1996 for her role facilitating communications in a cocaine trafficking operation in Memphis, Tennessee.”
It was just one mistake, she says. She was just a middlewoman trying to make ends meet and not involved in any of the icky parts of cartel operations, or so Johnson would have us believe.
That’s not the truth, though. The original article in The Tennessean that reported her sentencing got much closer to reality than any of the media two decades later, despite efforts to downplay it as drug war propaganda. “A 41-year-old Memphis woman was sentenced to life in prison for leading a multimillion-dollar drug ring that dealt in tons of cocaine from 1991-94,” it reads.
Court Documents Say She Was a Drug Trafficker
Johnson was charged for money laundering and cocaine conspiracy. According to the article, Judge Julia Gibbons noted that, “clearly the impact of 2,000-3,000 kilograms of cocaine in this community is very significant.”
The Federalist obtained court documents relating to Johnson’s trial and sentencing. The indictment lays out in detail the “overt acts” members of the conspiracy performed. These details show Johnson was not just a middlewoman passing messages between parties otherwise unaffiliated with her. She was instead a manager in a tightly orchestrated drug trafficking operation.
Among the acts court documents say Johnson committed are:
- Allowing cocaine to be exchanged outside her residence (at least 11 kilos on two separate occasions).
- Renting an apartment under the pseudonym Tretessa Johnson (presumably for trafficking purposes).
- Delivering “large sums” of currency to other members of the conspiracy as payment for cocaine.
- Discussing “further cocaine transactions” with other members of the conspiracy.
- Directing another member of the drug ring, Paul Duventre, to make “a series of trips transporting cocaine from Houston, Texas to Memphis, Tennessee.”
- Giving a plane ticket to Houston under a pseudonym to Mose Williams, who had just delivered a Nissan station wagon “containing approximately $1.5 million in U.S. currency” to another member of the operation, for the purposes of receiving another Nissan station wagon filled with 75 kilograms of cocaine.
- Instructing Williams to deliver 10 kilograms of cocaine to another member of the operation, “to be distributed in Marion, Arkansas.”
- Receiving a delivery of cocaine.
- Meeting conspirators at a house while $1.5 million dollars was loaded into a Nissan station wagon.
The jury convicted Johnson on counts 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 12, and 15 below, which represent all counts on which she was charged:
Count 1: “To unlawfully, knowingly, and intentionally possess with the intent to distribute cocaine, a controlled substance, and to unlawfully, knowingly, and intentionally distribute cocaine, a controlled substance.”
Count 2: “…Attempt to possess with the intent to distribute approximately 12 kilograms of cocaine, a controlled substance.”
Count 3: “…attempt to possess with intent to distribute approximately nine kilograms of cocaine…”
Count 5: “…attempt to possess with intent to distribute approximately 75 kilograms of cocaine…”
Count 8 …attempt to possess with the intent to distribute approximately ten kilograms of cocaine…”
Count 9: “knowingly conduct and attempt to conduct financial transactions affecting interstate commerce; to wit the purchases of cocaine with funds transferred from Tennessee and delivered to places outside the State of Tennessee, which involved the proceeds of a specified unlawful activity; that is, the possession with the intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine…and that while conducting and attempting to conduct such financial transactions knew that the property involved in the financial transactions, represented the proceeds of some form of unlawful activity.”
Count 12: “…did knowingly cause, conduct, and attempt to conduct a financial transaction affecting interstate commerce; to wit, the transfer and payment of approximately $1.5 million dollars for cocaine, which involved the proceeds of a specified unlawful activity; that is the possession with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine…”
Count 15: “…for the purpose of evading the reporting requirements of Section 5313(a) of Title 31…and the regulations promulgated thereunder, did knowingly structure and cause to be structured and did assist in structuring a transaction with domestic financial institutions; that is, the purchase of two cashier’s checks…”
This Is Some Serious Stuff
Whether you’re a proponent of the drug war or not, these are serious charges. Johnson wasn’t caught exchanging a wad of cash for some marijuana on a street corner, or smoking crack in a back alley, and then found her hopes and dreams quashed by a draconian state bent on putting all minor dealers and junkies in prison. These weren’t crimes committed out of financial desperation.
One doesn’t lose her job and think, “Gee, well I guess I better start trafficking cocaine and laundering money for the mafia to pay the bills.” One doesn’t see her child die tragically in a motorcycle accident and think an honorable way to carry on is to start dealing in highly addictive, highly destructive illicit drugs.
Over a period of four years, Johnson helped manage regional operations of the Cali mafia’s drug business (based in Colombia), what the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) called “an incredibly sophisticated, highly-structured drug trafficking organization.” It wasn’t a side gig she did a couple of times to put food on the table. Nor did she commit it in her youth and naivety (when most crime is committed). She was 41 years old when she was convicted.
No, Alice put her skills as a former FedEx manager back to work, only the packages she shipped weren’t Christmas toys and knit sweaters. They were huge loads of drug money and cocaine. That’s probably the reason Obama refused to grant her clemency when he pardoned more than two hundred other inmates in 2016, and it’s the reason she lost her appeal in federal court. She really didn’t deserve it.
Scrutinize the ‘Nonviolent Offenders’ Narrative
Johnson and her advocates have been hiding behind thousands of other “first-time nonviolent offenders” who maybe didn’t deserve their harsh sentences. They have been using the larger narrative that the United States is “over-incarcerated” and that its drug laws are locking up millions of addicts and other “nonviolent offenders” to push for Johnson’s release.
But not even these narratives reflect reality all that well. Only 3.4 percent of all state prisoners were convicted on the most serious offense of drug possession, and 99 percent of all federal drug offenders are sentenced for trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
By contrast, in 1991, 12 percent of all violent crimes, 27 percent of robberies, and 17 percent of all crimes were committed out of wanting money to buy drugs. Close to a fifth of all homicide defendants in the 75 most populous U.S. counties were involved in drug trafficking, drug theft, drug manufacturing, or drug dealing.
As far as the specific drug in question, cocaine is highly addictive and highly lethal. In 1999, about 4,000 people fatally overdosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 2016 saw more than 10,000 cocaine overdose deaths.
Cocaine destroys lives, rots communities, empowers dangerous cartel leaders, and leaves a trail of misery and violence wherever it’s found. According to the DEA, it’s estimated that cartels under the Cali mafia, in which Johnson had entwined herself, “collectively produced and exported from Colombia between 500 and 800 tons of cocaine a year.”
This is not a drug to treat lightly, and Johnson was rightly held to account for knowingly, intentionally participating in putting such destructive material into the streets of her hometown.
Johnson says she’s reformed. She became an ordained minister in prison, and has apparently been a model prisoner. Sincere reform is certainly a valid reason to consider commuting a sentence, and two decades in prison is a long time indeed.
What is not a valid reason for clemency is the falsehood that Johnson didn’t deserve a harsh sentence in the first place. This “nonviolent first-time offender” malarkey should be seen as the grossly irresponsible spin it is. Alice Johnson acted like a career criminal, so she was sentenced like one.