The Times West Virginian


April 27, 2014

COLUMN: ‘Free Chuckie Sanders’ message weighs on heart

I got a call one morning that there was a bit of a commotion on Pennsylvania Avenue. I was the only person in the newsroom at the time, and was only a block away, so I grabbed a notebook and headed that way.

It was almost five years ago. Who could have known that heading over there would introduce me to a situation that would weigh on my heart and conscience for years until it was resolved?

At the time, a man from the neighborhood had purchased a piece of property at a tax sale — property he believed was part of the 612 MAC land. After a lot of conversation and several people looking at a very confusing map, it was determined that the property purchased was actually across the street, abutting land owned by the West Virginia Housing Authority. He was disappointed, but he said he would use the small tract of land to get a message out to everyone who drove by along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Free Chuckie Sanders.

It was the first time I’d heard that name, though those crowded around the parking lot of 612 MAC said it was a black man who’d been wronged by the court system and given almost 100 years in prison for a petty crime.

“Call his son! He’ll tell you everything,” the man who owned the property, John Edward White Sr., told me. He gave me an unfamiliar number but a very familiar name.

Morris Morrison. We’d gone to Fairmont State at about the same time. I didn’t really know him at all. I knew the name and recognized the face. But I headed back to the newsroom and dialed the North Carolina exchange. I introduced myself and explained the situation. Morris became a little emotional. He talked for a few minutes and explained his father’s situation, but asked that I call him later that evening so we could talk at greater length.

I did. We talked for more than an hour. We had several of those kind of conversations over several days. And I found out who Chuckie Sanders was and what had happened in 1994. Morris provided me a box full of court documents about the case, from criminal reports to transcripts of court proceedings and all documents in between.

Piecing everything together, I got a clearer picture of what happened that April morning in 1994.

Chuckie had a drug problem. He was smoking crack with a friend and wanted more. They got a television set to sell or trade for drugs. They pulled into the Pizza Man parking lot at the intersection of Locust Avenue and Seventh Street. That’s where they encountered Douglas Montgomery. After that, the story depends on whether you believe Chuckie’s account or Montgomery’s. But it ended with a struggle over a gun and Montgomery getting shot in the hand. Chuckie was charged, prosecuted and convicted of aggravated robbery, assault in the commission of a felony and conspiracy to commit a felony.

Despite the pre-sentencing report recommendation and the agreement of the prosecuting attorney, then-Judge Rodney Merrifield said that he wanted to be tough on crime that involved drugs and guns. Instead of the maximum sentence of 40 years for the robbery by statute, he nearly doubled it to 75. Add on the sentences for the assault and conspiracy charges, all to run consecutively, and Chuckie was facing 90 years in prison without the possibility of parole until more than 30 years had been served.

Let’s stop there and think about that. If the struggle over the gun would have ended a man’s life and Chuckie was found guilty of first-degree murder, he would have been eligible for parole in 15 years. You can neglect a child to the point of death and get 15 years with the maximum penalty. You can get drunk, get into a car and kill a person walking along the street and get a max sentence of 10 years.

It’s OK to want to be tough on crime. It’s not OK for a man, only convicted of one prior felony, to serve more than a life sentence for a crime that ended with an injury to a hand. There isn’t any fairness or justice to that kind of sentence. Judges reviewed Chuckie’s case. There were no grounds for appeal and habeas corpus requests were denied. All other judges who looked at the case said that the sentence was too harsh for the crime, but unless there was a reconsideration of sentence hearing granted, their hands were tied. And there are specific rules that determine whether a judge can reconsider a sentence.

After serving almost 20 years of his 90-year sentence, a clerical error allowed Chuckie to file for and receive a reconsideration hearing. The date of his initial incarceration was logged for a month later than when he was sentenced in 1994. It was an accident that happened 20 years ago, but it opened the door for justice in this case.

Last week, Marion Circuit Judge David R. Janes reconsidered the sentence Chuckie received in 1994. Janes set aside the previous sentence and ordered that Chuckie serve 40 years for the robbery, which was the original recommendation. With that judgement, Chuckie became eligible for parole the second the hearing was over. Chuckie didn’t get a free pass. His conviction wasn’t overturned. His record wasn’t cleared.

He was given exactly was he should have been given 20 years ago. Justice was served.

Chuckie was given a few other things, too. His time in prison so far has given him the chance to break free of the control drugs had on his life. He’s been given the chance to serve as a mentor to others struggling to stay sober. It’s given him a chance to give back to charitable causes. It’s given him the chance to get training, education and certifications he can use when he walks away from the Mount Olive Correctional Facility.

This case has pressed on my heart for five years. Now that there’s resolution to the case, it makes me wonder just how many inmates there are out there like Chuckie Sanders. More than enough to keep us from having a good night’s sleep if we only knew, I’m sure.

Misty Poe is managing editor of the Times West Virginian and can be reached by email at, on Twitter @MistyPoeTWV or by phone at 304-367-2523.

Text Only
  • United effort to keep NASA in Fairmont is essential project

    The high-technology sector is obviously vital to the economy of North Central West Virginia.
    That’s why a strong, united effort to keep the NASA Independent Verification and Validation Program in Fairmont is absolutely essential.

    July 27, 2014

  • COLUMN: Calling all readers: Be heard

    I love to talk to readers.
    I love to hear concerns they have about stories we’ve written, things they think should be included in the newspaper and things they think shouldn’t be.

    July 27, 2014

  • Korean War veterans are deserving of a memorial

    NEEDED: A total of $10,000 for the Korean War Memorial this year.
    And a good man has been placed in charge of the funding. Charlie Reese, former president of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce, is now director of the Marion County Development Office. His task was to make a recommendation as to what steps are necessary to keep the project moving.

    July 25, 2014

  • Roll up your sleeves, give blood and you can save lives

    It takes up to 100 units of blood to save the life of someone who sustains life-threatening injuries in a vehicle accident.
    We’re hoping that the number of people who come to Fairmont Senior High School on Friday for and American Red Cross blood drive will exceed that amount.

    July 24, 2014

  • Vehicles and motorcycles must share the road safely

    The days are long. The weather is superb. There’s plenty of leisure time in these lazy days of summer.
    It’s the perfect time to take a long motorcycle ride.
    It’s also the perfect opportunity for us to take the time to remind not only riders but drivers of the need to share the road. And we feel compelled to mention it because just within the month of July, there have been two motorcycle-versus-car accidents within the City of Fairmont alone — one with severe injuries sustained by the motorcyclist and the other with less serious injury.

    July 23, 2014

  • Too many taking too few steps to protect selves from skin cancer

    July 22, 2014

  • Distracted driving: It isn’t worth fine or a life

    Today marks the day that police agencies from six states are joining forces to crack down on one thing — distracted driving.
    And they will focus on that traffic violation for a solid week, with the stepped-up effort to curb distracted driving wrapping up on Saturday, July 26.

    July 20, 2014

  • COLUMN: Are we people watchers or people judgers?

    Let me tell you about my little friend Robby. Well, actually, it’s more about his family and especially his mom. I didn’t get her name. I heard Robby’s name quite a bit, though, during a trip home from Birmingham, Alabama.
    I noticed the family in the Birmingham airport immediately. They were just the kind of family you’d notice.

    July 20, 2014

  • Relish the rich bounty of state’s diverse, unique food traditions

    This week, a group of federal officials on a three-day culinary tour of the state visited the Greenbrier Valley to find out what most of us here already know — we have a rich food tradition in West Virginia.
    The group was made up of officials from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    July 18, 2014

  • Soup Opera in need of your support again this time of year

    It’s happening again.
    It usually always happens about this time each year. Sometimes it’s a little earlier and sometimes a little later.
    But Soup Opera executive director Shelia Tennant knows it will come — usually in July. And she’s never that surprised about it.

    July 17, 2014

Featured Ads
NDN Politics
House Ads