The Times West Virginian

Opinion

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 mpoe@timeswv.com, on Twitter @MistyPoeTWV or by phone at 304-367-2523.

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