FAIRMONT — VIDEO: Support the Release of Charles "CHUCKY" Sanders
For more than half of his life, Morris Morrison has had to visit his father at the Mount Olive Correctional Facility.
That’s where holidays, like today, have been spent. Birthdays. That’s where letters, gifts and photographs are addressed to. That’s the postmark on Christmas cards and other correspondence Charles “Chuckie” Sanders sends to family and friends. And it’s been that way for 20 years. It’s been 20 years this month, in fact, when an apparent drug deal gone bad sent Sanders to prison with a sentence of up to 90 years.
All that could change this week, as Sanders will stand before Circuit Judge David R. Janes Tuesday morning for reconsideration hearing.
Morrison “lost” his father to the state’s prison system at the age of 15, several years after losing both of his birth parents.
Originally from New York, Morrison was sent to live with distant relatives in Fairmont after his parents died. Gwendolyn Sanders welcomed the baby with open arms and an open heart. But Gwendolyn was older and was dealing with health problems of her own. When it became apparent that she would have to have a leg amputated and spend several months recuperating from the surgery, everyone asked what would happen to the young child she was caring for.
Her son Chuckie stood up and took on the role of guardian. Sanders and Morrison developed a close bond at a critical time for the young boy. Though there was very little blood relation to tie the two, Morrison looked like he could be Sanders’ son, and when asked, Sanders told everyone that he was.
So the father-son bond formed. Gwendolyn came home, and Sanders went back to his day-to-day life, but Morrison never stopped being his son and Sanders continued to be there for him in that role.
“He was there for me a a time in my life when I had nowhere to go,” Morrison explained. “He didn’t have to do that, and we formed a bond.”
But that changed when Morrison was 15.
Twenty years ago this month, Sanders was arrested and subsequently convicted of aggravated robbery, assault in the attempt to commit a felony and conspiracy to commit a felony.
Friends and family members say that the sentence handed down by then-Judge Rodney Merrifield was excessive, considering the details of the crime. They say that the victim, Douglas Montgomery, was shot in the hand with his own weapon during a drug deal gone bad. In 2006, Montgomery died from a cause not related to Sanders’ case.
A jury found Sanders guilty on all three charges on Oct. 4, 1994. He was sentenced June 19, 1995, on the three charges by Merrifield and received 75 years for aggravated robbery; 2-10 years for the assault charge; and 1-5 years for the conspiracy charge.
The sentences are to be served consecutively. This means that, in all, Sanders could spend up to 90 years in prison for his role in what happened on a spring morning in April 1994. He has already served 20 years for the crime he was convicted of. On April 30, Sanders will turn 52. He will not not be eligible for parole for another 20 years, when he’s 72.
But Morrison says that could all change this week as Sanders will be in a Marion County courtroom again. This time, represented by local attorney Holly Turkett, the court will be asked to reconsider that harsh sentence. The hearing is set for 10:45 a.m. Tuesday.
Morrison said the bulk of the sentence, the 75 years handed down for aggravated robbery, is far more than the prosecutor at the time recommended two decades ago. Morrison said the prosecuting attorney said he didn’t believe Sanders should serve any more than the maximum of 40 years for the conviction. According to a probation report prepared prior to his sentencing in 1994, Sanders had only one prior felony conviction.
Without the 90-year sentence, Morrison said that Sanders would have been eligible for parole after five years. He also points out that felons convicted of first-degree murder and are given mercy are eligible for parole after only 15 years.
Yet Sanders has already served 20 years for a case that ended with a minor injury.
What happened that morning in 1994 is in dispute.
In his testimony from the original trial in 1994, Montgomery said that he was walking home from the Varsity Club after 3 a.m. that morning when he was accosted by two men who jumped out of a car at the corner of Locust Avenue and Bryant Street. He said one man grabbed him from behind around the neck, while the other, whom he identified as Sanders from a series of mug shots, pointed a gun at him and said, “Give me your money.”
Montgomery said he only had a quarter in his pocket at the time. The victim said that he struggled with Sanders; they both fell to the ground, and then Montgomery was shot during the struggle.
Sanders’ story is similar, but the circumstances are much different. According to court testimony, Sanders says he smoked crack cocaine with a friend and wanted to purchase more drugs. He suggested that they trade a 19-inch television he had for cash . After they picked up the television set, Sanders and his friend drove to a Locust Avenue parking lot where they met Montgomery. Once the hatchback of the vehicle was open, Sanders said things somehow turned and Montgomery pulled a gun out.
“He walked up to the car, and he reached into the front of his pants and started to pull a gun out,” Sanders said during a 1996 hearing in front of Judge Merrifield. “I grabbed (hold) of the gun. The gun fired and a struggle ensued. We fell to the ground and we fought over the gun.”
Sanders said that his friend took the gun and they ran away.
Montgomery was shot in the hand and treated at Fairmont General Hospital.
Sanders was originally represented by court-appointed attorney Francis Whiteman, Stephen Fitz under appeal and D. Conrad Gall for a habeas corpus petition. The state Supreme Court refused to hear Sanders’ appeal in 1998, and Judge David Janes denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus in April 2004, citing a failure to prove that Sanders’ constitutional rights had been violated in the 10 years since he had been arrested for the crime.
Other than a paragraph in a police roundup in 1994, the first time the case was mentioned in the Times West Virginian was July 4, 2009. John Edward White Sr., a cousin of Sanders’, purchased a small lot at a tax sale and placed three signs that carried messages like “Free Chuckie,” “www.freecharlessanders.com” and “No Justice No Peace.” The signs came down, but the newspaper looked into the old case files and reported on the long sentence for the first time. Public support came rolling in for Sanders, but it would be nearly five years before he would have another day in court.
Morrison has never given up on the man he’s come to know as his father.
“Now through this process, I’ve returned just a small portion of what he gave to me — time, fiances, love and energy,” Morrison said. “Now the little kid that he didn’t have to do that for is there for him.
“All Chuckie wants is a second chance at life. My faith is so strong. God has touched my heart. My heart is so ready for him to come home.”
Morrison, who just became a father himself a few months ago, says that he believes Sanders will come home. Whether it will be Tuesday he cannot know for sure, but he has faith that it will happen. But the successful motivational speaker that Morrison has become comes out a little in conversation when he reminds you that “this is bigger than Chuckie.”
“If this happened in our family, my main feeling is one of curiosity and wonder about who else is going through this exact same thing,” Morrison said. “And not just young black men, and not just men. There are so many families torn apart because we have sworn in officials we elected and trust that they will put the best interest of the community first who make decisions like this.
“My heart is heavy for the people who don’t have people advocating on their behalf,” he explained of the thousands in the prison system wrongfully convicted, too poor to afford legal counsel or living with excessive sentences for petty crimes. “I will continue to make sure that whenever there is a platform that exists for the single-minded purpose of discussing this issue, I will discuss this issue.”
Email Misty Poe at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MistyPoeTWV.