Law Legalization News

California man will spend life in prison for a marijuana conviction unless Trump or the Supreme Court Step In

Barbara Tillis holds onto a picture of her son, Corvain Cooper, in her Rialto home in 2016. Cooper is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for marijuana-related crimes. (Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Barbara Tillis isn’t sure when she’ll get to see her son, Corvain Cooper, again.

Every few months for the past four years, Tillis, has driven five hours with her husband, daughter and Cooper’s oldest daughter, making the trip from Rialto to the federal prison in Atwater, near Merced. They’d spend the day visiting and chatting, and guards would let each family member give Cooper exactly one hug. When the visit was over, they’d reluctantly pile into the car and drive home.

But that routine ended a month ago. Cooper was transferred to a federal prison in Louisiana, and Tillis said her family can’t afford that trip.

So, last month, just before he left California, Tillis and crew made a shorter drive to Victorville, where Cooper was taken while in transit to Louisiana. There, the mother stretched out her arms to say goodbye by giving her son a mock hug through a glass barrier.

Then Cooper, 38, headed off to continue serving his sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for conspiracy to sell marijuana.

Life for one

On Oct. 21, 2013, Cooper was found guilty of money laundering, tax evasion and conspiracy to distribute more than one ton of marijuana. Court records say Cooper packed and shipped cannabis from California to North Carolina, and helped to funnel the proceeds through different bank accounts to avoid detection.

There was no allegation of violence and Cooper’s record does not include any violence.

The cross-country investigation that led to Cooper’s incarceration, known as “Operation Goldilocks,” resulted in more than 50 arrests. No one else got a life sentence, including the alleged leader of the network, and many of Cooper’s co-conspirators are already back home.

But Cooper, from Los Angeles, had two prior drug felonies on his record. Despite an Obama administration memo issued just before Cooper’s trial, instructing courts to not pursue enhanced sentences for people accused of non-violent drug offenses, prosecutors in North Carolina insisted on applying a Three Strikes law to Cooper’s case. At sentencing, the judge said he had no choice but to send the then-34-year-old away for life without the possibility of parole.

“You’ve got murderers and rapists and pedophiles doing these horrible crimes and getting out,” said Anthony Alegrete, a high school friend of Cooper’s who served a short sentence related to the North Carolina case and now lives in San Diego, where he works for a boutique film company.

“Meanwhile, you’ve got a guy locked up for life when there was no violence, no weapons, no hard drugs – just selling marijuana. That’s just wrong.”

Last year, Cooper heard some hopeful news. Changes in California law have reduced Cooper’s prior drug convictions from felonies to misdemeanors, leaving him with no prior strikes on his record.

Still, so far, a federal court in North Carolina has refused to reduce his sentence.

With few options, Cooper’s attorney is appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s also directly petitioning President Donald Trump for clemency, with many Cooper supporters anxious to see how such an appeal will play out under a President who prides himself on being unpredictable.

Patrick Megaro, an Orlando lawyer who has represented Cooper pro bono since 2014, described the last-ditch bid succinctly.

“I’m just hoping that somebody, somewhere — whether that’s in the White House or across the street at the Supreme Court — sees that this particular sentence is complete madness.”

Others reach out

Other advocates also are taking up Cooper’s cause.

Amy Povah, founder of the nonprofit Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders, or CAN-DO, included Cooper on a list of prisoners she believes deserve clemency. A week ago, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece, Alveda King, delivered that list of roughly 100 names — including Cooper — to the White House.

King called it “outrageous” for people to be serving long sentences for marijuana. And while she said she couldn’t discuss details of how Trump is handling clemency cases, she said, “I do believe that the President is very genuine about prison reform.”

Povah said Cooper’s case highlights a number of persistent problems with the criminal justice system, from how defendants who refuse plea deals are penalized to the seemingly unequal application of drug conspiracy laws and mandatory minimum sentences.

Cooper’s case also stands out, she said, because unlike other “pot lifers” he wasn’t locked up years ago, at the height of the war on drugs. Cooper received a life sentence for a non-violent marijuana crime during President Barack Obama’s administration, just four months before Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.

“It’s absolutely heinous to think that people can now legally work in this field, and invest in it for something that someone else is serving life in prison for – or any sentence, for that matter,” Povah said.

That conflict is central to a documentary expected out in early 2019, which will feature Cooper’s story. It’s also why Cooper’s portrait and letters are included in the “Pot Lifer Museum,” opening soon inside a marijuana dispensary in Ojai. And it’s a reason cited by many of the 15,000 people who’ve so far signed a petition calling for Cooper’s release.

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Brooke Staggs on LA Weekly

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Published: September 10, 2018

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