Here Are 7 Americans Sentenced to Die in Prison for Nonviolent Drug Crimes

A majority of Americans believe cannabis should be legal. The attorney general has told prosecutors not to seek harsh sentences for small-time, nonviolent drug offenders. Yet these and many more languish in prison.

The Human Solution Organization advocates clemency for Fate Vincent Winslow and several other prisoners. (Photo: Courtesy

Jan 13, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

America’s decades-long war on drugs seems to finally be winding down, with voters having legalized marijuana in four states and lawmakers across the country rolling back harsh sentencing laws. But it’s not over for the thousands of men and women still serving long sentences in state and federal prisons for nonviolent drug offenses. Nationwide, an estimated half-million people are behind bars for drug crimes. More than 2,500 of them are serving life without parole, though their offenses did not involve weapons or direct harm to anyone, according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Here are some of the most remarkable cases.

Leland Dodd, state prison, Oklahoma. (Photo: Twitter)

Leland Dodd

As Leland Dodd puts it, he’s locked up for life for “talking about buying some marijuana.” He was arrested in a Holiday Inn in Midland City, Oklahoma, in 1991 in the middle of a deal to buy 50 pounds of pot from a guy who turned out to be an undercover cop. That, on top of his four prior convictions for drugs and possession of an unlicensed firearm, was enough for an LWOP.

Cornell Hood, state prison, Louisiana. (Photo: Courtesy St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office)

Cornell Hood

Cornell Hood was convicted twice on marijuana sales charges but got off each time with probation. That ended in 2010, when his probation officer found a digital scale, $1,125 in cash, and two pounds of pot in his house in Slidell, Louisiana. Though Hood had never served time for the earlier offenses, the prosecutor on his latest bust convinced the judge they should be counted as “strikes.” Hood wound up with a sentence of life without parole. His lawyers appealed, backed by hundreds of protesting locals and The Times-Picayune. They won—sort of. Hood, 39, is now serving 25 years.

Robert James Riley, federal prison. (Photo: Facebook)

Robert James Riley

Robert James Riley, 62, followed the Grateful Dead around the country in the 1970s and 1980s, and like many Deadheads he partially financed his peripatetic lifestyle with a little small-scale drug dealing outside the shows. Riley’s long strange trip included two short jail stints for selling small amounts of weed and amphetamines. In 1993, though, he was caught mailing some LSD to a buddy. That guy testified against Riley and got off with a light sentence.

Normally, Riley’s offense would have meant about three years in prison. Prosecutors, however, have broad discretion in deciding whether to trigger harsh mandatory minimum sentences by counting prior convictions, and Riley’s insisted the nonviolent priors be counted as strikes. The result was a sentence of life without parole.

Even Judge Ronald Longstaff, who had no choice but to impose that sentence, was appalled. “The mandatory life sentence as applied to you is not just, it’s an unfair sentence, and I find it very distasteful to have to impose it,” he declared at Riley’s sentencing. Years later, Longstaff wrote a letter in support of Riley’s petition to have his sentence commuted, saying, “It gives me no satisfaction that a gentle person such as Mr. Riley will remain in prison the rest of his life.” The petition was not granted.

Anthony Kelly was arrested with $20 worth of marijuana. (Photo: Flickr)

Anthony Kelly

Anthony Kelly was at a friend’s apartment in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, Louisiana, on the evening of July 1, 1999, when police officers broke down the door with a battering ram and swarmed inside. Tipped off by an informant who had recently bought a small bag of weed at the apartment, the cops found 21 nickel bags of pot in the toilet, along with a bunch more cannabis scattered around the place. Everyone present was arrested.

At trial, Kelly said he was only there because he had given the apartment’s inhabitant, Gwendolyn Minor, a ride to the store and had been helping her bring in groceries when the police arrived. Minor testified that the pot was hers and Kelly wasn’t involved in selling it. Nonetheless, Kelly was convicted. Years earlier, he had pleaded guilty to two charges of cocaine possession; those earlier strikes plus his new conviction meant life without parole.

Kelly, now 41, appealed his sentence, partly on the ground that he hadn’t realized those earlier guilty pleas could later be used against him so harshly. Louisiana law does require that a trial court tell a defendant about his or her “sentencing exposure” before accepting a guilty plea—but that law didn’t come into effect until 1997, two years after Kelly’s second such plea.

Dennis Capps

Dennis Capps, 40, was sentenced in January 2013 to life in federal prison after getting nabbed in Wayne County, Missouri, with six ounces of meth—minor-league stuff at the federal level. That offense normally carries a 10-year sentence, but prosecutors chose to count two decade-old meth convictions as strikes against Capps. As a result, once he was found guilty, Judge Audrey Fleissig, had no choice but to impose a life sentence. She was not happy about it: “It is difficult to impose a sentence of life with respect to an individual who was a model prisoner on probation and showed the ability to conquer his substance abuse for a lengthy period,” she said at Capps’ sentencing. “I don’t think that a mandatory minimum sentence of life here makes a whole lot of sense.”

The legal mechanism the prosecutors used in this case to make the previous charges count as strikes is known as an 851 filing. In August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder specifically instructed federal prosecutors to stop using 851 filings in cases that involved only minor offenders, such as Capps. Unfortunately for Capps, he was convicted eight months before Holder issued the directive.

Fate Vincent Winslow

One day in September 2008, a stranger ambled up to Fate Vincent Winslow and asked if he could score $20 worth of pot. Winslow, 41, hungry and living on the streets of Shreveport, Louisiana, at the time, agreed and went off to score two dime bags—about one-eighth of an ounce—from a guy he knew. Big mistake: The buyer turned out to be an undercover cop. A jury found Winslow guilty of marijuana distribution. Tiny though the deal was, it constituted Winslow’s fourth strike: He’d been convicted twice for burglary many years earlier, once for rummaging through an unlocked car without taking anything and once for cocaine possession. With no funds to hire a lawyer from his cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Winslow wrote his own appeal in pencil. It did not succeed.

William Dufries

In February 2003, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper pulled over an R.V. with Georgia plates and a broken taillight for speeding. Inside, he found 67 pounds of marijuana. The R.V.’s driver, William Dufries, later said that he had been drawn into the weed transporting business because he had to pay off medical bills after being diagnosed with lung cancer. That cut no ice with the judge, and thanks to two prior convictions, Dufries was sentenced to life without parole. He had pleaded guilty in 1988 to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and in 1996 to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. “Never going home for a nonviolent crime is just the worst,” Dufries, 57, later told the ACLU. “If I had killed someone or been a child predator, I could understand, but I just don’t—it is cruel, harsh, and so wrong.”