Anthony Gray expected to be an old man when he got out of prison after serving a 30-year sentence for a relatively minor drug offense.
Aron Tuff was certain he would die there, having been sentenced to life without parole after he was convicted in 1995 in Colquitt County for possession of .03 grams of cocaine with intent to distribute.
Both men were sentenced during a time when tough on crime drug laws of the 1980s and ’90s left many low-level drug offenders serving long sentences.
But this year, with local prosecutors’ help, Gray was freed after serving 17 years, and Tuffs walked free after spending “21 years, two months, 22 days” in the state’s penal system.
Their freedom came with the help of Douglas County District Attorney Brian Fortner who was approached by the Southern Center for Human Rights about one of their cases. With the Center, Fortner is leading a statewide effort asking prosecutors to review cases of inmates like Gray and Tuffs, serving non-parolable sentences on minor drug offenses and usually convicted of possessing small amounts.
The stringent drug laws of the past have been replaced with laws that designate between drug addicts and drug traffickers, and addicts — like Tuff and Gray — didn’t necessarily need punishment as much as they needed treatment, Fortner said.
Recent changes of state law would send them drug court, not prison, said Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.
Instead, both missed seeing children grow up and enjoying grandchildren.
“Can you imagine? You’re 39 years old and you’re told you’ll die in prison. I was a walking death,” said Tuff, who is now 62 and living with his sister in Moultrie. “I watched people with murder charges come and go.
“I missed Moultrie football. I missed my grand-kids being born, my kids in school. I missed life.”
While some district attorneys had revisited cases soon after the Legislature tweaked the law in 2012, 2014 and 2015, the statewide effort is new. Consequently, the Department of Corrections was asked to produce a list of such inmates who were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison. Those with histories of disciplinary problems were excluded regardless of the quantity of drugs that led to their imprisonments.
There were 274.
But it’s up to each prosecutor to decide and agree on who needs to be freed, and it’s not known how many cases are in the works.
But there have been a few.
Last month a Whitfield County judge granted a new trial to James Milton Dennard, serving life without parole since 1994. In the latest court proceedings, Dennard pleaded guilty to selling cocaine and Judge Cindy Morris sentenced him to time served plus two years probation so he could receive services while he transitioned to a new life after 23 years in prison.
Fortner, the Douglas County district attorney, had already had one man freed and two more were in progress.
“When I get parole notices that drug traffickers are getting out on a third of their time… that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. On the other hand, “we had people in the system serving time in a way that couldn’t happen today. They’re serving time and holding beds that could be used for violent offenders.”
Earlier this month, Lawson, Clayton County’s district attorney, stood up for Gray.
“It broke my heart,” Lawson said of Gray’s case. He committed crimes because of his drug addiction, she said.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she told Superior Court Judge Robert Mack as several of Gray’s relatives cried.
Gray was sentenced in 2000 to 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole. The law at that time said any felon, like Gray, who was convicted for a fourth time, should get the maximum amount of time allowed under the law and could never be paroled.
“You should get out of prison today, sir,” Mack told Gray.
That was the day after he turned 48.
Within moments of leaving Mack’s courtroom, Gray changed into a T-shirt and jeans, and walked free for the first time in 17 years.
Waiting for Gray were his 92-year-old father (his mother died while he was in prison), his wife, his three grown children, 10 of his 13 surviving siblings and several nieces and nephews.
“Now we’re getting a chance to rebuild our father-daughter relationship,” said Kendra Gray, 24, the oldest of his three children.
Almost two weeks into his freedom, Gray still wakes at the same time that he did in prison, 4:30 a.m.
“I’m getting back in the groove of everything — computers, how to pull money from my ATM card. They weren’t even texting when I left the street,” he said
The judge added probation when Tuff’s prison sentence was modified so he could receive services for his first year free.
He passed that one-year benchmark on Sept. 20. He is not only free of his prison sentence, but he is also no longer on probation.
“In my wildest dreams, I wasn’t prepared to get out,” Tuff said of the day he was brought to a Colquitt County courthouse without explanation.
The last time Tuff was before a Colquitt County Superior Court judge was in 1994, when he was 39.
He had been caught when police swept through a known drug area in Moultrie.
Before he was convicted of the drug charge, he had already been convicted of other felonies — forgery of his mother’s checks, burglary, selling drugs to an undercover agent and possession of a homemade crack pipe that had cocaine residue in it.
“At the time, I was an addict,” Tuff said.
While he was in prison his brother died and then his mother. And his children had children.
He said it was the first week of Ramadan last year when he was told he had a visitor.
“There was this white lady standing there,” who said she wanted to get him out of prison in light of changes in the law that were part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform, Tuff said.
“I thought, at first, it was a joke,” he said.
Months later, without explanation, Tuff was taken to the courthouse in Moultrie.
Soon he was in the courtroom, crying as he heard the decision on his new sentence.
“I didn’t have a change of clothes. I was in prison stripes. My sister had to run get me clothes and shoes.”
As in the case of Gray, dozens of relatives were waiting when he walked out of the Colquitt County Jail — siblings, his three now-grown children and teenage grandchildren he had never met.
He’s applied for an apartment so he can move out of his sister’s home. Tuff has a state identification card but not a driver’s license “I can drive but I haven’t tried,” he said.
He has a flip phone but doesn’t know how to text. He doesn’t have an email account.
Prosecutor Brad Shealy, who was chief assistant district attorney when Tuff went to court, is on board with the push to free some drug offenders. “… Twenty years ago I probably wouldn’t agree with it, but jail cells are more limited than they were 20 to 25 years ago,” he said. “… At some point you have to rehabilitate them. People who sell drugs should serve a long time, but some drug people spend more time in prison than some people have for murder.”
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