Beg Pardon

Anti-drug war forces unleash a potent weapon to free a convict--a little girl

"Little Rose" has a butter-melting smile, cascading cornrows and huge brown eyes. An adorable 5-year-old, she's the kind of cute you can't resist hugging. But don't be fooled by her Shirley Temple pout; she is also a powerful weapon in the arsenal of drug-policy reformers, those men and women who think the drug war is a lost cause--wasting billions, incarcerating millions and solving nothing. Her father is Charles Edward Garrett, a man who in 1970 ran from the life sentence he received from a Dallas jury for possessing a small amount of heroin. He kept running for the next 28 years, during which time he kicked his addiction, avoided trouble, paid taxes and fathered many children. During this time, the law also changed, making it almost certain that if Garrett had been sentenced today, he would receive probation. But the jury had spoken, and when he was finally caught in 1998, the judge had no choice but to sentence him to life imprisonment.

In late May, his daughter Little Rose appeared in front of the Dallas City Council, held in the lanky arms of Rick Day, the executive director of Texas NORML, an organization dedicated to reforming marijuana laws. Standing at the lectern, Day also held a "proclamation," which asked the mayor to "urge" Governor Rick Perry to sign the "official pardon of Charles Edward Garrett." In November the State Board of Pardons and Parole recommended to the governor that he commute Garrett's sentence. For the last eight months, however, while Garrett sits in the state pen, his pardon sits unsigned on the governor's desk. The governor's handlers offer no reason for Perry's lack of action, other than the matter is "still pending." But that's unacceptable, say drug-law reformers, who are willing to use whatever tactic they can--vigils, Internet campaigns, even encouraging a small child to plead for her father's life--to goad the governor into action.

"Little Rose" (along with her mother, Rose Johnson) has been urging Governor Rick Perry to sign her father, Charles Garrett's pardon, which has been sitting on the governor's desk since he took office.
"Little Rose" (along with her mother, Rose Johnson) has been urging Governor Rick Perry to sign her father, Charles Garrett's pardon, which has been sitting on the governor's desk since he took office.

At the city council meeting, Rose turned shy and wouldn't speak. But as the meeting ended, her grandmother escorted her to the front of the chamber to have a private word with Mayor Ron Kirk. Tentatively, she approached him, shook his hand and asked, "Please sign the papers [proclamation] so my daddy can come home. I love him, and I need him, and I miss him, and thank you."

"I am going to look into this and try to help," he told her.

Then she hugged him and ran off.


On October 11, 1998, when Rose was 2 years old, her mother, Rose Johnson, was cooking dinner in their Irving apartment, waiting for Charles Garrett, her husband (common law, she says), to come home from his maintenance job at Southwestern Medical School. Worried, she turned on the television, and there splashed all over the news was Garrett. The police had arrested him at work; he was a fugitive who had been missing for nearly 30 years.

"I had no idea," says Johnson, who knew Garrett as Kowl Williams, "although I always wondered why he never wanted to go out much."

Fearing she would never see him again, she tried to get him out of jail, but with his fugitive history, he would remain behind bars until his sentencing hearing. Garrett retained the same law firm that had originally represented him and was hopeful his lawyers could reach an accommodation with the Dallas District Attorney's Office. Of course, it didn't help matters that then-District Attorney John Vance also happened to be a former judge, who happened to preside over Garrett's trial the day he fled.

"We were waiting for D.A. Vance to get out of office," Johnson says. "We thought the new D.A. [Bill Hill] would be more sympathetic."

Truth was, the law offered Garrett few choices. "Everyone reached the same conclusion," explains Dallas County District Judge Harold Entz, who inherited the case. "I had no right to do anything other than sentence him in accordance with the jury's verdict."

Garrett's only viable option was to ask the governor for executive clemency, which would reduce his sentence to the time he had already served in prison. "Certainly George W. Bush would understand a youthful indiscretion with drugs," Rick Day argues. "Here was a chance for him to be a true compassionate conservative."

By law, Bush could only commute Garrett's sentence upon the recommendation from the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the board would only consider recommending clemency if a majority of Garrett's "trial officials" supported it. Ultimately District Attorney Bill Hill along with Sheriff Jim Bowles and Judge Entz endorsed Garrett's petition for clemency. "With the change in the law," Entz says, "and with Garrett apparently rehabilitating himself, I thought a pardon served the ends of justice."

To ensure that the parole board and the governor also saw it that way, drug-law reformers took to the streets, using vigils and marches to garner public support. Johnson and Rose would attend protests staged at Dealey Plaza. Rose wore a T-shirt bearing the message, "Please Free My Daddy Now"; she pulled a red wagon carrying three stuffed animals--Mama, Poppa and Baby bear--enclosed in razor wire.

Rosemary Kelleher, a Maryland woman, was so taken by Garrett's story that she started a Web site, www.freecharlesgarrett.org, whose homepage displays a photo of Rose being held by her father and mother. The Web site collected thousands of signatures, which were sent to the governor and the parole board; thousands more were collected by members of the Texas Hemp Campaign (THC), an Austin-based drug-policy reform group. "We believe the petitions we presented influenced the parole board and helped bring about a 14-4 vote in favor of his clemency," says Sebastian Williams, director of THC. "We had hoped it would have the same effect on the governor."

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