The man from California who called himself Old School seemed like a legitimate customer because he actually smoked the crack he purchased. That was Earnest Jones' test to make sure he wasn't selling to an informant. "He made quite a few buys from me," says Jones, who was a street dealer in Terrell in the late '90s, just as the feds were setting their sights on the town.
It wasn't much of a test, as Jones learned later when he found himself in jail in Kaufman County facing U.S. Attorney William McMurrey and Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Robert Crawford. They had photos of Jones and Old School, who was an informant after all. "I said, 'Tell him congratulations and he did a good job,'" Jones recalls.
Jones already had a record that included marijuana possession, burglaries and assault. To avoid a trial he was ready to admit he sold crack. But Jones' little deals weren't enough. The feds were running a major conspiracy case, the kind usually reserved for major kingpins, and Crawford and McMurrey wanted Jones to name his suppliers. In fact, they already knew the names they were after. They showed him a diagram on a white board, mapping out their case. The name of his sister Sharanda Jones sat at the top of the circle.
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"I told them the only drug dealer in my family is me," he says.
Jones went back to jail, where he sat until September 1998, when his mother, Genice Stribling, received a call from Agent Crawford telling her that her son and investigators were coming to pay her a visit. Stribling was bedridden, paralyzed from the neck down for most her adult life, and depended on her children and boyfriend to do everything for her.
Crawford, accompanied by several Terrell police detectives, brought Jones into Stribling's bedroom and sat him on the edge of the bed, his feet and hands in shackles. Her son was in trouble, Crawford told her.
"How much time can Earnest get?" she asked.
"Earnest can get from 99 years to life," she recalled Crawford telling her, in testimony she later gave in court.
That wasn't all, Crawford warned.
"Ms. Stribling, back in 1995 you sold drugs to a young lady," he said.
Stribling denied it. She had never been arrested or charged in connection to that alleged sale, and three years had passed since.
"I said, 'No, I have never sold drugs to no one in 1995," Stribling testified. "Mr. Crawford asked me, 'Would I sign this statement?' And I told him no."
But authorities were undeterred. Earnest Jones, his sisters Sharena and Sharanda, their paralyzed mother and her boyfriend had been snared in a massive roundup of crack-heads and dealers in Terrell that began in 1997. More than 120 people in a town of 14,000 would be arrested. Informants were thick on the ground. Earnest Jones was the only member of his family caught selling, and no drugs or drug money were ever recovered from his mother or sisters. But other crack addicts and dealers pointed their fingers, and based on their testimony, prosecutors insisted that Sharanda, a single mother who ran several businesses and had never been charged with a crime before, was the leader of a major crack ring that distributed 23.92 kilograms of cocaine base.
Stribling, convicted by a jury of possession with intent to distribute and aiding and abetting in 1999, was sentenced to 17 years. She died in prison in 2012. Earnest Jones pleaded guilty to the same charges and was called as a witness against his family but tried to defend them on the stand. He was sentenced to 18 years and will be free in 21 months. The younger sister, Sharena, portrayed by the government as having a minor role in the conspiracy, pleaded guilty and received an eight-year sentence.
Sharanda Jones may never be free again. Facing aggressive prosecutors and extremely harsh sentences for crack offenses, Jones received a life sentence.
"She was an upstanding person, she never got in any trouble, she minded her own business, and to hear that she got any real time, especially like life?" says Joi Bass, a younger cousin who used to spend weekends and holidays with Stribling and her children. "Nobody expected that."
Now, a source close to the investigation acknowledges that Jones' drug deals weren't really what put her away — prosecutors wanted her to give up the names of other people who trafficked drugs. There was one friend she had in particular, a Dallas cop, the source says, who investigators insisted accompanied her on drug deals, but Jones refused to snitch on her friend or admit guilt herself. "She could have given up everything but the cop, but she still wouldn't have gotten that sentence," says the source, who asked to remain anonymous. "For the small place of Terrell, Texas, that [Jones' dealing] was probably the biggest game in town ... but in a place like Dallas? No, she wouldn't be a big drug person."
Today, Sharanda Jones' only chance to avoid dying behind bars like her mother rests in the hands of President Obama, and her hopes are riding on a young corporate attorney in Dallas who has made her mission to free people cast into prison under outdated crack laws that were too harsh even for the federal government to stomach.
At the height of the crack epidemic, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law created mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, reserving some of the harshest sentences for crack. People convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack faced a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. For 50 grams, the mandatory minimum was 10 years, and the maximum sentence was life. The law also created a huge gap in punishments for crack cocaine versus its powder form, with 1 gram of crack treated the same as 100 grams of powder.
Eventually it became obvious to the U.S. Sentencing Commission that the mass incarceration of crack-heads and dealers was resulting in a severe disparity. Cheap, smokeable crack was the poor man's preferred style of coke, and people in America's poorest communities were being locked up at alarmingly high rates and sentenced like drug kingpins.
In a report issued in 1995, the commission found that only 11 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants were major traffickers. More than half facing federal prison time were just low-level offenders, the report says, and most judges found that the sentencing minimums were "manifestly unjust."
Congress was indifferent at first, but as the federal prison population exploded, growing nearly 800 percent since the 1980s, politicians finally embraced some reforms. In 2010, Congress altered the mandatory minimum laws, lowering the crack versus powder ratio to 18-to-1.
More important to Jones' case, in August 2013 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that low-level drug offenders with no connection to gangs or large drug cartels would no longer be subject to the mandatory sentences. He used his authority to instruct federal prosecutors on ways to rewrite their complaints against low-level dealers to avoid triggering the minimums. In April, the Justice Department announced a mass clemency program. Any inmate who has served at least 10 years for a nonviolent crime can apply. As of June, more than 18,000 have asked for clemency under the initiative; most of them are in prison for drugs.
But there's also always been another way for crack dealers to avoid mandatory minimums: informing. Under sentencing guidelines, defendants who provide the government "substantial assistance" in prosecuting another person are eligible for significantly reduced sentences. The sentencing commission estimates that half of all federal drug defendants agree to cooperate somehow.
Sharanda Jones didn't want to cooperate. She knew little about how drug-sentencing laws worked when she went to court. She doubted that testimony from other drug dealers was enough to send her away for the rest of her life. And she got assigned a court-appointed attorney who didn't specialize in drug cases.
"To be intellectually honest, people that are at the top generally have better lawyers," says the source involved in the investigation. "They're afforded basically what is commonly referred to as dope lawyers. That person is going to get a better deal."
Sharanda Jones now admits to the one count she was convicted of — being part of a conspiracy to buy cocaine powder in Houston and to sell to dealers in Terrell who cooked it into crack. She says she was already clean by the time feds caught up to her. "I was just poor for so long I just said, 'This is a really good way for me not to worry at all,'" Jones says.
Her mother was just 20 when a car accident paralyzed her in 1970, and she already had four children — Earnest, Sharanda, Sharena and Tina — each born just a year a part. Stribling raised the children with the help of her mother and grandparents. Fathers were never in the picture. They lived in a house in Terrell on Rose Hill Road. The family supported themselves on disability and welfare.
Stribling could talk and move one arm enough to grip items, like a cigarette, but was confined to bed. She had an upbeat personality nonetheless, charming those who knew her. "Everybody loved the mom," says Nikea Theus, who was an inmate at FMC Carswell with the women in the family. "Her daughters took very good care of her. She was just a joy."
Sharanda Jones was like her mother. They had the same big smile with dimples, Bass recalls, and the same sweet, soft-spoken manner.
After high school, Jones moved to Dallas to get a cosmetology degree and eventually opened her own hair salon in Terrell, A New Attitude, and a drive-thru burger joint called Burgers to Go. She was generous, her brother says, letting people take odd jobs around the shop if they needed some extra money. "If you needed two dollars, and she had five dollars, she would give it to you. That's the type of woman she was," high school classmate Mayble Windfield says.
Jones had a daughter, Clenesha, and shortly after in 1992, Jones' grandmother passed away. She and her sisters assumed a bigger role in taking care of their mother.
A police informant described a different sort of family. Crack was hidden under Stribling's pillow, in her blouse, under her mattress or in her closet, a crack addict named Bonita Polk would later tell prosecutors. Stribling's boyfriend helped her with the deals, bringing the crack out from the bedroom to the living room. Stribling could hold the drugs with her one good hand, Polk said.
Polk was an addict and said she knew Stribling through friends who also smoked. One night after a sale, their car broke down, so Stribling invited them to spend the night. Stribling liked Polk, thinking she'd make a good girlfriend for her troubled son Earnest, and invited her to stay longer. Stribling said she could help Polk find work.
One weekend during her stay at the house, Polk testified she took on a job for Stribling. Polk was heading to her hometown in Emory, Georgia, in 1994 for a short trip, and Stribling gave her 20 bags of dope for free. All Polk, an addict, had to do was promise to sell them for $20 apiece and share the profits.
The deal, if it happened, was botched from the start. Polk said she sold only three bags and smoked all the others, and then lied to Stribling, claiming someone stole the rest.
Stribling was understanding, Polk testified at Sharanda Jones' trial, but Jones wasn't. "Sharanda jumped up and said I was taking advantage of her mother because she was crippled, and started a fight."
It didn't get physical. "It's mostly she cursed me out and called me everything," Polk said. (Prosecutors would later claim that Jones' cursing was evidence the drugs were really hers.)
The next year, after the alleged fight, Polk was in jail on a bad-check misdemeanor case and ran into a friend there who faced a long drug sentence on her third offense. The police, Polk said, "asked me if I would set someone up to reduce her [friend's] sentence."
Polk agreed to buy dope and hand the evidence over to Terrell Police Department detectives. She could choose any dealer to set up, and she decided on Stribling. Wired up, Polk drove over in a government van. Polk said she purchased $50 worth of crack and gave it to detectives, but held back some "crumbs" for herself. Police searched her, though, and found the crumbs. Stribling wasn't charged, because Polk's "crumbs" tainted her as a witness.
Stribling's name came up again in 1997, when the Terrell Police Department made its first mass arrests for crack. With 25 state warrants and 100 from the feds, Terrell police rounded up as many suspects as they could in late November. The arrests made E! News after actor Chuck Norris, working as a reserve officer, accompanied the cops to people's homes. Anyone with more than 50 grams could have faced life in prison unless they snitched for shorter sentences. Some of the suspects talked, leading eventually to the seven-count conspiracy case filed in 1999 against Stribling, her children and other dealers. The latter bunch made deals that condemned Stribling and her family.
A woman named Julie Franklin was caught with about $16,000 worth of cash, drug paraphernalia and baking soda used to make crack stored in an apartment under her name. She told prosecutors she used to purchase powder cocaine from a number of people. Sharanda Jones became her main supplier around 1997, Franklin testified, because she had the best price. Jones would take trips to a dealer in Houston, buy a whole kilogram of cocaine, or about $17,000 worth, and then sell it to Franklin, who cooked the powder into crack and sold it.
In 1998, law enforcement gave Franklin the same opportunity they gave Polk: Make a buy from anyone of her choosing and get a shorter sentence. Franklin chose Sharanda Jones. She got wired up with her husband, Keith Jackson, and met with Jones at a music shop.
"Back cooking, all my people gone, long gone, all gone," Jones told them, according to transcripts of a tape played for jurors. (Franklin interpreted that as: "She's talking about opening her restaurant and all her people are drug contacts.")
Franklin and her husband pressed Jones. They said they needed the money badly and couldn't afford to pay for the drugs up front.
"I just thought, I just thought you had a little something you could front us," Jackson says.
Jones was hesitant. "I don't do nothing," she said. But she knew of a woman in town who might.
"You can't get her to front you?" Franklin persisted.
"She might if I ask," Jones responded.
Later, in another recorded conversation, Jones told Franklin there would be no drugs. The other dealer she asked "was scared that y'all was trying to set me up," Jones said.
Nevertheless, the government decided the recordings were enough to implicate Jones.
By the time DEA agents got around to interviewing Earnest Jones after his crack deals with Old School, it seemed to him that they already made up their minds. "They wanted me to say that I got it from my sister, but it wasn't true," he said in a recent interview. Trying to avoid a trial, Jones agreed to sign a statement the agents gave him, but swears he didn't read it closely. "I just signed and went on. That was my first mistake," he says.
The statement implicated two of his sisters, Sharanda and Sharena, in addition to his mother and the mother's boyfriend. "Once Sharanda and Sharena became my primary sources of supply," the statement says, "and 705 Rose Hill being my stash, I did not mess with anyone else."
Afterward, Agent Crawford brought Earnest Jones in shackles to his mother's house and told her about her alleged sale from three years earlier to Bonita Polk. He asked the bedridden mother to sign a statement, too. Stribling refused. At her trial, however, the government insisted she gave a verbal statement, even though there wasn't any documentation or a recording of it.
"She said everything," McMurrey said at the Stribling trial, "and then the agent didn't have the computer with him that day to print up or type up the statement that day, so then he had future phone calls with her. And what she did was, she started doing what most people do, they start — she started pulling back on some of the information."
On the witness stand for Sharanda's trial, her brother and mother accused the government, particularly Crawford, of putting words in their mouths. "Mr. Crawford, he lied to me, he tricked me, he threatened me," Stribling said, testifying for her daughter's defense. The brother admitted to storing drugs at his mother's house and getting his younger sister, Sharena, to bring him stashes to sell, but denied Sharanda was the source of his supply or knowing anything about her involvement with drug dealing. "She never gave me anything, and then I never even associated too much, I mean I never even was around her," he said.
The failed setups, the potentially self-serving testimony from other crack dealers, the statements that family members apparently gave and then tried to distance themselves from — that was what the government used to make its case that Sharanda Jones was the leader of a crack conspiracy, and to her, none of it sounded like much.
"I'm already clean in '99," she says, the year she was indicted. "And I know I'm running a good business that's growing." The business at the time was a diner in downtown Dallas called Cooking on Lamar.
Jones' trial lasted five days, and she was subject to a curfew but otherwise free, a rare arrangement for someone facing a life sentence. On the witness stand, she talked about the rifle that she never left her house without. She talked about her trips to Houston and her friendship with the dealer in Houston, but denied that he ever sold her cocaine. "I think it's a personal issue between me and Mr. Crawford," Jones said on the stand to jurors and her defense attorney. "Everywhere I go, they be looking. They know that I'm not no crack dealer. I think it's a personal issue between me and him, that I would never snitch for him, so all this right here built up. Whoever get caught, just put her in it, if you know her."
The day the jury was scheduled to read the verdict, Jones stopped in the restaurant and told her business partner she'd be back around lunchtime, she recalls.
The last day in the federal courthouse in Dallas, her attorney noticed U.S. marshals were coming in.
"Just brace yourself," he told her.
The foreman handed Judge Jorge A. Solis the verdict, and it sounded good."He says 'not guilty,' so many times, I was like, 'OK I'm about to be out," Jones says.
The jury had acquitted her on six counts of distributing cocaine with her mother and brother. They convicted her on just one count, the first — conspiracy to distribute at least 50 grams of cocaine base.
"In all probability, the punishment in the application of the [sentencing] guidelines is going to be very, very high," McMurrey told Solis. He recommended that Jones be placed in custody immediately, pending her sentencing hearing. Jones was stunned.
"I was just numb. My heart was crushed. To be locked up right then, at that moment, because I had left everything undone, like I left my purse in my car, I left my house ... the stuff just out, you know?"
Later, the government added two enhancements to her conviction — one for taking the firearm with her on deals, since she said she never went anywhere without it, and the other for committing perjury on the witness stand. With the enhancements, and her role as a leader of the conspiracy, the only sentence the judge could give her was life.
Later that year, in November 1999, Stribling went to trial under the same seven-count indictment and took a defense similar to her daughter's. "Where is the drug bust?" Stribling's defense attorney asked at the opening of her trial. "There is no drug bust. Where are the search warrants? No search warrants. Where are the drugs? No drugs in this lady's house. Where is the money, and where are the fingerprints?"
Stribling was convicted on four of the counts and got 17 years. Sharena Stribling, portrayed by the government as having a minor role in the conspiracy, accepted a plea deal and got eight. Julie Franklin, her husband and the Houston supplier all testified against Jones and have since been released from federal prison. Franklin's sentence was just seven years.
At FMC Carswell, the only medical federal prison for women in the United States, people become depressed quickly. Many are hooked on prescription drugs, inmates say, eager to fight and angry about their circumstances. Sharanda Jones was a welcome deviation from the norm. She and her family always appeared happy, inmates say, and treated others with respect.
"It was known that she had a life sentence; she was admired for the way that she handled that kind of pressure," says Kimberly Smith, a former inmate and friend of Jones' at Carswell. "She was always smiling and if she didn't tell you, you would never be able to tell that she had a life sentence, because it didn't affect her daily life. I met a few people who had life sentences. I can say about the majority of them, the pressure made them bitter, and somewhat evil."
Jones had at least her sister and mother there in the beginning. The daughters would bring the mother downstairs daily to socialize with the other inmates, her hair nicely styled and her make-up done. "She and her mother were really close," Smith says.
Jones threw herself into Bible study and worked as a cosmetology instructor among other jobs. She was also often seen in the law library trying to figure out why she got the sentence she did. She appealed, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals examined the evidence. The court found that much of it was purely circumstantial: "Polk's testimony is the basis of a weak inference that the lost cocaine was Jones', not Stribling's," the court found. Still, the appeals court refused to overturn the sentence.
"While the collective force of this circumstantial evidence is not strong," the court said, "it is enough to sustain the jury's verdict."
In 2002, Jones tried another approach, finally giving the government an admission of guilt along with the names of accomplices. In a letter she sent to McMurrey, Jones said she used to date a drug dealer, and that inspired her to get in the game. One day, she said she approached Jackson and Franklin to tell them that she could beat their prices on cocaine powder. Jones included the names of other mid-level dealers she sold to and from. She denied in her letter that the cop friend of hers accompanied her to Houston, but said the cop's sister had. "I never transported drugs alone," Jones wrote.
But the names she gave weren't new, and the statute of limitations had run out by the time Jones gave the names — those involved with the investigation believed Jones knew that. McMurrey agreed to meet with Jones anyway but said he couldn't help her. Jones got so angry she jumped across the table and pushed him, McMurrey told others afterward, according to the source. (McMurrey, now in private practice, declined to comment on the case, as did the U.S. Attorney's Office.)
"Your information did not provide even minimal assistance to law enforcement," McMurrey wrote to Jones after the meeting.
Jones subsequently filed motions to vacate her sentence through 2005; the court repeatedly denied them. Still, she held onto hope, at least as far as the other inmates could tell. She always had the same smile, and the same calm, humble manner. "She was just a well-rounded, sweet person," recalls Theus.
Outside of prison, meanwhile, Brittany Byrd was set to graduate from UT-Arlington in 2005 when she found out that a former childhood friend, Keyon Mitchell, was being sentenced to life in prison on his first offense, selling crack. "He was just a great guy," Byrd says, and the harsh sentence felt unjust to her.
When Byrd ended up at SMU law school a few years later, she focused on Mitchell's case for a paper she wrote about the disparity between crack and powder sentences. During research, she found Jones' case. "I was like, 'Oh my God, Keyon's not alone," Byrd says.
Byrd started corresponding with Jones, telling her to hang in there. The first time they met, at FMC Carswell, "She just smiled the entire time," Byrd says. "Here she is with a life sentence, facing the chance of coming out of prison in a casket, but she was just smiling, and she holds onto so much hope that she will not die in prison, it's contagious."
Byrd is now a corporate attorney in Dallas, but after hours she works pro bono for Jones, Mitchell and two other nonviolent drug offenders with lengthy prison terms.
Byrd's first order of business was writing to the ACLU about her clients. A year later, the ACLU wrote back, saying they wanted to include a profile of Jones' case in a report on sentencing. "A Living Death" was published in November 2013. More than 3,000 people were serving life for nonviolent crimes, 80 percent of them drug-related, the ACLU said.
Byrd also turned to social media, teaming up with Jones' daughter, Clenesha Garland, to write a Change.org petition. "Being without my mother for over 14 years of my life has been extremely difficult," Garland wrote. "But the thought that she is set to spend the rest of her life in prison as a first-time nonviolent offender is absolutely devastating."
Byrd last year turned a massive petition over to President Obama, asking for a sentence commutation. Shortly after, Obama gave commutations to eight crack offenders who'd been in prison for 15 years, but Jones wasn't one of them.
Byrd remains optimistic that she could get another chance this November, the 15th anniversary of Jones' incarceration.
"Sharanda has fully accepted responsibility of her part in the conspiracy, as have all my other clients." Byrd says. "They've shown extraordinary rehabilitative efforts since they've been incarcerated these 15 or 20 years. Now, it's past time for them to come home."
In the last 15 years, Jones and her fellow inmates have been witnesses to the United States' exploding prison population. The two-person cell where Jones used to sleep now has four beds crammed inside. When Theus, one of the other inmates, left the prison in 2008, the television room had been turned into a giant bedroom, she recalls. Visiting hours decreased under a new warden in 2006, another inmate says, and the guards got more strict. Suddenly, the guards began asking Jones to show a pass before she could see her mother.
"At first they were saying you need a pass, and then it just kind of came to it doesn't matter if they were related or not, she couldn't go up there," says Kissey Mitchell, another former inmate.
By the end of her mother's life, Jones resorted to sneaking up when a lazy guard was on duty, inmates say, or staying in the elevator, traveling up and down, waiting till the hallway was clear.
During sentencing, the Bureau of Prisons assured the court that Stribling would be fine, even with her disability.
But Stribling was in and out of the prison hospital with infections. In December 2012, she developed a staph infection, Jones says. Jones was later called into the prison chapel and told that her mother had 24 hours left. She was at an off-campus hospital, and Jones wasn't allowed to see her.
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"Tell Sharanda that I'm OK, and I'll see her in heaven," was the message Jones says she got afterward, passed along from the sisters who were with her when she died. She was 62.
Sharanda Jones is approaching her 47th birthday at the end of July. Her knees are giving out after walking on concrete for nearly 15 years. She agreed to speak to the Observer for two 15-minute phone interviews, though she declined requests for follow-up interviews so as not to jeopardize her petition for clemency. She sees her 23-year-old daughter every week. "The mother's love that she's lacking, I hurt for that. Because I wasn't able to give her that, and when she comes to visit, she's still like an 8-year-old kid to me," Jones says.
To other inmates, Jones has acted as a mother of sorts, giving the new women shower shoes, teaching them how to do laundry or cooking them food in her cell microwave.
Sheila Trahan, another former inmate, began her own sentence bitter and addicted to crack. She was there for selling guns, but Jones showed her kindness, she says, sitting down with her to tell her to pull herself together. "She said, you shouldn't let this place break you or make you, because this is only a stepping stone for you to get yourself back together once you get out," Trahan says. Inspired, Trahan got her GED while in prison. She's been out for five years and is still thankful for her friendship with Jones."I don't think the prison had nobody as sweet as Sharanda in there."