Valerie Bozeman Is Pardoned by Obama as America Wrestles With Fallout From the War on Drugs
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
Two hours before her redeye Greyhound was scheduled to snort out of the lot, Valerie Bozeman walked into the bus station in Oakland, California. She was traveling light: $93 in her pocket, a tote bag full of underwear and toothpaste courtesy of the Bureau of Prisons, and the blessings of the 44th president of the United States of America.
It was a May morning, 10:30. Bozeman was surprised to find the depot busy. Then again, she hadn't seen a bus station in two decades. Her steps fell calmly, with the patience of someone accustomed to waiting — waiting in lines at the commissary, waiting for letters from attorneys, waiting for prayers to be answered. But neither anxiety nor apprehension hounded her mood. As light sparked off a gold front tooth, the 48-year-old grandmother took confident baby steps into the outside world.
The words of the Apostle Paul were always skating the edges of her thoughts, Ephesians, Chapter 4: "You were taught with reference to your former ways of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God's image — in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth."
The phrases seemed urgent now. After two decades in prison, the ticket in her pocket would take her back home to Pompano Beach, to the very house where her troubles had begun. That she got out of jail at all was a surprise. Bozeman's part in a crack-cocaine enterprise earned her a life sentence that should have kept her behind barbed wire until her last breath. Incredibly, out of all the people involved in the ring — kingpins, suppliers, street sellers, and violent enforcers — she was the only one to get life.
But on March 21, President Barack Obama granted Bozeman a sentence commutation — the result of years of nudging from reformist lawyers and policymakers who say America's War on Drugs went too far. During the 1980s and '90s, mandatory minimum prison
Scanning the crowd, Bozeman spotted the man she was looking for: tall, black, and young, with a high forehead. When she approached, he burst into tears, thanking Bozeman for all she had done for his mother in prison. He presented her with a new smartphone and showed her how to make a call.
The phone began buzzing almost immediately on Bozeman's four-day shot to Florida. Ex-prisoners called with encouragement, congratulations, and prayers. One explained the concept of texting. Bozeman fielded so many calls, she had a chance to close her eyes only when her cell signal thinned out in the bare stretches of Texas.
When the bus hissed to a stop in Pensacola, Bozeman peered out the window and saw Marion Horn, who'd done 22 years inside, and Stephanie George, another lifer released by Obama a year earlier. They bore gifts — clothes, jewelry, and a steaming cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee.
It was then that it finally hit Bozeman. "I thought, 'I'm
Before the first bell blasted at Coconut Creek High, the kids would sneak off to a nearby 7-Eleven. They'd beg truck drivers to buy them beer, then head into class dizzy with
This, Bozeman says, was despite a strict upbringing. "I wasn't raised to be rebellious," she says. "My mom was a perfect mom."
Nancy Bozeman was a single mother keeping a five-child household afloat on shifts as a nurse at Holy Cross Hospital. Her daughter remembers Nancy skipping dinner so the kids could all eat. Nancy expected A's and B's on report cards. A cigarette or beer rarely passed her lips. The children could have friends over but could not visit other kids' homes. If her kids weren't in by curfew, they weren't allowed home at all that night.
Fencing off the outside world behind house rules only piqued the interest of Nancy's second-youngest child. "We didn't grow up in the streets, but that's what made it more attractive to me," Bozeman says. "I wanted to see what was out there." Drinking opened the door; next she was sneaking out the back window to go to clubs, where eventually she found hard drugs.
In the mid-
Most of the sellers were small-timers hooked on crack themselves, their criminal ambition stretching only as far as the next hit. The police were more nuisance than
Bozeman's taste for drugs eventually drove her to Second Avenue in the mid-1980s. She sold to feed her own habits. And she was good at it, mostly because she didn't dip into the product. Powder cocaine, not crack, was her vice. "It was just for my own use. It was not to become rich and famous in the drug world," she says. Hustling, she could make $300 a day.
She spun from fix to fix, "just going with the flow," Bozeman says. No job. Rarely seeing her family. "The only thing you see is what you're doing," she says. "You don't see any right in it or wrong in it. You're in a tunnel. This is your habit. It's your job to feed the habit and feed the streets. That's what I was doing."
The birth of two kids — Tanquwanna in 1982 and Kaimon in 1989 — did nothing to decelerate her. She placed the kids with family and visited when she could.
Bozeman lived in a duplex dead-center in the Second Avenue stroll. From her perspective, it was surprisingly calm. "All the killing and stuff rating today, it wasn't rating like that," Bozeman explains. "No, no, no. Everybody got along. There was enough money on that territory for everybody."
But Bozeman's moral compass wasn't utterly bent. Compunction prowled her sober moments. "With my upbringing," she remembers, "I knew what I was doing wasn't right."
Any hope for redemption, however, fizzled in 1984, when she met Donovan Ellis. Known by his street name, Jamaican Funk, inspired by his birthplace, Ellis was stocky, just under six feet tall, his features bunched close on his dark face, a scar dropping from his forehead to his nose. His booming voice rang out on Second Avenue. "Always talk talk talking," Bozeman says.
Fourteen years older than Bozeman, he was on his way to a thick criminal file: arrests in 1984 for burglary, carrying a concealed firearm, and trespassing; in 1986 for possession of cocaine and aggravated battery of a police officer; and in 1987 for trafficking hallucinogens, cocaine possession, and battery of a law enforcement officer.
He usually sold drugs on a drier stretch of Second Avenue. When a rare drug drought hit, he offered Bozeman and sellers around her duplex his own product while he went to pick up more.
Soon, Ellis began giving Bozeman packages of 50 crack rocks. She'd sell each for $10, keeping $2 of every sale and handing the remaining $8 to Ellis. "Me and him, it was not on a dating tip; it was on a business level," she says. "I never told this man that I would go with him. I never told this man that I liked him. 'Cause I didn't."
Ellis began bringing her powder cocaine. He gave her a microwave. One night, Bozeman says, he saw her talking to another guy. Ellis flashed a gun and threatened to kill him. Another night, while she was high in bed, Ellis climbed in and forced himself on her, she says. "Me and you are together," Bozeman remembers Ellis saying. "You can't talk to nobody."
Ellis' relationship with Bozeman gave him a foothold on the stroll. Soon, he'd shooed off other dealers, installing his own people in the duplex parking lots. Later, when Bozeman moved to Andrews Avenue, Ellis followed with his business.
Bozeman now handed Ellis all her earnings. In return, he kept her stocked with powder and paid her rent. But, she says, Ellis beat her daily. Black eyes. Busted teeth. Once, he split her skull with a broom handle. She never reported the domestic violence to police. But, she says, "I was trapped."
While in prison, Bozeman missed the opportunity to watch her daughter Tanquwanna (right) give birth to her granddaughter Eumaria Beal.
Courtesy of Valerie Bozeman
Drugs have been around since man was stacking blocks into the Egyptian pyramids, but Richard Nixon first declared a "war on drugs" in 1971, and the emergence of crack cocaine — cooked cocaine cut with baking soda and usually smoked for an intense, cheap high — brought on an urgent public crisis. In a 1985 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 5.8 million people admitted to regular use of cocaine or crack.
Then the drug war intensified with a dead hoops star.
In June 1986, with the second pick in the National Basketball Association draft, the Boston Celtics scooped up Len Bias, a small forward out of the University of Maryland touted as a Michael Jordanesque talent. Two days later, Bias was found dead from a cocaine overdose. The high-profile death cranked up the antidrug rhetoric megaphoning out of Washington, D.C.
With bipartisan support, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. The statutes nailed mandatory drug sentences to the amount and type of drugs involved. Although marijuana and heroin were included in the new statute, cocaine and crack were specifically targeted.
"The sponsors believed that the drug quantities that they identified with triggering mandatory minimum sentences would be those that are associated with high-level, kingpin-like traffickers," explains Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform. "But in fact, the drug quantities could be shockingly low." Five-hundred grams of cocaine would trigger a five-year sentence, no question. But just five grams of crack brought the same punishment.
Prosecutors also began twisting around existing law like origami to fit the new agenda.
As far back as the 1950s, sentences tied to felony drug convictions had included automatic harsher punishments for individuals with prior drug convictions. But federal prosecutors, seeing those
In 1970, Congress created a new provision, under Section 851 of the U.S. Code. Prosecutors could decide whether to introduce a drug offender's prior drug felonies. If the prosecutor chose to and the defendant were found guilty, then a judge would have no choie but to increase the defendant's sentence.
But as anxiety over crack grew, the statute was hijacked. The use of "851 enhancements," as they came to be called, became a huge prosecutorial hammer.
The marching orders for federal prosecutors were for no mercy. In 1989, then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh ordered U.S. attorneys to "charge the most serious, readily provable offense." Victory in the courtroom was "measured by the length of sentence you could get if you secured that prosecution," explains Price. So 851 enhancements — which could trigger a life sentence if an individual had two prior felony convictions — became an easy way for the government to notch a heavy win.
"It was a time when we turned our backs on rehabilitation and support, and our criminal justice system and sentencing law became much more punitive," Price says. "We were locking up people who we didn't like and were afraid of. But we were also locking up a lot of people who really didn't deserve the lengthy sentences we were doling out."
This was the backdrop as Jamaican Funk charted his course from street-corner nobody to kingpin.
To feed the drug strolls on Second Avenue and Andrews Avenue, Ellis was purchasing bulk cocaine and personally cooking it into
As crack began flooding the streets of Fort Lauderdale, the police presence also increased, particularly from a street-crimes unit known as the Raiders. A plainclothes unit working the northwest portion of the city, the Raiders were known for reverse stings, in which they posed as drug dealers.
Working with Ellis, Bozeman herself was picked up by the Raiders: In November 1988, police claimed she'd tossed six crack rocks on the ground in a vacant lot. In February 1989, she sold $20 worth of crack to a confidential informant. In May 1989, she was sentenced to a two-year state prison term for charges related to both incidents.
She didn't mind jail. It was an escape hatch from the street — and from Ellis.
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While she was gone, Ellis continued to branch out. The government would later claim that by the early 1990s, Ellis was controlling eight crack houses scattered around Fort Lauderdale. His organization employed a full-time cook to convert the cocaine into crack while employees bagged the product in overnight shifts. Dubbed an "accomplished director" by the government, Ellis kept changing the location of his cook and stash houses to evade detection.
Law enforcement also upped its game. In 1991, the Drug Enforcement Agency created the Southeast Florida Regional Task Force. The unit was composed of federal agents as well as officers from Broward agencies. By the mid-1990s, the DEA's Fort Lauderdale office was seizing more assets from drug dealers than the offices in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago and confiscating more cocaine than agents at the U.S.-Mexico border crossings, according to a 1996 Sun Sentinel article.
"I believe in putting a hurt on 'em," said the unit's leader, DEA agent Joseph Salvemini. "We've got to beat the living daylights out of them. No mercy. They need to be messed with."
Bozeman was paroled out of Lantana Correctional Center in July 1990. Her plan was to stay away from Ellis. But that October, Plantation PD pulled her over while she was driving a friend's car. They found
She tumbled right back into the cycle of drug use and abuse. Ellis installed her in an apartment in Wilton Manors, a location where he came to store his illicit cash. She says the beatings continued daily. When she tried to run, Ellis would track her down. Once, while she was cowering in a closet at a friend's house, the dealer arrived, promising not to beat her. Instead, he grabbed Bozeman and drove her to the bail bondsman. With her wrist handcuffed to a chair in the bail office, Ellis made Bozeman promise she wouldn't leave him again. Next time she did, he'd have her bail revoked.
By summer 1991, Ellis was pumping out up to three kilos of crack cocaine every two days when the government jumped. After learning about the operation from a confidential informant, the task force recorded controlled purchases and captured footage of Ellis at the crack houses. In October, "Operation Jamaican Funk" culminated in the kingpin's arrest. He was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He pleaded guilty in 1992. In return, Ellis received a 17-year prison sentence and could not be reached for comment..
Bozeman wasn't upset. "If he wouldn't have gotten indicted, he would have killed me," she says.
Bozeman (left) developed close bonds with fellow inmates like Lakethya Abdullah.
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
In 1992, Bozeman gave birth to her third child, a boy named
By the next fall, she was successfully climbing the program's steps. But then one afternoon, Bozeman was in a group counseling session when a staff member said someone wanted to see her. Up front, a man flashed a badge and told Bozeman she had to come with him. A full two years after Jamaican Funk had been hauled off the streets, Bozeman was dizzy to learn that she too had been indicted in federal court.
The ousted kingpin had apparently served up nearly everyone who had touched his operation. Nineteen individuals were rounded up in October 1993 on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
The government alleged that Bozeman "was the organization's administrator, responsible for the movement of crack cocaine and money between Donovan Ellis and his numerous crack houses."
Bozeman didn't recognize herself in the government's indictments. For one thing, they didn't even get her name right: She was indicted as "Theresa Brown," a throwaway alias she once used in a traffic stop. The prosecution, she noted, also had its facts crossed — wrong dates and addresses. She was painted as a
Yet Bozeman had little opportunity to explain all this to her court-appointed attorney, Guillermo Pena. During the 18 months Bozeman waited in jail for her trial, she saw her attorney on three occasions, she says. She told him she wanted to plead "not guilty" and go to trial. Pena explained that it could backfire: If she went to trial and was found guilty, she'd get a life sentence. He did not, she says, explain why.
In November 1995, Bozeman went to trial with three other codefendants in a Miami federal courtroom. Judge Ursula Ungaro presided. Two of the defendants were acquitted. But Bozeman's name was on the leases of apartments linked to Ellis' drug operation. She and another codefendant were found guilty.
Ungaro was blunt about her options at sentencing. "The law would appear to call for a mandatory term of life imprisonment, in my opinion."
"I don't have words to say pertaining because I don't know the law," Bozeman pleaded to the judge. "I know that the law has been broken, Your Honor, but I'd like to come before the court and the government, and I'd like to say that I'm sorry for what I have done."
Bozeman's mother also addressed the court, pointing out the unfairness of the punishment. "She doesn't even have the money to afford a lawyer, and she's gonna get
"The legal system does not operate with complete fairness or equity," Ungaro explained. "It kind of does the best it can, just like people do the best they can. In this system, the system rewards heavily people who cooperate with law enforcement."
And with that, she gave Bozeman life imprisonment. The U.S. government had decided the 28-year-old woman would leave federal custody only in a body bag.
You lose colors in prison. Forget them. They slip away. The uniforms are khaki. The walls pewter. The kitchen white. The guards wear gray.
"Those are the only colors we'd see," says Robin Lucas, a former federal inmate who served with Bozeman. "
Prison life divided the population into two groups: those with a release date and those without. Inmates sentenced to decades or life in prison — old-timers, they called themselves — clung together. There were about a dozen of them among the 1,000 inmates in the Tallahassee Correctional Facility.
"With a life sentence," Bozeman explains, "it's not knowing, not knowing when you are going to go home or if you are ever going to go home. So we had to be each others' strength."
"All my friends that I have now in the world are my sisters in federal prison," says Carla Buggs, a fellow drug defendant who served 20 years in prison, much of it alongside Bozeman. "When you get in a situation like that, everybody is guilty. I'm not better than you are. You can only spend so much money each month at the commissary, so it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor. You are all the same. So you begin to keep it real."
Bozeman and other old-timers pulled one another out of potholes of depression and pooled resources. "We shared everything," Carla says. "If I had one bag of rice and someone else had a bag of refried beans and there were five of us, we would all be eating at night."
They did one another's nails and hair. When a lifer ran afoul of the prison staff and ended up alone in the Special Housing Unit as punishment, the others collected around the windows, shouting and hollering so the offender didn't feel alone. They orchestrated visits so their families could meet. They posed for photos together, often with Bozeman manning the camera.
Every day, at 5 a.m., inmates crawled out of bed and headed for jobs inside the prison. Some women worked cleaning details; others did the food service. Bozeman earned a stack of certificates, including her GED. She got a call-center job, eventually racking up 12 years.
Still, many education and life-skills programs seemed earmarked for inmates with a release date. Bozeman couldn't get into computer classes. She showed a flair for doing nails, but she couldn't get into a cosmetology class. The not-so-subtle message seemed to be: If you're never leaving jail, why bother?
Bozeman coped through prayer. After the 1997 death of her older sister Derra, she drilled into the Scriptures,
But she still couldn't shake the unfairness of what had happened to her. The cook who had turned Ellis' cocaine into crack was released in 2000. The two suppliers who sold the kingpin his drugs got out in 2003 and 2005, respectively. Even Ellis himself eventually walked out of custody. (In 2007, he was nabbed again by Fort Lauderdale Police for cocaine trafficking and is now serving a ten-year sentence in state prison. He could not be reached for comment.)
In between chores, Bozeman shot off urgent letters to court-appointed lawyers, like SOS messages stuffed in bottles and pitched into the ocean. Most were ignored. Eventually, she received a letter from Judge Ungaro patiently explaining that Bozeman had been sentenced to life because of a statute known at "851 enhancement."
With that phrase in her mind, she began visiting the prison law library, where she finally began to unlock what exactly had happened to her.
Soon, Bozeman called together the old-timers. Bozeman had a one-question pop quiz. "Do you know why you got a life sentence?"
Blank looks bounced back at her. One by one, Bozeman sent the women to their cells for their sentencing paperwork. Together they bushwhacked through the legalese until they found it: 851. "The ladies didn't understand why they were sitting there with a life sentence," she says today. "They just didn't know."
One of Bozeman's greatest regrets is missing the 1997 funeral of her sister, Derra.
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
Bozeman wasn't the only person who couldn't get the case off her mind. In 2009, a young recent law graduate named Abigail Becker went to work as a law clerk with Judge Ungaro. The judge often described Bozeman's case to her young staffer.
"She talked about it as an example of how hard the laws can be, of how a person can be caught in a really horrible situation and the results are disproportionate," Becker recalls today. "She didn't feel right about the way it had gone."
Second thoughts likewise disturbed members of the legal community in the 2000s. Across the country, thousands of defendants were chained to harsh sentences. Bulging federal prisons were now costing taxpayers $8.5 billion annually.
Between 1980 and 2013, the number of drug defendants incarcerated in federal custody had exploded from 4,749 to 100,026 — a 2,006 percent uptick. Fifty percent of all federal inmates were serving time on drug charges.
Not only did mandatory minimums put small-time dealers in prison for long periods but 851 enhancements also had another harsh effect. Because the decision to file rested solely with the prosecution, it could be used as a threat: If you go to trial, we'll file an enhancement.
A study by Human Rights Watch showed that in 2012, "the average sentence of federal drug offenders convicted after trial was three times higher (16 years) than that received after a guilty plea (5 years and 4 months)." When sentencing enhancements were in play for defendants with prior convictions, defendants "who went to trial were 8.4 times more likely to have the enhancement applied" than those who pleaded guilty.
New York Federal District Judge John Gleeson noted that use of 851s had gotten out of control. He wrote in an October 2013 decision that they brought on "the sentencing equivalent of a two-by-four to the forehead." As a result, so many people chose to plead guilty rather than take chances at trial that a federal criminal trial was "on the endangered species list," he said. "The government's use of [851 enhancements] coerces guilty pleas and produces sentences so excessively severe they take your breath away."
The reform momentum swung into high gear after President Obama's 2012 reelection. In August 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder directed U.S. attorneys to apply 851 only when the defendant meets certain criteria: the defendant was an organizer or leader, used violence or the threat of violence, has a violent criminal history, or has specific ties to a cartel.
Then in 2014, the administration announced it would accept applications for sentence commutation for federal offenders branded by harsh drug-war sentences. The project — dubbed Clemency Project 2014 — was a tag-team effort by federal public defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and other organizations to pinpoint specific cases of sentencing overkill.
With the administration opening the door, Ungaro (who as a policy does not give interviews with the media) reached out to her old law clerk Becker, who had moved on to the federal public defender's office, headed by Michael Caruso.
"She thought maybe this was a way, so she got in touch and asked if there was anything we could do," Becker says.
In an August 2014 petition, Becker and Caruso detailed the drug addiction and physical abuse that had been the backdrop for Bozeman's arrest. The petition also pointed out that Bozeman's attorney, Guillermo Pena, had not objected to her portrayal by prosecutors. In the interim, Pena had been barred from practicing law in 2009 following a complaint from a client regarding inaccurate trust account records.
If the guidelines outlined in the 2013 Holder memos had been applied to her case, Bozeman likely would not have been prosecuted with an 851 enhancement. Thus her maximum sentence would have been 20 years, and Ungaro would have had leeway to give her an even lesser sentence. In fact, Ungaro wrote a letter that was included in Bozeman's petition for clemency. The judge stated she would have sentenced Bozeman to less than the time she had already served.
"Bozeman's story tells itself," Becker says. "It just had to get into the right hands."
The news dropped on March 21, 2015. Twenty-two federal inmates serving drug sentences would have their time commuted with a flash of President Obama's pen. Bozeman was among the chosen.
Cheers and congratulations shook through the federal prison in Dublin, California, where Bozeman was then serving her time after leaving Tallahassee in 2013. She had felt in her heart this day would come. "God set me free through President Obama," she explains. "It was God working through him."
There were logistics to hammer out. Inmates pooled together money to pay for a cell phone. Another woman arranged for her son to show up at the Oakland bus station to show Bozeman how to turn the phone on. Bozeman's mother and her daughter both wanted to send her a new outfit for her first day on the outside.
But that was an honor Bozeman saved for someone else.
"A lifer I was leaving behind, she wanted to do that for me," she says. The inmate had the clothes sent in. Jeans. A blue leather jacket. Loafers. A fancy $300 Duffybag purse.
"I left her there," Bozeman says, "and we'd been close for 20 years."
The workday groans to a start on a Thursday morning, and Bozeman sits in the cubicle at a Broward County health office, her purse, stuffed with legal documents, in her lap. To sign up for health insurance, she passes over documents that prove she's financially dependent only to be told she needs to have them notarized. She'll have to come back.
"The notary," she sighs. "I would have known that 23 years ago. I wasn't even thinking about that now. I'm not on that level."
Every day, she faces challenges in navigating
Since leaving a halfway house in July, Bozeman has been living with her mother in the same pink house she used to escape from. Since her release, she hasn't driven a car. Four days a week, she catches rides to cosmetology school.
Each day, she has to check in by phone with a probation office. One day recently, she was called in for a random drug test, but she didn't have a ride and couldn't figure out how to catch the bus.
"I'm not walking down the street with all those flakkaheads trying to get to a bus stop!" she says. "I've been gone 23 years. There were no bus stops then. Nobody's on my level. My mom and my sister and my kids, they don't know."
"I'm in my three and a half years of being out here, and I'm still adjusting," admits her former fellow inmate, Marion.
So far, the White House has granted walking papers to 43 federal defendants like Bozeman. Still, experts wonder if the piecemeal approach is effective. Some say the relaxed rules are not being implemented evenly. Rachel E. Barkow of the NYU School of Law says, "It would be a second great injustice if there are people that meet these
For Bozeman, the policy machinations are still distant noise. What she knows is that she's an example of a long shot that worked out — a result, she believes, of faith and hope.
It's a message she relays by cell phone. She calls the children and mothers of her friends who are still penned in the colorless walls. "You need to hear my voice," she tells them. "You're speaking with hope. One day, your daughter will come home."
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