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Mar. 15 2010 - 4:16 pm | 10,502 views | 1 recommendation | 3 comments

Texas state senator’s office ‘offended’ by 35-year pot sentence

Last week, I wrote about a gentleman named Henry Walter Wooten, 54, who was handed a 35 year prison sentence in Tyler, Texas for being caught in a drug-free zone with just over four ounces of marijuana.

Because the accused had two prior convictions — one for carrying a gun and one for selling cocaine — the prosecutor sought 99 years and the jury gave him almost half that, effectively ending Mr. Wooten’s life as a free man.

Word of this travesty spread quickly. After I bitterly railed about the inequality of justice dealt to Mr. Wooten, The Dallas Morning News penned an editorial — without a by-line, mind you — damning the punishment. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is pissed too, and for good reason. Even Law Enforcement Against Prohibition logged an entry about the case.

Peter Guither’s Drug War Rant mentioned my piece on Wooten’s sentence, asking readers, “Where will you be in 35 years?” Then, over on progressive journaling network DailyKos, a marijuana news roundup dedicated extensive space to what I said about Wooten, noting that someone on Change.org had launched a petition demanding his freedom.

I signed it.

Because of that simple act, I got an e-mail this afternoon from Yolanda Velasquez, who works in constituent services for Texas State Senator Kirk Watson, asking that I call in to discuss Wooten’s case.

“We were all offended at the sentence when we saw your e-mail [sent by Change.org],” she told me.

After a few basic questions, Yolanda told me Wooten’s case would be put on the senator’s desk.

That gave me goosebumps. I spent literally 45 minutes writing up a little rant about the abortion of justice in small-town Texas and before I knew it the halls of power were shuddering from its’ echo, if but only a little.

Here’s what The Dallas Morning News had to say:

The prosecutor asked for 99 years, to set a precedent for punishing such crimes in Tyler. That kind of precedent would have been grotesque. From our vantage point, 35 years still is too costly and out of proportion to the crime, considering that it was a nonviolent offense. Plus, Wooten will serve more – unserved time from his previous drug conviction – since he was on parole at the time of his marijuana bust.

What’s the proper sentencing range? Something far less than the rest of his life, which could be the case now and could stick the state with the tab for health care in Wooten’s last years.

In recent years, the state of Texas has been moving in the right direction in expanding drug-treatment programs to break the costly cycle of incarceration and avoid the need to build more prisons.

Testing the upper limits of sentencing laws for nonviolent drug crimes may help rid streets of local riff-raff, but the cumulative effect is a state prison system of unaffordable and unreasonable proportions.

Not exactly the argument I would have made, but they’re absolutely right, once again proving that drug policy reform need not be a partisan issue.

When I first offered commentary on Wooten, a Google search for his name in quotation marks turned up scant few results. Today, the same search returns with nearly 1,000 items.

You did that, just by making a small contribution using social media, circulating words and ideas around the Internet and mentioning the story to friends and family. Because of your actions, forces have been set aflutter on behalf of justice for this one man.

Imagine what else could be generated if everyone convinced just 10 people to do something small to better their environment or society. It doesn’t take much effort to crowdsource goodness; all that’s required is a few motivated people with infectious ideas.

Change is still possible: for me, for you, and for Mr. Wooten. Hope prevails.


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    Hi Stephen –
    This is great news. I appreciate your efforts.
    I tried several years back to generate some attention for a similarly unjust case in California, that of Brandon Hein and his cohorts, who as teenagers were convicted for life without possibility of parole for essentially being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only a pardon by the governor of California can free them and so far no governor has shown an interest http://www.brandonhein.com/na3.cfm
    Thanks for working for justice,

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    About Me

    My name is Stephen. I am a News Junkie and an assistant editor at RawStory.com. My work has appeared in publications both printed and online, including The Dallas Business Journal, the cover of Fort Worth Weekly and in the pages of The Dallas Morning News, Austin Monthly, Envy Magazine and others. I also covered the rebirth of the U.S. peace movement first-hand for The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, starting with the city's first public screening of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' all the way through the end of Cindy Sheehan's stay. I've seen my reporting discussed in publications such as Time, Wired, Reason, The Washington Post, D Magazine, The Guardian UK, Media Matters, ThinkProgress, Alternet, Cannabis Culture, 1-UP, Destructoid, Kotaku, GameSpot, G4TV and many others. I am currently open for freelance assignments and actively seeking a literary agent. You can follow me on Twitter @StephenCWebster, or from Facebook.com/StephenCWebster.

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