Sager, M. (1992, September 3). The case of Gary Fannon. Rolling Stone, p. 27.
Blond and good looking in a regular sort of way, Gary Wayne Fannon, Jr. grew up in a suburb of Detroit. Gary’s father had left him, his mother, and a newborn brother when Gary was three years old. His mother Linda worked hard to support her two boys. By high school, Gary hung out with friends who were not expecting to excel academically. He wore black T-shirts; listened to Anthrax, Megadeth, and Pink Floyd’s "Wall"; played video war games; and did drugs like LSD and mescaline. He did not like to smoke cigarettes or marijuana—but he did sell a little pot to friends on occasion.
Gary was a vulnerable, barely-18-year-old recent high school graduate when a friend introduced him to Kurt Johnston, who wanted to buy some marijuana. Yet, Gary had some different goals:
...he’d been waiting to hear about a grant from an automotive school in Detroit. That was his plan. A job as a mechanic, a nice wife, a couple of kids, a cool car, a house somewhere, not too expensive. He was a modern kid with modest dreams and just getting by.
Kurt was actually an undercover cop—and not the best variety. He gave Gary big money for the pot and then asked about cocaine. Gary came back next time with a quarter gram.
Kurt pulled out this little mirror, and boom, he tried it, and I tried it. And I said: ‘Yeah! I kinda like this!’
Over the next few months, the undercover cop encouraged Gary to sell him a little more cocaine and then asked for a kilo for $32,000. Before the deal was consummated, Gary wanted out of the dealings and left for Florida with his girlfriend. At this point,
Gary was getting scared. At first, when Johnston had asked him to get the dope, he was like ‘You want something? I’ll try to help you.’ He was waiting for the grant. He’d been laid off from his job. He didn’t have anything to do. It kind of made him feel like a big man. Now it was dawning on him that he was in big trouble. There’d been a lot of talk over the last two days about guys in shadows with Uzis.
So Gary pulled out of the deal—but not far enough to escape the tough mandatory sentences of the state of Michigan. Almost to Florida, a cop ran a license check on Gary and his girl at a taco stand. Brought back he was convicted of planning a major drug deal and convicted by mandatory sentence to life in prison over the pleas of family and character witnesses. The judge asked Gary if he had anything to say:
Yes. (He wiped his weeping eyes and sniffling nose with the back of his hand.) I’m truly sorry for what I’ve done and what I’ve gotten into. I feel I was tried in wrong ways and lies came out that convicted me. The police got up on the stand and lied. This whole thing is wrong.
The judge’s reply and sentence was final:
All right. I have here a stack of letters from your family and friends. They are all glowing as to how good a person you are. The court believes all of these things. But this court has no discretion whatsoever to give any leniency. The legislators have determined the sentence in this case...
Gary Fannon was recruited by the police—who introduced him to coke and then stepped him up the ladder until he was into the big time.
After the trial, the witness, Kurt Johnston, a cop for thirteen years, was found to have cocaine in his system and was dismissed from duty (in 1989). No charges have ever been brought against the "professional" adult who lead Gary into his cocaine troubles. Nor has this made any difference to the fate of Gary Fannon. Now in his early twenties, he is facing a lifetime of incarceration without hope. Kurt Johnston has since earned a master’s degree in psychology and works in business.
Michigan’s "650 Lifer law, is one of the oldest and still the toughest in the nation. It is also one of the strangest." The Michigan Supreme Court has since amended the law calling the possession of 650 or more grams of cocaine "cruel and unusual punishment." But for those who have even thought of selling it, that cruel and unusual punishment of life imprisonment remains. As one defense attorney states: "The Supreme Court has made it better to have drugs than to think about selling them. The thought crime is now worse than the action crime." Gary Fannon had left town for some time when Detective Kurt Johnston received his kilo of coke.
Mandatory-minimum sentences for drugs began in the 1950s with the Boggs Acts that mandated five to twenty years for first-offense sales or smuggling and death for sales by an adult to a minor. By 1963, a presidential commission urged the repeal of mandatory minimums. Cited in reports were lack of judicial latitude, outrageous prosecutions, prison overcrowding, reduced possibility of rehabilitation, an overall rise in violations despite the intended deterrent effect, and an increasing alienation of youth from society they considered harsh, cruel, and unyielding. Seven years after the reports, Congress repealed all mandatory sentences.
The reprieve was not long. With the proliferation of crack and gangs, federal mandatories were implemented in 1984, and every election year since, they have been amended to be more severe.
Though these laws were enacted to catch major drug kingpins, they have been used instead to snare many who fit the language and the letter but not the intent or the spirit of the statutes.
One 67-year-old judge wept as he handed down a ten-year, no-parole sentence to a first-time drug offender. Several other justices have resigned rather than surrender their judicial discretion.
According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit reform organization in Washington D.C., the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world: 455 per 100,000 population. South Africa is second with 311. China is sixth, at 111. The White House drug-control strategy for 1992: more aggressive conspiracy prosecutions, harsher mandatory sentences, a redoubled effort by police, a budget of $12.72 billion.
Meanwhile, Gary Fannon sits in a cell. Gary says:
It’s just crazy. I mean, the punishment should fit the crime. I’ve been here for five years. I did wrong. I was headed in the wrong direction. But now I got the idea: Don’t sell drugs. Don’t do drugs. Don’t be stupid. Don’t get involved with cops or druggies, because you don’t know who the real criminals are. But this, I mean...people don’t get it when they hear ‘life without parole.’ I’m here until I die. It’s kind of like overkill, you know?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- What are your feelings after reading this story of Gary Fannon? With whom are your sympathies? Why do you think you feel this way?
- Do you think Gary should serve out his life term? What do you think should be the response of criminal justice system to the drug crisis? What should be the response of other sectors of our society to this problem?
- In fighting drug abuse, what percentage of our efforts should fight drugs at their source (where drugs are grown or made), where they are sold (in terms of police work and incarceration), or by prevention and treatment?
- How are public opinion, politics, law, and criminal justice all intertwined in this case?
Dean Borgman cCYS