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Messenger: Free for nearly two years, reformed drug dealer fears court ruling will send him back to prison

Messenger: Free for nearly two years, reformed drug dealer fears court ruling will send him back to prison

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Dimetrious Woods

Dimetrious Woods researches his case in his son's home in Overland. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger.

When I first met Dimetrious Woods, he was scared to death he would end up back in prison. The former drug dealer who grew up in Breckenridge Hills has been “doing what’s right” since the parole board let him out, he told me.

“I can’t go back,” Woods said. “It’s a nightmare.”

Thanks to a Missouri Supreme Court decision that “stunned” Woods’ attorney, prison is likely where the 40-year-old is headed for the next 12 years. Woods has been free for nearly two years. He’s opened an auto detailing shop in Columbia, Missouri, with his son. He’s spent time speaking to students about sticking on the straight-and-narrow path. He’s stayed in touch with other people who, like him, were incarcerated on ridiculously long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, offering messages of hope.

Now he’s biding his time, nervously enjoying what he expects will be his last taste of freedom for a long time.

“They’re going to send me back to prison,” Woods says, even though he’s committed no crime since he’s been out. “That’s a fact.”

On Tuesday, in a 6-1 decision that included a thoughtful dissent written by Judge Laura Denvir Stith, the state’s high court said that a 2014 legislative rewrite of the criminal code could not be applied retroactively. That rewrite erased a part of state law that allowed nonviolent drug offenders to be sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole. The ruling came in Woods’ case and the case of another man, Gary Mitchell, who is still incarcerated. In effect, the court said, because the original statute that outlined potential terms in prison also included a provision that said those sentences would be served without parole, any attempt to apply the new law to Woods and Mitchell would alter their original sentence.

Stith said her fellow judges read the law wrong, and ignored years of precedent in which the Missouri Supreme Court has said that parole is separate from a sentence and can be applied retroactively.

Lawmakers intended the law to be applied retroactively, both former state Sen. Jolie Justus and former state Rep. Chris Kelly told me when I first wrote about Woods last year. One of the big reasons for the rewrite of the criminal code was to right past wrongs in terms of disparate sentences handed to drug offenders.

For now, that doesn’t help Woods.

On the day the court issued its opinion, he expected the attorney general’s office — which had filed the appeal of the judge’s ruling that made him eligible for parole — was quickly preparing the paperwork to send him back behind bars.

“I imagine they’re making calls right now getting ready to push that,” Woods said.

Not so fast.

While it might be a distinction without a difference, the appeal of Woods’ case was filed when Josh Hawley, then the Missouri attorney general, was running for the U.S. Senate and trying to project a “tough-on-crime” image. The new attorney general is fellow Republican Eric Schmitt, who has at least dipped one foot into the criminal justice reform waters.

“The Missouri attorney general’s office will take no further action in this case,” a spokesman told me Wednesday.

That leaves Woods’ fate in the hands of the parole board, or the probation and parole office. Parole officials didn’t return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

If they send his client back to prison, it would be a “gratuitously cruel” action, says Kansas City attorney Kent Gipson, who represents both Mitchell and Woods.

Ironically, Gipson didn’t write the brief that set Woods free. Woods wrote it from prison, after researching the law. Gipson filed it on his behalf, and Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green ruled in Woods’ favor. After the hearing in which the parole board let him out of prison, Woods said he’s been sharing his experience as a reformed criminal with as many people as he can, to save others from taking the path that led him to prison in the first place.

He’s already served 11 years for his 2007 drug trafficking conviction, and he continues to check in with his parole officer every month. If Woods heads back to prison to serve the rest, Gipson hopes either the Legislature will clarify the intent of the law, or that Gov. Mike Parson will commute his sentence.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” Gipson says. “If they are truly serious about reducing prison population in this state, then commuting his sentence is the right thing to do.”

For now, Woods waits, fearful that he’s about to become another statistic in the era of mass incarceration.

“They will sweep me under the rug,” he says. “If you’re a little guy, you just don’t matter.”

Get Tony's e-newsletter: From City Hall to the Capitol, Pulitzer Prize-winning metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.

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