Dimetrious Woods was preparing to go back to prison.
“The attorney general is probably dreaming of my soul,” he texted me.
It was the day after the Missouri Supreme Court determined that his nearly two years of freedom had come as the result of a bad court ruling. In two opinions issued earlier this month, the state’s highest court ruled that a change the Missouri Legislature made to the state criminal code — making all nonviolent drug crimes eligible for parole — could not be applied retroactively.
The change to the law came as Woods was seven years into a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking. With the help of Kansas City lawyer Kent Gipson, Woods filed a motion to have the new law applied to him. Cole County Judge Dan Green agreed that it should. In March 2018, the parole board set him free.
Since then, he’s spent a lot of time in his car traveling Interstate 70 between Columbia, where he and his son opened an auto detailing business, and his St. Louis County home, around the corner from Ritenour High School, near where he grew up.
Driving is one of those things that makes Woods appreciate his freedom.
Unless Gipson finds a way to reverse the court’s ruling, at least as it applies to Woods, his driving days might be over, at least for another 12 years.
But there is some uncertainty as to what happens next.
On the day after the court’s ruling, Woods heard from his probation officer. Expect a warrant for his arrest to be issued, he was told. Prison beckoned.
I asked the probation and parole department what it expected to do.
“He will be returned to DOC custody in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling,” a spokeswoman told me in an email.
About half an hour later, she emailed back:
“I take that back,” she wrote. “No action is being taken at this time.”
That’s because Gipson had called the office of Attorney General Eric Schmitt, and made it clear that arresting Woods before he had an opportunity to file for a re-hearing, or further appeal the latest ruling, would be illegal.
So Woods remained free.
Now Gipson is trying a Hail Mary.
On Wednesday he wrote Schmitt a letter asking him to dismiss the appeal that led to the Missouri Supreme Court ruling.
That appeal had been filed by the previous attorney general, Josh Hawley, who is now a U.S. senator. Even though the court has already ruled on it, Schmitt could just pull the case back, meaning the ruling would no longer apply to Woods. He’s the only one of about 120 similar people who had been convicted of a nonviolent drug offense without the possibility of parole who has been released from prison.
“I am asking you in your capacity as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer for the State of Missouri, in the interest of justice, to consider filing a voluntary dismissal of the State’s appeal in the Woods case,” Gipson wrote to Schmitt. “Mr. Woods was paroled approximately two years ago and, by all accounts, has been a model parolee. Mr. Woods has been reunited with his family and has started a thriving business in Columbia with one of his sons and has become a mentor for troubled youth. … As you are well aware, both Missouri’s ethical rules and ABA Guidelines set forth the special responsibilities of prosecutors as ministers of justice. In light of a prosecutor’s solemn duty to do justice, we believe that it is not a close call that justice dictates the dismissal of this appeal.”
Three words in that letter should be particularly familiar to Schmitt these days: “ministers of justice.”
They appear in multiple court filings in another case he is involved in. In that case, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner is seeking a hearing concerning convicted murderer Lamar Johnson. Gardner believes Johnson is innocent, and it is her duty as a “minister of justice” to ask the court to overturn his past conviction. Schmitt is trying to block Gardner’s actions, though he has not disputed Gardner’s allegation that Johnson is innocent. This week, 45 elected prosecutors from around the country filed an amicus brief with the Missouri Supreme Court agreeing with Gardner, urging the court to allow her to be a minister of justice. Similarly, 11 retired Missouri judges filed their own brief, writing that the duty of the prosecutor is “to do justice — not just seek convictions.”
In Woods’ case, nobody is arguing his innocence, least of all him. He did that which he was accused of. He was a drug dealer, he tells the young people he mentors, but he is reformed, and he has paid the price for his sins, and will continue to do so. What Woods and his attorneys are asking of Schmitt is that he do justice.
“Returning (Woods) to prison would be inhumane, cruel, and fundamentally unjust,” Gipson wrote. If Schmitt will dismiss his appeal before the court’s ruling becomes final, it “will allow Woods to serve the remainder of his sentence on parole and continue to be a productive and prosperous citizen rather than an unnecessary financial burden on the taxpayers of Missouri.”