"I'm gonna need a hug," says Cozy Brown as an old friend walks through the door of his Prichard, Ala., soul-food restaurant. Dorothy Gaines hasn't been by in years—so long, in fact, that she doesn't recognize Brown's new dining room, with its enormous Last Supper mural, or the roaring interstate nearby. But then, after the ordeal Gaines has been through, even the most commonplace things seem jarringly unfamiliar. "My daughter handed me a cell phone the other day," Gaines tells Brown with a smile, "and I said, 'What's that, a big candy bar?' "
She may occasionally joke about her plight today, but for Gaines, 42, the past decade has been a nightmare—one that ended only with the intervention of the President of the United States. It all began in 1990, when Gaines, a widow raising three children, let her boyfriend, Terrell Hines, move into her tidy public-housing residence in a suburb of Mobile. Gaines soon discovered that Hines, now 51, was hooked on crack cocaine and enrolled him in a rehab program.
Though he would complete his treatment, her troubles were just beginning. On Aug. 21, 1993, police arrived at Gaines's house and arrested Hines and Gaines on charges of trafficking in crack cocaine—a crime she insists she did not commit. After the state dropped the case because it could produce no physical evidence, Gaines asked Hines to move out. That did little good. The next spring they were indicted with several others in a federal conspiracy case. After a jury found her guilty on July 29, she was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison with no hope of parole. "Dorothy Gaines was found guilty after a fair trial," maintains U.S. Attorney J. Don Foster, now head of the prosecutor's office that handled her case.
Today, Gaines is once again free and living with her children in Mobile—thanks to Bill Clinton. On Dec. 22, the President commuted Gaines's sentence and ordered her released from prison. And while several of Clinton's last-minute pardons have exposed him to the bitterest criticism, his gesture toward prisoners like Gaines has generally been applauded. Given the country's get-tough stance in recent years against even the most trivial drug crimes, that may seem surprising. But as prisons have filled up with thousands of bit players often sentenced to the same hard time as drug kingpins, there has been a gradual sea change. Gaines is seen as one of the most prominent examples of past sentencing excesses.
While it is clear that Gaines knew several members of a drug-dealing ring, there is little evidence, aside from testimony given by convicted felons, to suggest she was part of the operation. Tried under drug conspiracy laws revised by Congress at the height of the crack epidemic of the late-'80s, she was charged with distributing and storing drugs at her house for a Mobile-based operation run by Dennis Rowe—even though a thorough search of her home had turned up nothing. Indeed, no drugs were produced at her trial. Prosecutors won a conviction based entirely on accusations made by four coconspirators, all of whom took the stand against Gaines in exchange for potential shortened sentences.
"What is important to recognize in Dorothy's case is that the government had no drugs, no scales, no residue, no money, no fancy clothing or cars," says Eric E. Sterling, president of Washington, D.C.'s Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and a critic of the harsh mandatory federal sentences as well as of conspiracy laws that require no corroborating physical evidence to back up claims made by prosecution witnesses. Then, because of rigid sentencing guidelines and because other defendants testified against her, Gaines, whose only previous offense was writing a bad check for $115, received the harshest sentence of anyone tried.
Critics point out that a system in which so-called snitches can win reductions in their sentences by incriminating others encourages felons to lie. For some the very harshness of drug sentences raises a question of fairness. "Someone in possession of four ounces of cocaine can have a minimum sentence of 15 years, while someone guilty of rape could serve eight," says New York Gov. George Pataki, a tough-on-crime Republican who last January proposed easing his own state's drug-sentencing laws. "There is a disparity there that needs to be changed."
That, however, was not a national concern on May 19, 1995, when Gaines boarded a plane en route to the federal women's prison in Danbury, Conn. "The day she went away it looked like our whole world was torn down. Mama was the only person we had," says Gaines's daughter Chara, then 12, who, with her brother, Phillip, 10, moved in with their older sister Natasha, then a 19-year-old college student raising two children of her own.
Gaines knew from experience what her children were going through. Born Dorothy Thomas in Mobile, she was raised dirt-poor by her maternal grandparents (whose last name she took as her own) in the logging town of Putnam, Ala. Gaines saw her own four siblings scattered to foster homes after the deaths, in quick succession, of her grandparents and her father, Andrew Thomas, a restaurant owner who moved to Philadelphia a few years after her birth. Shortly after the deaths, Gaines's mother, Vera, an alcoholic who once threatened Dorothy with an ax, was sent to a mental hospital.
Alone, Gaines moved to Mobile at 16 and finally found a job in a cafeteria. Three years later she qualified for public housing and reclaimed two of her siblings. She had also fallen in love with a shipyard worker named Larry Johnson and became pregnant with Natasha. "It was a mistake," says Gaines now, "a very big mistake." Johnson, who later worked in Dennis Rowe's drug ring, never acknowledged paternity until the day he took the stand to testify against Gaines at her trial.
Gaines has been romantically involved twice since Johnson, and both relationships ended unhappily. Charles Taylor, an auto-body painter four years her senior, whom Gaines met on a 1981 church outing, became her common-law husband and the father of Chara and Phillip before he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1986. Three years later, she began dating Terrell Hines, who began driving drugs between Miami and Mobile for Rowe in 1992. "I do feel maybe if I hadn't been there she would never have been involved in this," says Hines, who swore under oath at Gaines's trial that he had never discussed his illegal activities with her. He is currently serving a 14-year sentence.
Once behind bars, Gaines became a voracious letter writer, sometimes as part of her effort to win a reversal of her conviction but often just to keep in touch with the world outside. "They took away my freedom, but they couldn't take my joy," says Gaines, who is proud that she kept her sense of humor in prison—even if she put on 120 lbs. and suffered occasional bouts of depression sparked by events as seemingly remote as the 1997 death of Princess Diana. Her name was eventually passed along by a prisoners' advocacy group to Gregg Shapiro, a Boston corporate litigator interested in drug policy. Working pro bono and with help from Tracey Hubbard and others at the firm of Choate, Hall & Stewart, Shapiro petitioned the White House for a presidential pardon last August. Finally, in December, as Gaines lay in her cell contemplating another Christmas behind bars, a guard told her a lawyer had called. "I said, 'Dorothy, pack your bags,' " says Hubbard, 30.
Back in Mobile, Gaines celebrated New Year's Day and her newfound freedom by cooking a huge batch of chitterlings, collard greens and sweet potato pies for friends and family. She may have arrived home just in time. Chara, at 17, is still in the ninth grade, and Phillip had spent a month in juvenile hall for breaking a court-ordered curfew. "It's hard starting over with nothing," says Gaines of keeping her family together, finding a job and an affordable place to live. "But then I give thanks, because at least I'm free. By the grace of God, I'm free."
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine