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Recent stories by Chris Peterson on Keith Gaffney-Bey and Lorton drug trafficking (“House of Pain,” 9/26) and on the sentencing of his sister and alleged co-conspirator Mona Lisa Gaffney (“Permanent Visitor,” 10/17) were biased, offensive, and seemingly designed to demonize (à la Willie Horton) and ridicule all of those featured (other than the prosecutors and judges) rather than to examine the social issues presented by the situation at Lorton. “House of Pain,” which ran over 10,000 words and appeared two weeks before Mona Lisa Gaffney’s sentencing, reviewed the prosecution’s case in lurid detail while providing only minimal coverage of the defense position; moreover, the article, which featured Mona Lisa Gaffney prominently, came out on the same day on which an unreported community forum in her support drew nearly 60 people to Meridian Hill Baptist Church. The second article, which announced Mona Lisa’s 17-and-a-half-year sentence, simply summarized the trial judge’s views on her case with a few malicious headlines, insets, and photo captions thrown in for good measure. The photo caption, “They Just Lie There, and They Die There: Mona Lisa goes into cold storage,” appears to mock her possible death in prison (she has health problems and is not scheduled for release until she is in her 60s).

Judge Brinkema’s characterization of Mona Lisa’s supporters as believers in the innocence of Keith Gaffney-Bey, which is reported in “Permanent Visitor,” is inaccurate and unfounded. Supporters, many of whom know Mona Lisa through her community work in social justice organizations as a devoted family woman and a generous, thoughtful, highly responsible person, believe that Mona Lisa is one of the approximately 6,000 innocent people imprisoned each year in the U.S. The same supporters believe that Gaffney-Bey was involved in organized drug trafficking at Lorton.

Supporters believe that Mona Lisa Gaffney was targeted by the prosecution because of her persistent efforts over the years to draw the attention of criminal justice reform groups, law experts, and public officials to her brother’s case. She initially believed him innocent of drug trafficking; after later accepting the fact of his involvement, she came to believe that he had been scapegoated and the volume of his business magnified by the authorities and Lorton personnel for political reasons. She believes to this day that his sentence of life in prison was unjustified.

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There are a number of arguments for Mona Lisa Gaffney’s innocence of any wrongdoing with regard to smuggling drugs into Lorton. Although she was offered a plea-bargain agreement, under the terms of which she would have received a sentence of 10 years with a possible reduction to three years if she “cooperated” with the prosecution in identifying and helping to secure the convictions of other alleged drug dealers, Mona Lisa chose not to lie but to face what she believed would be a trial by a jury of her peers. She had no prior record of any kind of offense, and she was convinced that a jury of her peers would recognize her innocence in the absence of any evidence against her. (Her family, friends, and supporters were also so confident that a fair trial would have to result in a verdict of Mona Lisa’s innocence that they did not try to raise family and community funds to hire a private attorney for her, although they will do so for her appeal.) Mona Lisa was well aware at the time of her decision that the conviction rate on federal drug charges for those who choose to go to trial is approximately 95 percent and that her brother had received life without parole on charges similar to her own in 1995.

In July 1997, Mona Lisa was wrongfully convicted on all counts. In violation of her 6th Amendment right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a jury of her peers, she was hastily convicted by an all-white jury (in a county that is approximately 40 percent people of color, mostly African-American) without a shred of hard evidence of even the possession of drugs—only the contradictory testimonies, as noted, of those who stood to gain from their testimonies. Although it initially requested the transcripts of two witnesses to aid in its deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of “guilty” that evening when told it would have to wait until the next day for the transcripts.

Mona Lisa and her family, who have no automobile and cannot afford a private appellate attorney for her without community fund-raising efforts, have survived for years on public assistance in government housing. Mona Lisa’s mother, Eva Gaffney Smith, has also lived modestly for many years in government housing. Eva, who is 66 years old and has not been indicted to date, was named in Keith Gaffney-Bey’s presentencing report as the financial steward of his drug “empire.”

Although presumably there would have been an abundance of evidence against Mona Lisa if she were a major player, the indictment charging she engaged in criminal activity for several years prior to 1994 could not be brought until last April. No evidence of any transactions conducted by Mona Lisa with suppliers outside Lorton was ever presented in court. No records documenting the allegations of Mona Lisa’s systematic visits to her brother’s co-conspirators in prison for the purposes of trafficking were produced at her trial in response to defense requests. (City Paper scornfully referred to Mona Lisa’s “[airing of] procedural gripes and [lamenting]” (emphasis added) when she asked at her sentencing why the prison could not be forced to release the visitation records that would have proved prosecution witnesses were lying.)

Despite his two years of appearing as a prosecution witness in three different trials on the Lorton drug ring (including that of Mona Lisa), witness and confessed dealer Walter Harris “remembered” Mona Lisa’s critical role as a conduit of drugs and cash only during Mona Lisa’s trial—in fact, no witness, including the FBI officials, mentioned Mona Lisa as a carrier in any of the earlier trials on Lorton drug ring activity. Harris, like fellow witness and confessed dealer Tony Patterson, showed a remarkable ability to recall Mona Lisa’s alleged activities as a smuggler even though those activities took place at least five years ago with no need or occasion for him in the meantime to divulge them in such telling detail. The prosecution chose to give Patrice Oden, who had openly confessed to the grand jury that she had smuggled drugs into Lorton, immunity in return for her testimony against Mona Lisa, who professes her innocence to this day.

In sentencing Mona Lisa, Judge Leonie Brinkema openly contradicted herself. She first cited as arguments for leniency the various holes in the case against Mona Lisa—the reliance of the prosecution on “mere surmise and estimation” to determine the quantity of heroin Mona Lisa had allegedly brought into the prison, the lack of any hard evidence in the form of drugs, money, or assets, the clearly modest living circumstances of the Gaffneys—and she stated her belief that Mona Lisa had acted not for financial gain but from “misplaced love” for her brother. The judge also noted that she believed Mona Lisa was unaware of the magnitude of her brother’s enterprise. Nevertheless, the judge leapt to conclude that Mona Lisa had played a major role in Gaffney-Bey’s drug enterprise and must therefore suffer a punishment that reflected the seriousness of her crimes.

The judge’s only explanation for her conclusion was her stated belief that Tony Patterson is a very credible witness, an opinion shared by the reporter, who found him “convincing.” It is nowhere mentioned that Judge Brinkema’s confidence in Patterson is something of a self-protective, preordained affair. In return for Patterson’s guilty plea to charges of drug trafficking at Lorton, it was Judge Brinkema who sentenced him in 1994 to a relatively modest term of 33 months in prison; she later reduced his sentence in return for his testimony against others involved in the drug ring.

The judge never sought to explain how she could sentence Mona Lisa so harshly based on an indictment that stated Mona Lisa had been active in drug smuggling more than a year after her brother had been transferred out of Lorton if, as the judge professed to believe, Mona Lisa had acted only to help her brother. She also never explained how she could say in one breath that Mona Lisa was ignorant of the dimensions of an operation that allegedly yielded hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and in the next breath say that said operation could not have been run “without [Mona Lisa’s] assistance.”

Under federal sentencing guidelines, the length of the sentence given depends on the quantity of the drugs handled by the individual, rather than on the severity of the crime or the culpability of the defendant. After conceding that the prosecution had failed to establish an amount smuggled by Mona Lisa, the judge complacently sentenced her to nearly two decades in prison. Even had Mona Lisa Gaffney been involved in drug smuggling, the length of her sentence is barbarous. Her young children will be in their mid-20s by the time of her release, and her mother will be 83.

Prize-winning investigative journalists like Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury-News have seriously investigated the real web of drug trafficking in the United States. Instead of serving up standardized sensationalistic stories in which some unjustly brutalized, usually racially oppressed individual mystically becomes a more significant threat to our well-being than the evils of rising unemployment and racism, environmental degradation, potential nuclear holocaust, declining public services, growing social alienation, and so forth, why doesn’t City Paper follow his courageous example? There is certainly reason to believe that the real story behind drug trafficking at Lorton would be far more informative and interesting than the official version that is being advanced by the prosecution at the risk of destroying fine people like Mona Lisa Gaffney.

Washington, D.C.

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