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Incarcerated for Life, an Inmate Is Left Behind by Prison Reforms

Federal inmate number 14289-077 is baffled whenever the television in his Texas prison blares out assertions from supporters of Donald Trump that the former president has been victimized by a two-tiered system of justice.

“I’ve heard all these Republicans say, ‘Well, we don’t care if Mr. Trump did wrong, we’re going to support him anyway,’” Bonnie Erwin said in a recent phone conversation from prison. “What kind of system is that? I don’t mean any disrespect to his people. There’s two justice systems, all right. And if I was a white man, I’d have been out of here a long time ago.”

Mr. Erwin, 81, has been incarcerated for 39 years, spread across 11 different facilities. For the past three years, his home has been the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, in a minimum-security unit with other disabled inmates. Partially paralyzed on his right side from a stroke a decade ago, Mr. Erwin relies on other inmates to push his wheelchair and to type his emails.

Mr. Erwin is both a reflection of an earlier era’s draconian prison sentences and an example of how recent reforms can miss their mark. He was convicted by an all-white jury two years before the Supreme Court forbade the racial pruning of jury pools. He was sentenced three years too early to qualify for “compassionate release” under the terms of a law, the First Step Act, signed by President Trump in 2018.

And though a murder charge against him was overturned in 1987, his court-appointed attorney on that appeal was Louie Gohmert, a young trial lawyer who would add another chapter to Mr. Erwin’s story. As a far-right Republican congressman from Texas, Mr. Gohmert, now retired, voted against the First Step Act and later contended that the real victims in the criminal justice system were Trump supporters.

“Now, I don’t agree with Mr. Gohmert,” said Mr. Erwin. “But at least he tried to help me.”

“Listen, even if I’m guilty of everything they charged me with,” he said, isn’t “39 years long enough to be in prison? I’ve seen people charged with a whole lot worse crimes, and they’ve moved on.”

Mr. Erwin’s nearly four decades of incarceration began in 1984, when he and 10 other Black defendants were found guilty by an all-white jury in Dallas federal court of participating in a drug ring that distributed mostly painkiller and weight-loss pills. As the leader of the drug conspiracy, Mr. Erwin was an early test case of a newly codified “kingpin” provision in federal law that enabled the presiding judge to sentence him to life without parole, plus 120 years.

Mr. Erwin is imprisoned at the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. He spent time in 11 different prison facilities.Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

His sentence was emblematic of a decade of tough-on-crime politicking that has come to be seen by members of both parties as a misguided era of mass incarceration. It took a particular toll on Black men like Mr. Erwin.

In his 1984 trial, an Erwin associate who had been granted immunity testified that he had watched Mr. Erwin torture and kill an underling for stealing drug profits. Two months later, a separate state jury, also all white, convicted Mr. Erwin of murder and sentenced him to death.

But the verdict was later reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which ruled that testimony that might have exonerated Mr. Erwin was excluded from the state trial. His lawyer in that case, Mr. Gohmert, would later write of defendants in the Jan. 6 trials that “sadly, two systems of justice exist in America today: one for former President Trump along with those who support or don’t hate him, and the other for everyone else.”

Those sympathetic to Mr. Erwin say his experiences would seem to suggest otherwise.

“He’s the worst-case scenario in all the highly racialized policies that were enacted in the eighties,” said Dr. Ashley Nellis, co-director of research for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that studies inequalities in the American criminal justice system.

Ms. Nellis was referring to Mr. Erwin’s status as among the less than 1 percent of roughly 158,000 inmates in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons who are serving a life sentence for drug-related offenses. The vast majority of them are Black. Most of them can apply for what is known as “compassionate release” under the First Step Act.

Mr. Gohmert, who did not respond to requests for comment, was among the 36 House members who voted against it.

Paradoxically, some of the longest-serving federal inmates are the least likely to be released early under the act. Any inmate who was convicted before the law took effect on Nov. 1, 1987, cannot qualify for early release.

“I believe it was simply an oversight when they wrote the law,” said Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively on the subject. “If I had to guess, I would say we’re talking about maybe one hundred inmates.”

‘A born leader’ falls into trouble

Mr. Erwin was born in 1942 in Tyler, Texas, where the Black community lived on the north side of town, the whites lived on the south side and Black people did not cross Front Street after sundown. “There was no mixing at all,” said Ann Levin, a reporter for The Tyler Morning Telegraph in the early 1980s who is white and grew up in the Northeast. “It felt like living in the distant past.”

The Erwins were community mainstays on the north side. Mr. Erwin’s grandfather, one of the pre-eminent sweet potato growers in East Texas, owned more than 300 acres of farmland. Old-timers recall that the family drove nice cars and that seven grandchildren worked hard in the family’s sweet potato and watermelon fields, including the second-eldest, Bonnie.

Mr. Erwin, right, was born in 1942 in Tyler, Texas.
Mr. Erwin’s grandfather, one of the pre-eminent sweet potato growers in East Texas, owned more than 300 acres of farmland. Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

“A watermelon is a truly beautiful thing,” Mr. Erwin said during several hours of phone conversations from his prison in Fort Worth. Still, he did not see his family’s labors as a path to prosperity and instead sold his grandfather’s melons off the books, sometimes directly to grocers, pocketing the profits.

In 1966, the family lost the farm to taxes. Mr. Erwin followed his older brother to a job in an Omaha meatpacking plant, gambled when he was supposed to be working, ran games on paydays at the military bases in Omaha and Lincoln, then brought his talents back to Tyler’s pool halls. His stature in the neighborhood grew, and he freely gave out money and meals to poorer residents.

“I was a bad boy, but also a born leader,” Mr. Erwin said. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s his illicit constellation widened to include prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers, and then he further expanded into deputizing young women to sell drugs out of low-income apartments in south Dallas. The drugs were mainly from Los Angeles, leading the Drug Enforcement Administration to monitor Mr. Erwin’s activities. In June 1984, federal and local officers arrested nearly two dozen of Mr. Erwin’s accomplices. By the time they tracked Mr. Erwin himself down, in Phoenix in August, several of his associates had cut deals with the Justice Department to avoid prison time.

On the eve of his trial, federal prosecutors succeeded in striking from the jury pool every Black potential juror. Over the course of the three-week trial, one government witness testified that he saw Mr. Erwin kidnap, torture and murder an underling, though a different witness fingered the first witness as the actual killer — an account that yet another witness said she corroborated to the prosecutors before trial.

The front page of The Tyler Morning Telegraph from Aug. 9, 1984, shows Mr. Erwin being taken to jail.Credit…Tyler Morning Telegraph

After six hours of deliberation, the jury found Mr. Erwin and 10 of 11 co-conspirators guilty of multiple drug-related crimes. Under the 1984 kingpin statute to enhance penalties for drug organization ringleaders, Judge Robert Porter sentenced Mr. Erwin to life without parole plus 120 years, the harshest among the defendants.

Two months later Mr. Erwin stood trial again, this time on state charges for the kidnapping and murder of the underling. The judge denied a request by Mr. Erwin’s attorney to locate the witness who testified at the federal trial that another witness had been the murderer. Absent such exculpatory testimony, it took less than three hours for the all-white jury to convict Mr. Erwin, who was sent to death row.

Mr. Erwin, who said he briefly thought of starving himself to death, was disheartened to learn that his court-appointed attorney for his appeal was Mr. Gohmert, then a relatively inexperienced 33-year-old former Boy Scout, R.O.T.C. cadet, assistant district attorney and Baptist church deacon.

But Mr. Gohmert proved himself up for the challenge. His appellate brief argued that the trial judge had “misstated facts” in dismissing the request for a witness to provide exculpatory testimony. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Mr. Gohmert and ordered a retrial.

Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, appeared to change his stance on criminal justice when he ran for public office.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

But that never happened. A Smith County district attorney, Jack Skeen Jr., filed a motion to the presiding state district judge claiming that a retrial would constitute a needless expense because the kidnap and murder of the underling was considered by the federal court in assessing Mr. Erwin’s life sentence. By the time of Mr. Skeen’s motion in 1989, Mr. Erwin was already two years into his sentence at Fort Leavenworth.

‘A matter of common decency’

Mr. Erwin describes his decades behind bars as time spent mainly in prison law libraries, punctuated by occasional fights with gang members and, more recently, the vagaries of advancing decrepitude. In 2017, he applied to the Bureau of Prisons for compassionate release but was turned down, partly because he had not served half of his 120-year sentence and also because what an internal prison memo described as “the seriousness of his offense.”

Since 1999, Mr. Erwin has been the only member of his former drug confederation to remain in prison. Several key players in his legal saga — both trial judges, his federal trial attorney, his wife, and several witnesses — are now dead.

In 1992, four years after serving as Mr. Erwin’s state appellate attorney, Mr. Gohmert was elected as a state district judge. In his campaign he declared his support for capital punishment and for legalizing castration to punish rapists, but he did not run on having removed a Black drug dealer from death row. In 2004, he was elected to Congress in a deeply conservative district, where he cemented his reputation as a molasses-tongued arch-conservative until his retirement earlier this year.

Efforts led by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, to widen the First Step Act’s reach to include pre-1987 inmates like Mr. Erwin have stalled in committee. Advocates for granting early release to lifers who have fallen through the legislative cracks are left grappling for a solution.

“There must be a way smart lawyers doing clemency work and people of good will in the Bureau of Prisons and the Biden administration can get this done,” said Barry Scheck, a professor at Cardozo School of Law and co-founder of the Innocence Project. “It’s a matter of common decency.”

In the meantime, Mr. Erwin continues to send out petitions for compassionate release from his Fort Worth cell, undeterred by the legal obstacles. “I’m a gangster redeemed by God,” he said. “And I’m waiting on the real judge.”

Mr. Erwin in the late 1970s, before he was incarcerated.

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