A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

HOW $20 IN CRACK LED TO FIFTY YEARS IN PRISON

According to police records, a young black male flagged them and asked, "What do you need?"

"Can we get a twenty?" asked the driver.
"I got what you need," responded the peddler, who then reached under a small brick structure where he'd been sitting.

Pulling out a cellophane wrapper from a cigarette pack, the suspect emptied a number of rocks into his palm, thrust his left hand through the driver's window and said, "Go ahead and pick."

"Yeah, this one looks good," said the driver who turned to his partner and asked, "What do you think?"

The officers took their rock and gave in return a marked $20 bill. As they drove out of the neighborhood, the undercover cops contacted uniformed patrol officers who drove to 2018 East Nancy where they arrested Harper and seized a cellophane wrapper with four rocks from behind a wall. Reached in prison, Harper maintains his innocence.

"I couldn't believe it," says Harper. "I wasn't involved in crack. It's all around the neighborhood. I never had no drug priors. They came down the street and picked me out of a crowd."

Though the officers' descriptions of who sold them the crack and whom they arrested are consistent, the police also admit that a number of other black males were present at the time of the bust.

"The cops couldn't identify me in trial," says Harper. "They didn't know who I was. They described me wrong. They refused me a line-up."

When asked about his prior record, Harper claims he can't remember the details.

Harper has been in trouble with the law since he was a kid. When he was sentenced, the judge was able to consider two priors, both felonies: Harper and a friend were arrested boosting $300 worth of car stereos out of a sales lot on Van Buren. Harper and another friend were also apprehended leaving a bar where $250 was swiped. The cash was found in the pocket of Harper's buddy.

As a result of convictions on these charges, detention authorities authorized a workup on Harper that pegged his IQ at 89 and his reading level at the fourth grade. Dr. Stan Cabanski reported that Harper "had poor language skills and a reading level of 4.1 . . . defendant was suffering from frustration and hostility which resulted in intermittent acting out of a highly assaultive nature."

While incarcerated in 1986 over the nightclub incident, Harper explained in writing for the parole board why he was arrested:

What had happen was I was given my friend a ride to this club and I decided to stop for a little while, and the next thing I know was the dude I was suppose to drop of was there stilling and I didn't know what was going on, so as I get of the dance floor to go use the restroom, some guy came up to me and said I took some money from the office. So they took me in the office and they they seach me and didn't find know money on me. So the next thing know the dude I drop of he had all of they money in his pocket and I said they the dude with ya money. So could ya let me go. After that they took us to jail and they got me for accesory. Through the years, Harper's alibi remains the same: He was present when the crime occurred, but he did not personally participate.

If Harper's record is consistent, it is also petty. Though Harper is not a character out of Miami Vice, his attitude and the judge's reaction to that attitude catapulted him to a prison term beyond his wildest dreams.

Almost the first word out of Judge Stephen Ventre's mouth to describe Harper was "cocky."

As you read Judge Ventre's remarks and in subsequent sections as you review the dialogue between defendant Harper and the judge, remember Tom Wolfe's description of a Bronx courtroom in Bonfire of the Vanities where the accused are black and everyone else is white:

He had the same pumping swagger that practically every young defendant in the Bronx affected, the Pimp Roll. Such stupid self-destructive macho egos . . . . They never fail to show up with the black jackets and the sneakers and the Pimp Roll. They never fail to look every inch the young felon before judges, juries, probation officers, court psychiatrists, before every single soul who had any saying whether or not they went to prison or for how long . . . Soon a stupefying tide of tedium and confusion rolled over them all. They were primed for action. They were not primed for what the day required, which was waiting while something they never heard of . . . swamped them in a lot of shine-on hyphenated language.

In an early-morning interview, Judge Ventre recalled what went through his mind as he listened to the testimony and examined the record of Harper.

"The blatant obviousness of what he was doing without any concern for anybody!" marvels Judge Ventre. "He was probably on his best behavior in front of the jury, yet he was very difficult with his attorney. The whole system is against him, picking on him because he's black. We were dealing with someone not at all impressed with the justice system, not at all impressed with what we could impose."

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