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Inmate's sentence for drug possession called excessive

By TONY RIZZO - The Kansas City Star
Date: 06/06/99 22:15

       There are 30 women serving life sentences in Kansas prisons. Twenty-nine of them are convicted murderers or kidnappers. The other is Gloria Van Winkle.

Her crime was possessing one-sixteenth of an ounce of cocaine, equivalent to less than two artificial sweetener packets.

She has been locked up since 1992, and she won't get to see the parole board for the first time until 2007.

"I see murderers and child molesters walk out of here monthly," Van Winkle said in a telephone interview.

As a three-time drug offender, Van Winkle received the harshest sentence then possible under Kansas law -- life with no chance of parole for 15 years.

If she had molested a baby or had wounded a store clerk during a robbery, the maximum sentence she could have received would have been less.

"I deeply regret the drug abuse," Van Winkle wrote recently. "But how much longer will I have to pay for things I've done years and years ago?"

Van Winkle is a rarity in Kansas -- a nonviolent drug addict serving a life sentence.

Only two other inmates in the state are serving life sentences for drugs. One man was a thrice-convicted dealer, and according to police, the other admitted that he was dealing, though he later denied it.

The law Van Winkle was sentenced under dates to the early 1970s. Kansas changed it in 1993, the year after her conviction. The new sentencing guidelines reserve the most severe punishments for repeat, violent criminals.

Today, Van Winkle would serve about 10 years in prison if convicted as a three-time drug offender.

Even the man who prosecuted Van Winkle calls hers a "tragic case."

"I think 15 years is a hell of a long time for what she was convicted of," said Assistant Geary County Attorney Thomas Alongi.

Van Winkle's plight has attracted national attention. She was mentioned in a New York Times article earlier this year about the rise of crack cocaine and the get-tough crime legislation it spawned. And her case is featured on the Web site of an organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

A North Carolina man who read about Van Winkle has launched a letter-writing campaign on her behalf. Robert Poole, who has sent 150 letters to Kansas officials and legislators, said he's never done anything like that before.

"I'm not saying she didn't deserve some prison time," Poole said. "But it seems so excessive. It's crazy."

The judge who sentenced Van Winkle said ethical rules prevent him from commenting on her situation. But in comments made at the time, Geary County District Judge George F. Scott expressed sympathy for her.

Although life was the only sentence he could impose under the law then in place, Scott granted Van Winkle probation.

She got two chances at probation but stayed in a drug treatment program for only a few days. Her probation was revoked.

"All reasonable attempts to place the defendant on probation have at this time failed, and the court has no other choice but to return Miss Van Winkle to the secretary of corrections for the service of the sentence previously imposed," Scott said.

After the Kansas Supreme Court upheld her conviction, her case was appealed to the federal courts.

In the federal appeal, attorney Ben Wood said the way the police focused on Van Winkle amounted to outrageous government conduct.

She had been recently paroled when she ended up in a meeting with a paid police informant and an undercover officer posing as a dealer at a motel in Junction City, Kan.

The informant, a convicted thief, had given Van Winkle's name to police and arranged the meeting with the undercover officer.

What happened in the room is in dispute, but Van Winkle was arrested for possession of about $40 worth of cocaine.

In the appeal, Wood said that what the police did to Van Winkle was analogous to authorities taking a 10-year-old child to a pedophile and encouraging him to molest the child.

"Is there outrageous government conduct?" Wood asked in the appeal. "One would think so."

But Van Winkle's appeal was denied on the federal level as well.

Although he said he has sympathy for Van Winkle's situation, prosecutor Alongi said Van Winkle knew what she was doing and what the potential consequences were.

Alongi said that the investigation that led to Van Winkle's last arrest was prompted by reports that a cocaine-trafficking network was being set up in the area.

"We wanted to stop it before it got going," he said.

Police unsuccessfully tried to get her to be an informant in exchange for a lesser sentence. Authorities said she couldn't be trusted. Van Winkle says she simply refused to be a snitch.

"Do you think in God's eyes I did the right thing?" she asked in a letter. "I know if I had been an informant then I wouldn't cry myself to sleep because I miss my kids so much."

Van Winkle's home for the foreseeable future is the Topeka Correctional Facility, where she works as a porter and makes 40 cents an hour.

She lives for visits with her daughter, Jazzmine, and son, Jess. She gets to see them about once a month. They live with her mother.

Despite the bleakness of her situation, Van Winkle tries to remain positive. She does a lot of praying.

"I believe in myself and had to come to terms with who I am and who I will never become," she wrote. "I'm glad I never physically hurt anyone by drunk driving, or killing or robbing. That would hurt."

Although her latest case cannot be appealed any further, Wood said he planned to study her two previous cases to see whether one of them can be overturned.

If one of those convictions can be overturned, Van Winkle would no longer be a three-time offender and could no longer be held under a life sentence.

Wood said he would pay for the appeal.

"I can't stand the idea that because of a lack of money, she will have to sit there for several more years," he said. "It's offensive to me as a lawyer and a citizen of the United States."

Van Winkle's only other hope of early release lies with Gov. Bill Graves.

The law gives him the power to grant pardons to anyone convicted of a crime in a state court. But the odds of that happening are long.

His office receives 80 to 100 pardon requests a year from prisoners. He has yet to grant one, according to his spokesman, Mike Matson.

"The next one will be the first one," Matson said.

By Tony Rizzo, Johnson County court reporter.

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