Janine Zeitlin, [email protected] 4:24 p.m. EDT April 28, 2014
Almost two decades after being sentenced to 60 years for selling $850 worth of cocaine, a Fort Myers man clings to hope of an early release. The young man, sandy hair lightened by the sun, took a deep breath before speaking to the judge. His mother and older sister sat clutching hands in the Fort Myers courtroom.
Michael Edwards, who was 31 years old, thought his ex-girlfriend wouldn't testify that he sold her $850 worth of cocaine. Before trial, she signed an affidavit saying another man gave her the drugs. Edwards passed up a plea deal of 15 years. A jury found him guilty.
"I do some idiotic things because I'm addicted to cocaine," Edwards told the judge. "If I had a chance, just one chance, last chance of my life ... I bet I could get out and stay straight."
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It was 1994 and "Just Say No" was still on the lips of guidance counselors. Cocaine was a public enemy. Edwards' record, smeared with convictions, did not inspire sympathy.
Lee County Judge Jay Rosman had heard enough.
"You are one of the more intelligent people that have ever been before me," Rosman said. "You should be before me as an attorney."
"Oftentimes, people stand before me and ask for a chance after committing a number of crimes and often I think it's not the person that needs help, but the community," he said. "I just can't give you another chance."
Sixty years, he ordered.
Edwards recognized his mother crying behind him as a bailiff escorted him away.
Some 6,661 days later, when Michael Edwards looks in the plastic mirror in his locker, he sees a 49-year-old man, hair white around the temples, good looks muted by age; a soul locked in regret for choices he made as an addict - snorting cocaine until his heart felt it could explode and arrogant enough to return to the realm of drug sales seven months after leaving prison.
"I don't know sometimes why I chose to make the wrong choices," he says. "I knew I was wrong. I always felt guilty. Why do we do things that are destructive?"
He wants the world to see who he is now: a Christian who has read the Bible cover to cover three times, a father who talks about the stock market with his adult son and a model prisoner with a file full of ideas: a mentoring network for children, jingles for the pool and spa business he hopes to run with his sister, and a product to sell downloadable engine sounds for electric cars.
Michael Edwards had been in prison nearly a decade when this photo was taken.(Photo: Special to news-press.com)
But all those ideas rest on whether he can convince the state's highest leaders he should be free before he's an old man. His release date is Christmas Day 2044. He would be 81 years old.
An unlikely ally, former State Attorney Joseph D'Alessandro, has spoken in court on his behalf.
"He has served way more time than the crime," he said. "I think he has changed."
His office recommended the sentence in 1994. How did it get to 60 years? First, Edwards was punished as a habitual felony offender, with 30-year sentences running back-to-back. D'Alessandro said his office had a low tolerance for criminals who tried to slide.
"I finally convinced the judges and everyone, watch their defense and if you feel, 'Hey, that's a legitimate defense.' That's fine. But if you form the opinion that they're just throwing the dice and they're trying to maybe get a jury to walk them when it's all BS, that's when they'd come down hard on them," he said.
"That's probably what happened to him."
The same month Edwards was sentenced, another Fort Myers man was sent away for 20 years after shooting his son-in-law seven times and killing him outside a bar.
John Pike was freed five years ago.
Wilbur Smith, a veteran Fort Myers defense attorney who represented Pike, called the length of Edwards' sentence extreme and absurd.
"I'd be willing to bet that you can't find another 60-year sentence for drugs in Lee County or even in the state of Florida unless it's for multiple kilos of cocaine."
The state prosecutor on Edwards' case, now Lee County Judge H. Andrew Swett, and Rosman, the circuit's chief judge, declined to comment through a courts spokeswoman, who cited ethical concerns because of Edwards' bid for clemency.
Edwards was the type of kid who cried when he feared his father might shoot a rabbit on a hunting trip. He was also the type of kid who charged friends a dime to play the mini-golf course he erected from construction scraps in his backyard.
His father, an Atlanta doctor, was killed in a car crash when Michael was around age 9. Michael, his older sister, Mimi, and his mother, Alicia, moved to Fort Myers in the early 1970s. At Fort Myers Middle School, Michael tried drugs: marijuana first. Cocaine came later.
He ran with a crowd of privileged teenagers.
His mother, a Southern gentlewoman, marveled at her son's popularity, clueless as to one of its contributors.
"My goodness," said, Alicia Allan, lowering her voice. "I did not know anything about pot."
Mimi saw how her brother could talk their mother out of strict punishment.
"Michael grew up never differentiating between right and wrong," Mimi Edwards-Beach said. "He has a heart and you want to give him another chance."
Alicia remembers grounding him, but there were things her well-mannered son concealed.
After Fort Myers High, Michael enrolled at Edison State College but dropped out after a semester of too much partying. Not long after, he moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he met Colombians tapped into a steady stream of cocaine. Edwards would use and sell to friends and business associates. A kingpin, he claims, he was not.
He had three quick marriages, the second to Chrissy Shunda. After their son Kingsley was born in 1985, Edwards tried to stay clean, sold cars but became ensnared in drugs again. Shunda gave him an ultimatum: cocaine or their family.
She saw him months after their divorce. His green eyes that once shined for life looked hollow.
"His habit was following him around like a black shadow," she said.
Friend turns informant
Eventually, the law caught up. In February 1991, in Broward County, Edwards was arrested on charges of cocaine trafficking, drug possession and battery on law enforcement. He says officers found an ounce of cocaine in his home. He pleaded guilty to the charges, though he maintains he's innocent of battery. In April of the same year, he was picked up again for trafficking, after he said his supplier sold him an ounce of cocaine.
His prison sentence: three years.
Released in March 1993, he headed to Fort Myers. His sister offered up her spare condo for him to live. He began partying with Rene Cianci, a fellow addict he met through a furniture store where their mothers worked. The families did not approve; nothing good could come from the pairing of their demons.
Edwards eventually broke up with Cianci, he recalls. At some point, maybe to save herself, Cianci became an informant to a narcotics task force.
She wore a wire. Edwards made the arrangements.
His last night of freedom was Tuesday, Oct. 12, 1993. Around 10:45 p.m., he pulled his Cadillac into the condo's driveway to see a cadre of officers waiting with handcuffs. His stomach dropped.
Days before Christmas, the year after Edwards was sentenced, Cianci's mother and older sister, Joni Middleton, checked her into recovery in Fort Myers.
The same night she left and headed to the Sheraton Hotel downtown. She drank, and drank more, before taking an elevator to the 24th floor.
She jumped, dead at age 34.
"My sister ended her hell, and Michael is living his," Middleton said.
She has written in support of Edwards' attempts to be free.
Bound by law
The moment inmate Edwards felt he might die, he changed. It was about five years into his sentence and he ingested so much cocaine on this day his heart began to surge. He crumpled to his bed and asked a fellow inmate to push on his chest.
Please forgive me God, he recalls praying.
His legal options were running out. He had filed a flurry of motions. In one, he cited 15 claims, including receiving an unusually harsh sentence for exercising his right to trial and the 14 ways in which his lawyer had failed him.
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So, he focused on recovery, on being a better person. Since October 1999, he has not received a disciplinary action. He has attended Bible studies and more than 20 educational and substance abuse programs. After Edwards earned above satisfactory ratings for behavior, his classification officer wrote a letter recommending his release.
"Inmate Edwards has shown himself to be a peaceful, outgoing, exemplary person who has overcome his drug addiction and is ready to re-enter society as a law-abiding citizen," wrote T. Smith, of South Bay Correctional Facility.
In September 2006, Edwards managed to win a shot at resentencing before Judge Rosman. It was standing room-only in the courtroom. Friends, former top prosecutor D'Alessandro and pastors Edwards had befriended in prison spoke for him.
Then, it was Edwards' turn. He spoke about how he'd matured. When free, he'd attend business classes and church.
"Most important," his voice trailed into silence for half a minute. "It's been so hard ... Most important thing is to share my experiences with teenagers and others and let them know what the deal is with drugs and hope it deters them from being in a situation like me."
It was rare for Assistant State Attorney Cynthia Ross to see so many people, particularly D'Alessandro, at such a hearing.
"Today is probably one of the most uplifting and saddening days to stand in court on behalf of the state," she said. "Uplifting because this individual, Michael Edwards, has a family and a community with enormous support and it would appear has made a difference and changed his life. That doesn't happen often and it is remarkable to see.
"It is saddening because we have a judicial system and a series of laws that do not allow your honor to act with his heart but require him to act with the law."
The court could not change the sentence, she argued.
Sixteen days later, Rosman issued his order:
"Even though the Court is sympathetic to Defendant's plight, the Court remains unconvinced that it has jurisdiction to consider granting the relief."
It was a legal sentence, even if it didn't feel like a fair one.
Hope and despair
Wedged in sugar cane fields, about 80 miles east of Fort Myers, is South Bay Correctional Facility, where Edwards lives with almost 1,900 other inmates. The barbed wire on the fence around the prison glints like tinsel in the sun.
Two decades in, his mind is outside. He frequently talks with his sister, son, mother and friends. At times, he's the one to offer encouraging words to a loved one, though it's hard for him to understand how his loved ones can be sad when they're free.
Near the porcelain sink in his 8-by-14 foot cell, Edwards keeps a pile of dirty clothes. If he thinks about drugs, he grabs a shirt and a bar of soap and starts to scrub.
"Drugs disgust me. They've destroyed my life," he said, scanning the walls in the visitation room, during a nearly three-hour interview.
A bruise ringed his eye after he says an inmate punched him for taking too long to microwave macaroni and cheese. He didn't fight back, he said, never does. It could harm his chances at clemency.
Edwards is dogged in his pursuit. The first time he tried to seek executive clemency from the board chaired by Gov. Jeb Bush was in 2002. Another request was denied last year after a rule change required inmates to serve a third of their time, though he filed it before the change. The state has found him to be ineligible for clemency until Sept. 2, 2014. He's written the board, asking members to invoke a rule to hear his case earlier.
The governor's office referred questions to the parole commission. Jane Tillman, the commission's communications director, declined to talk about Edwards because she said the case is confidential.
His chances are slim. Five applications to reduce prison sentences were granted in 2010, two in 2009, according to the parole commission. In the past two years, the commission has received almost 1,440 such applications.
Edwards knows this, but continues a campaign of hope. The flip side, despair, is too hard to bear.
He hopes for a chance to be more of a father, brother and son.
His son, Kingsley, now age 27, wants to know a father beyond phone calls.
His sister Mimi feels guilty she can't help more, wonders how she could have saved him from himself.
His mother, who is in her 70s, thinks about how, if his father had lived, her son would never be at home in barbed wire. Worry keeps her up at night.
At times, when she's speaking to her son from her South Fort Myers home, Edwards falls quiet. She imagines him on the other end, holding the receiver near and trying to conceal his tears from other inmates.
"Michael, I'm right here with you," she says to the silence. "I love you and pray every day that I'll get to hug you every day again."
The article below was published April 8, 2014.
Family willing to take drug case to Supreme Court
• The family of a Fort Myers man sentenced to 60 years in 1994 for selling $850 worth of cocaine is trying to raise money to hire a lawyer with the expectation that arguments may stretch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Michael Edwards, who is now 50, has served nearly 20 years. His release date is 2044.
"This is a major break," said Mimi Edwards-Beach, a Cape Coral resident who is Edwards' older sister.
Christopher Cosden, an attorney with the Wilbur Smith Law Firm and has experience in constitutional law, has asked for $110,000 to take the case.
"It would be a major piece of constitutional litigation," said Cosden, who anticipates the case would require a large amount of work, at least a few years of arguing and some luck to win Edwards' freedom. "There's a chance, absolutely."
In the early 1990s, Edwards sold the cocaine to an ex-girlfriend turned informant. He has said he was a cocaine addict in need of treatment when he was sentenced. Since entering prison, he has been lauded for his good behavior by his former classification officer.
"Inmate Edwards has shown himself to be a peaceful, outgoing, exemplary person who has overcome his drug addiction and is ready to re-enter society as a law-abiding citizen," wrote T. Smith, of South Bay Correctional Facility, in a letter years ago.
To house Edwards to his 2044 release date, it would cost more than a half-million dollars at the current rate of about $17,000 a year.
Edwards has sent pleas to other lawyers without responses. He believes his freedom hinges on Cosden taking the case.
"This is my last hope of getting my sentence reduced via the court," Edwards wrote in a letter to The News-Press.
Edwards has asked Cosden to challenge his sentence based on the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Cosden expected lower courts would deny motions to modify Edwards' sentence because it was within the guidelines set by Florida law. While other states have moved toward reforms to modify extremely long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, Florida efforts have not gone far.
"The real problem is: how do you challenge a sentence that is lawful and otherwise constitutional?" Cosden said.
If he is unable to have the case heard in the Florida Supreme Court, the next step may be to move arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"A 60-year sentence for a nonviolent drug crime is simply so harsh that it offends the conscious," the lawyer said. "We probably ought to save very long sentences for people who need to be removed permanently from society."