September 3rd, 1992
Photograph by MARY ELLEN MARK

The kid stood before the judge with his head bowed, trying not to cry. He was eighteen and blue eyed, with long, layered blond hair ‑ a high‑school graduate, a child of the suburbs, a regular at West­land mall.

Evenings not long ago, that's where you'd find him. He'd trip the electric eye at the Emporium arcade, and the glass doors would shush open, and he would scuffle in on clunky Nikes, wearing Jordache jeans, gold earring, leather jacket, trailing a perfume of forty‑weight oil. He'd flash his smile and hearts would flutter. Gorgeous, the girls whispered. Awesome. A hunk.

His name was Gary Wayne Fannon Jr., and up until recently, he'd been waiting to hear about a grant from an automotive school in Detroit. That was his plan. A job as a mechanic, a nice wife, a couple of kids, a cool car, a house somewhere, not too expensive. He was a modern kid with modest dreams of just getting by. But now that was over. A month ago, a jury had convicted him. This morning he would learn his fate.

Standing there in the courtroom in an olive drab jumpsuit, his Nikes loose without shoestrings, Gary felt like he was standing on some tracks in front of a speeding train, waiting to be hit. Just a loud roaring sound getting louder and the headlight bearing closer and his feet planted, can't move. Like he was going to die. His knees buckled. His lawyer put an arm around his waist.

“Have a seat for a minute," said the judge.

Behind Gary, in the front row, his mother was surrounded by family, nine members. Gary's father had cut out fifteen years ago, leaving Linda with Gary and his newborn brother. Linda worked hard in a restaurant to support her two boys. Weekends, she'd drive on over to her mom's. Everyone would be there: aunts, uncles, all the cousins. They'd pile in a couple of cars and drive to Cedar Point amusement park or Toys "R" Us, or they'd stay close, and the kids would play kickball in the yard. During the trial, Linda's mom kept telling her: “Don't worry, everything will come out okay. They will not do this to an eighteen‑year‑old boy."

Now Gary was helped to his feet. The judge asked if he wished to speak.

“Yes," said Gary. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He sniffled, took a deep breath. “I'm truly sorry for what I've done and what I've gotten into," he said. "I feel I was tried in wrong ways and lies came out that convicted me. The police got up on the stand and lied. This whole thing is wrong.”

“Anything else?" asked the judge.
Gary hung his head.

"All right," said the judge. “I have here a stack of letters from your family and friends. They are all glowing as to how good a person you are. The court believes all of these things. But this court has no discretion whatsoever to give you any leniency. The legislators have determined the sentence in this case…

“You will be committed to the State Department of Corrections for a period of your natural life." An awful quiet descended over the courtroom. Gary sobbed. The marshals took his arms, led him away. Linda tried to climb over the rail. She was eighteen when Gary was born, and they had gone through hell together. Two of her brothers held her down. "Gary! I'll get you out!" Linda screamed.

Gary resisted a moment, looked back over his shoulder. "Mom...,” he mouthed.

A marshal shoved him out the door. Linda fainted.

Fannon: Life without parole.

IF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN has its way, Gary Fannon will die behind bars. Today he is twenty‑four. He has served five years.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled late last year that his penalty was not cruel and unusual. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled the same in June. About 130 people in the state are serving the same sentence as Gary Fannon. It is estimated that about half of them have stories that are similar to his.

Gary's begins in suburban Michigan: absent father, the gifted‑and­-talented program in elementary and jun­ior high, a rebellious stage during adolescence, a drop in grades, family counselors, conferences with teachers, finally a diploma but just barely.

In the suburbs outside Detroit, the kids divided themselves into yuppies and burnouts. Gary considered himself a burnout, though he wasn't what they called “hard core," a real drughead. At school, he got into trouble only once, when he bought a fake bumper sticker so he could park in the teachers' lot. He liked Anthrax and Megadeth, video war games, Super Mario, Pink Floyd's Wall, black T‑shirts emblazoned with death's­ heads and crossbones, recreational drugs. His highs of choice were LSD and mescaline. He couldn't afford cocaine, never tried it. He hated smoke of any kind, cigarettes and marijuana included, though sometimes for extra money, Gary would buy an ounce or two of pot, break it up, sell it to his friends. It was nothing big. It worked out okay because he didn't use the product. It was like free money.

Gary's pride was his black Mercury LN7, a two‑seater. His mom put up the down payment. He made the monthly note. He'd worked since he was fifteen, most recently as a gofer at a Chevy dealership. He'd lost that recently ‑ the recession. Come Friday and Saturday nights, he'd pick up his girl in the LN7. They'd jam out his excellent boom system, cruise Main Street in nearby Plymouth, hang out at the mall, see the midnight show of Rocky Horror armed with whipped cream and water pistols to shoot at the screen, as was the custom.

One day while Gary and his mom were out, two of Gary's friends were slumming at the Fannons' apartment. One of them was having troubles at home. His father was a cop. A lot of kids thought this kid was a dipshit. Gary thought he was funny. The other friend was a drummer in a garage band. He had his girlfriend along. Gary had twin beds in his room. The cop's son was lying on one, the drummer and his girlfriend on the other. In between, on the night table, was a .45 pistol loaded with hollow‑point bullets. The gun belonged to the cop's son. Everybody had smoked marijuana. The drummer picked up the .45. He pointed it at his head. "Ha, ha, ha!" he laughed. “Look!"

Luckily, the bullet took out only a chunk of skull. They rushed the drummer to the hospital. The cop's son was arrested. He called Gary to come bail him out. The charges were eventually dropped.

Sometime later, the cop's son told Gary he had a friend who wanted to buy some marijuana. Gary said, "Sure, you know, as long as he's cool."

They met behind a skating rink in a nearby town. The guy was in his thirties. He wore a trench coat, a stubble of beard, slicked‑back hair, sunglasses in November in Detroit. He looked like he wanted to be on Miami Vice. Gary was like "Who is this, Don Johnson?"

As it was, his name was Kurt Johnston. He said he worked at Ford and sold dope to fellow workers. Everyone around Detroit knew about the auto workers, so the story played. Gary gave Johnston a quarter ounce of marijuana. Johnston seemed pleased. He handed over sixty dollars. Then he asked if Gary could get him some cocaine. Gary said he really didn't deal in coke. He'd see what he could do.

The next time, Gary brought Johnston a quarter of a gram of coke for twenty-five dollars. "He pulled out this little mirror," Gary remembers, "and boom, he tried it, and I tried it. And I said: “Yeah! I kinda like this!" Johnston has denied that he ever did drugs with Gary.

In the coming weeks, Gary sold Johnston a gram, then an eight ball ‑ an eighth of an ounce, which equals 3.5 grams. Then Johnston wanted an ounce, then a kilo.

On January 7th, 1987, it was arranged. Gary and his connection, the middleman, drove to a Wendy's parking lot in Dearborn. Johnston met them, and they followed on foot to an apartment in a rundown complex. Johnston held up the money: "$32,000," he said. "Who wants to count this?"

"Hey! I'll count it," said Gary. He flipped through a stack of hundreds and twenties. "Yep," he said. "This is $32,000 all right" He handed the money back to Johnston and smiled.

Johnston eyeballed Gary a moment, then cut to the middleman. “So where's the dope?"

"We don't have it," said Gary.

“Were you planning to get it?" said Johnston.

Gary and the middleman went across the street to a doughnut shop to use the pay phone. They called the dope man. He told them to call back. Gary and the middleman returned to the apartment. Hours passed. They repeated the procedure several times. They agreed to try again the next day.

January 8th, same scenario. By five o'clock, Johnston was pissed. "You guys are a bunch of shit," he told them. Get the hell out!"

On the road home, the middleman wanted to try once more, so they stopped at a pay phone. The middleman called the dope man. Then Gary called Johnston. “Well, everything is cool," he told him, adding that it was set up for the next day. "I'll catch you later," Gary said.

"What are you talking about?" asked Johnston.

"I'm taking my girl and going to Florida," Gary said. We're supposed to get married."

Gary was getting scared. At first, when Johnston had asked him to get the dope, he was like "You want something? I'll try to help you." He was waiting for the grant. He'd been laid off from his job. He didn't have anything else to do. It kind of made him feel like a big man. Now it was dawning on him that he was in big trouble. There'd been a lot of talk over the last two days about guys in the shadows with Uzis.

“Why don't you just wait a couple of days?" said Johnston. “Let's get this thing done."

"Look, I gotta be going, man," Gary said. He hung up.

Gary and the middleman went to get an eight ball of coke, and Gary gave him some and dropped him off. In the last two months, since he'd first tried it with Johnston, Gary had been pretty into coke. Thinking about it, Linda Fannon saw the signs. Mood swings, weight loss, dark circles. He wasn't calling his cousins anymore, wasn't seeing his old friends. Sometimes he'd stay up all night. Sometimes he'd sleep all day. Linda figured he was anxious about the grant, or maybe he was thinking about his father again. She didn't know. He wouldn't say.

Gary and his girl and some friends played dice and did coke all night and into the morning. Late the next afternoon, he and his girl packed, grilled some burgers, set out through a snowstorm in his LN7. They were going to Florida, but not to get married. His grandma lived there now. He had a standing invitation.

They drove southeast, stopped for the night. The next day, on January 10th, about 100 miles from Florida on 1‑75, his girlfriend wanted a taco. They pulled over and ate.

Heading down the entrance ramp, back onto the highway, they were pulled over by a cop.

After a license check, the cop walked back to Gary's door. "You better get out of the car, sir," he said. "There's a warrant out for your arrest"
“For what?"
"For delivery of over 650 grams of cocaine."
"You sure it's me?" asked Gary.

IN THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, DELIVERY OF over 650 grams of cocaine, about 1.4 pounds, carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. To be found guilty, though, you don't actually have to deliver any drugs. You don't have to actually see any drugs or any money. You don't even have to profit. All you have to do is "conspire" ‑ to think or talk about selling drugs.

Gary Fannon was recruited by the po­lice ‑ who introduced him to coke and then stepped him up the ladder until he was into the big time. He was nowhere to be found on January 9th when the coke was delivered to Detective Kurt Johnston. Even so, Gary was tried on the same charge at the same trial as the middleman. The jury found them equally guilty, and so did the sentencing statutes. Both men are now serving the same sentence given for murder in the first degree in Michigan: life without possibility.

Since the trial, Kurt Johnston has been dismissed from the police force. After a drug test showed cocaine in his system, Johnston, a thirteen‑year veteran, was fired in 1989. No criminal charges were brought. Under labor law, the results of his drug test could not be used for prosecution. Johnston returned to college, earned a master's degree in psychology and is currently working in the private sector.

Michigan's mandatory‑minimum statute, known as the 650 Lifer law, is one of the oldest and still the toughest in the nation. It is also one of the strangest. And it just got stranger. In June, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that those serving life without parole for “possession of" 650 or more grams were being subjected to “cruel or unusual punishment" and should be eligible for parole after serving ten years. About thirty of the one hundred sixty 650 Lifers fell into this category. The rest of them ‑ Gary Fannon included ‑ people charged with “delivery" or "conspiracy to deliver," remain in prison. “The Supreme Court has made it better to have drugs than to think about selling them,” said one defense attorney. “The thought crime is now worse than the action itself."

Mandatory‑minimum sentences for drugs began in the 1950s with the Boggs Acts, which mandated five to twenty years for first‑offense sales or smuggling and death for sales by an adult to a minor. By 1963, a presidential commission urged the repeal of mandatory minimums. Cited in reports were lack of judicial latitude, outrageous prosecutions, prison overcrowding, reduced possibility of rehabilitation, an overall rise in violations despite the intended deterrent effect, an increasing alienation of youth from society they considered harsh, cruel and unyielding. Seven years after the reports, Congress repealed all mandatory sentences.

The reprieve did not last long. Beginning in the late Seventies, the nation and the states moved quickly and with zeal to repeat the mistakes of the past. With the rise of crack and gangs, politicians and prosecutors saw themselves in possession of can't‑lose issues: law and order, the future of our youth. The police turned political need into a mandate, and the War on Drugs was born. SWAT teams and battering rams and even armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets and alleyways of America. Federal mandatories went into effect in 1984, and every election year since, they've been amended, made more harsh. Forty‑six states have their own mandatory‑minimum statutes. Since the hysteria began, parole was eliminated, sentences stiffened, all latitude taken from the hands of judges, who are forced to consult a little chart. This offense: this amount of time. Period. One 67‑year‑old judge wept as he handed down a ten‑year, no-parole sentence to a first‑time drug offender. Several other justices have resigned rather than surrender their judicial discretion.

Though these laws were enacted to catch major drug kingpins, they have been used instead to snare many who fit the language and the letter but not the intent or the spirit of the statutes. Michigan state representative William R. Bryant Jr.: “In a sense, we knew we were enacting a cruel or unusual sentence, but it was intended only for kingpins. We knew it would not be fair to some who could come under its language, but we hoped that the inevitable discretion of police and prosecutors would limit its use. Our hope was not realized."

Like Gary Fannon, the majority of the 650 Lifers are first‑time offenders. More than fifty percent were mere accessories lookouts, drivers, couriers.

The result of this legislative and prosecutorial witch hunt has been a near breakdown in the courts. Across the nation, judges, activists, defense attorneys, even the U.S. Sentencing Commission, have recommended the repeal of the laws. But in an era of negative campaigns and high-concept news, politicians are loath to act. A vote against mandatory minimums could be a disaster at the polls. The headline: SMITH SOFT ON DRUGS. “It's a political hand grenade," said one Michigan legislative aide.

Currently, fifty‑six percent of all feder­al inmates are drug offenders. By 1995, it is predicted, nearly seventy percent of federal inmates will be drug offenders, most serving mandatory‑minimum sentences. America's prison population has been growing at a rate of thirteen percent a year. If it grows only ten percent next year, we will need to build and open four new 500‑bed prisons per week just to keep up. In some states, violent felons are being released early to make room for drug offenders. In Florida, when national drug czar Bob Martinez was governor, more than 130,000 convicted felons walked. One in three went on to commit new crimes.

According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit reform organization in Washington, D.C., the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world: 455 per 100,000 population. South Africa is second with 311. China is sixth, at 111. And there is no relief in sight. The White House drug‑control strategy for 1992: more aggressive conspiracy prosecutions, harsher mandatory sentences, a redoubled effort by police, a budget of $12.72 billion.

MEANWHILE, GARY FANNON SITS IN THE Ryan Correctional Facility, right off the Chrysler Freeway, in the middle of bombed‑out Detroit.

He is met in a visiting room, wearing his prison jumpsuit. He's been locked down in solitary for a few days after what a corrections officer termed a fight. Gary said that he was playing cards with a friend, that they were just horsing around. He had ten witnesses, but what can he do? He's a convict. So are his witnesses. Nobody believed them.

His hair is matted to his head after a sleepless night on the hard cot in solitary. Yesterday, he sat on the floor, his legs in the lotus, and stared out the window for three hours, trying to make his mind blank.

“This sucks, man," Gary says. "It's just crazy. I mean, the punishment should fit the crime. I've been here five years. I did wrong. I was headed in the wrong direction. But now I got the idea: Don't sell drugs. Don't do drugs. Don't be stupid. Don't get involved with cops or druggies, because you don't know who the real criminals are. But this, I mean ... people don't get it when they hear “life without parole.” I'm here until I die.

“It's kind of like overkill, you know?"