DES ARC, ARKANSAS — Sandra Earl admits that when she’s with her husband, it’s always an emotional roller coaster ride.
“He’s got his bad days and his good days,” she said. “I think he’s doing the best he can. He’s getting ready to take his theology classes so he can pastor to people, because he believes he has a story to share. He believes things will turn around, and I believe that myself.”
Earl dearly loves her husband Cornelius Dale Earl, and it’s frustrating and painful to her that she can only visit him one day a week, on Saturdays. Until she can find some help, Earl admits, that’s how it’s going to remain – for decades.
“I go every Saturday,” she said. “I do have people who are willing to help, but I don’t know how to get started or what to do. I went and had a shirt made. On the back it says, ‘Some inmates are victims, too.’ I have people ask me all the time about it.”
Sandra Earl’s husband is now incarcerated at Ouchita River Correctional Facility in Malvern, Arkansas, and unless something changes, the 43-year-old man will likely die in that prison, since he’s now serving an 80 year sentence. The charge that a jury convicted him of was dealing crack cocaine.
Sandra Earl, who lives in Des Arc, Arkansas, said she’s still in a state of shock that he received such a harsh and lengthy sentence.
“He was arrested on July 14 of 2008,” she said. “He got sentenced on May 12, 2009 for delivery of a controlled substance, crack cocaine.”
When people learn he got eight decades in prison on a non-violent drug charge, Earl said, they’re often stunned and even flabbergasted.
“That’s what a lot of people say to me – 80? And I said yeah, 79 plus one,” she said. “And they say, ‘Who did he murder?’ and I say ‘No one.’ He probably would have gotten a lesser sentence if he had.”
Cornelius Earl was found guilty in a jury trial in Searcy, Arkansas on three counts of selling crack cocaine.
“I was in there for the closing arguments,” Sandra Earl said. “The prosecuting attorney told the jury, ‘If you convict him, you can give him 25 years for one count, 25 years for another, and 30 years for the other, and they can run consecutively.’ ”
The jury agreed.
“It is under appeal now,” Sandra Earl said.
Cornelius Earl, who rejected a plea deal and opted for a jury trial, was also fined $75,000.
At the time the jury verdict was announced, Wayne Ballew, chief of police in the town of Beebe – the town that Cornelius Earl was accused of selling cocaine in – told The Arkansas Leader newspaper that he was serious about putting drug dealers behind bars, and this verdict would send a strong message.
“I am very pleased with the findings of the jury and of the hard work put forth during the investigations of the three cases, not only by our officers but with the manner in which Deputy Prosecutor Becky Reed presented her case,” the police chief was quoted saying to the newspaper. “We want the word out. If you’re dealing dope, you better think twice before you do it in Beebe.”
But Sandra Earl said she’s convinced this is a completely unjust verdict – particularly since she was also charged with trafficking in cocaine, and pled no contest. Her verdict: 10 years of supervised probation, and not a day behind bars.
“I pled no contest, and my charge was conspiracy to deliver,” she said. “Mine was 10 years of probation. I wasn’t tried at all. It shouldn’t have happened that way. But he did the jury trial. They offered him a plea bargain of 10 years, which he didn’t take because he didn’t do anything, so he felt like he shouldn’t plead guilty to something he didn’t do. If he was doing something, wrong, okay, but he wasn’t.”
The Earls believe the charges were bogus, and they were set up as part of an ongoing effort by local law enforcement to encourage drug dealers and users to turn in one another, in return for lighter sentences. Sandra Earl says most of the testimony brought against them came from a family friend they had helped, who later got busted for using drugs.
“We had this girl, a family friend we knew for years, who fell on some hard times,” she said. “She was trying to get clean and going through a divorce, and we helped her.”
Eventually she started using drugs again, Sandra Earl said, “and we had to kick her out of our house. We did remain friends. Come to find out, she actually got busted on drugs, and to lesser her sentence she had to tell on somebody, and that’s what she did. Cornelius never had any drugs on him, nothing. It was just her pointing the finger, that’s all it was. They had a video that they shot of her coming up to our vehicle. She had a BIC lighter that was the listening device, but nothing was said. She asked where she could find some drugs, and he said ‘I don’t know.’ That was the only talk of drugs.”
Sandra Earl thinks one reason for the huge disparity in their sentences is race. Sandra Earl is white, while her husband is black – and interracial marriage is still something that people in small southern towns frown upon, she said.
“The smaller towns in Arkansas … this is the south,” she said. “A lot of the older people, they shy away from that. They just don’t believe in that.”
There’s no other reason to explain why she got probation and he got 80 years, she said.
“The difference in sentencing, it’s crazy,” she said. “I think justice is justice. If a white woman does the same thing a black man does, it should be the same thing in sentencing. You can’t have leniency in one case, but not the other.”
Sandra Earl is now hoping to get the word out about her husband’s sentence, and eventually find a legal or civil rights group willing to work with her to advance her husband’s efforts to overturn the verdict and sentence.
“His case is being appealed,” she said. “It’s under the (Arkansas) Supreme Court right now. It has been for over a year now.”
In the meantime, she still believes strongly in the husband who is not expected to be released from prison until May of 2089.
“We’ve been married a year this past November,” she said, adding that she hopes to find someone willing to hear her story, and help. Cornelius, she added, has faith in her determination to keep fighting for him back home.
“He’s super-excited about this,” she said.
To learn more, contact Sandra Earl at S_earl1@yahoo.com.
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