BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - It was a green, nylon men’s gym sock stuffed full of heroin and pills. Geneva Cooley had taken a train from New York City to Birmingham in order to pick up the sock and deliver it for a man she thought was a friend. He offered to pay her $1500 for the job, and she accepted. Cooley was a daily heroin user and needed the money.
He met her inside the station and handed her the sock, which she stuffed into her pants in the bathroom. When they walked out of the train station together, police were waiting. The event reeked of a setup.
Cooley had the sock full of drugs in her possession for mere minutes, but this began the events in 2002 that torpedoed her life from an addict, desperate for money, to being charged with drug trafficking under one of the most punishing sentencing laws in the nation.
Cooley was jailed in Jefferson County for over four years, until she was tried in one day and convicted the next, then sentenced to a mandatory life without parole based exclusively on the amount of heroin inside the sock. At 59, with only two prior forgery convictions from New York on her record, Cooley was sent to Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, where she expected to live the rest of her natural life, thousands of miles from her family in New York.
“They tell you to pray, but after a while, years and years, you stop praying because it seems like nothing is going to change,” Cooley said. “It’s death by incarceration.”
I talked with her in a Jefferson County courtroom while she was handcuffed and shackled. At 72, Cooley embodied both a cool-headed toughness and a lowkey sense of humor. Her long, gray hair was worn in a single braid and she spoke with a distinct Queens accent.
Cooley now has many reasons to hope. In March, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace granted a Rule 32 petition which reduced her sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Cooley argued that her sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because life without parole is no longer a possible punishment for drug trafficking in Alabama. After 17 years of incarceration, Cooley may be considered for parole this year.
“I can see the light now,” she told me with a smile. “Before, there wasn’t any light at all.”
Susan Burton, a Los Angeles-based activist, was on tour in 2017 for her memoir Becoming Ms. Burton about her own struggles with addiction and incarceration. She was invited to do a reading at Tutwiler Prison, where she met Cooley and they immediately connected. Burton asked Cooley when she’d get out of prison. Cooley told her never, explaining that she was sentenced to life without parole for drugs.
“It just took the breath out of me,” Burton told me. “I knew that could be any one of us.”
Burton left Tutwiler with a commitment to help Cooley. She began writing her, reached out to her family and started a campaign for other people to send Cooley birthday and Christmas cards. Burton tapped into her network of activists and attorneys to try to find someone who could help Cooley challenge her sentence, and finally connected with Courtney Cross, Director of the Domestic Violence Law Clinic at the University of Alabama. Cross went to see Cooley at Tutwiler and immediately decided to take her case.
“Geneva is the poster child of a nonviolent drug offender getting an oversized punishment,” Cross said.
Cross recruited a colleague to help, Terrika Shaw, in the University’s Elder Law clinic. Together, with six law students and Tuscaloosa criminal defense attorney Joel Sogol, the pro bono team strategized on legal options. Cross initially worked on a clemency petition, but tossed it out when they realized Alabama has no path for clemency outside capital cases.
Then in early 2018, the Alabama legislature removed life without parole from the drug trafficking sentencing laws, recognizing life without parole was overly punitive for the crime. Cooley’s attorneys saw an opening. They could try to challenge the sentence using the Eighth Amendment, arguing that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment because Cooley could only receive a life sentence if she was convicted today, not life without parole.
“The Eighth Amendment hangs its hat on these evolving standards of what is proportional punishment, and we could now say that understanding had changed,” explained Cross.
The legal team thought it was a long shot, and many attorneys told them they were embarking on a “fool’s errand.” Still, they forged ahead, getting to know Cooley and her story and building a case. They knew if they didn’t do something, Cooley would die in prison.
“This is a story for so many other women,” said Shaw. “Geneva was dealing with addiction issues and a lot of trauma led her to make the choices she made. Her case really speaks to how small things can snowball into big things and how our system can revictimize people who have lived a cycle of abuse.”
Cooley lives in the faith/honor dorm at Tutwiler, a special housing unit in which prisoners with no disciplinary problems have access to spiritual growth and rehabilitative opportunities. Cooley told me she could have used drugs in prison, but chose not to. She’s been sober since her arrest and has graduated from dozens of classes, including the prison’s 8-week substance abuse program, in which she began to understand her addiction and how she tried to numb the pain of her traumatic life with drugs.
Cooley’s father abused her mother and her sister’s husband sexually molested her when she was 12. Shortly after that, her mother died and Cooley got pregnant when she was 16 by an abusive boyfriend. She raised her son, Lamont, as a single mother, working multiple jobs, but by age 20, she began using drugs, which quickly escalated to a daily heroin habit. Despite her addiction, Cooley continued to work and take care of her son.
“I may not have been the best mother, but I made sure he always had a roof over his head as well as food, clothing, and school supplies,” Cooley wrote in an affidavit to the court. “When I was under extreme financial strain, I did resort to forging checks and using stolen credit cards, which I deeply regret.”
Cooley had never shared the painful details of her abuse with anyone, but by opening up to Cross and Shaw, she experienced an internal healing.
“I don’t have to cry anymore when I talk about it,” Cooley said. “Maybe now I can talk to somebody who is going down the wrong road and help them.”
When Cooley was arrested in Birmingham, she tried to explain to police and her appointed attorney that she was just a courier and played a minor role in the drug deal, but no one would listen. Charges against the drug dealer who brought her to Birmingham were dismissed. At her short trial, her attorney called no witnesses and Cooley did not take the stand. She was convicted the following day and by that time, had lost her faith in the system.
“I knew whatever happened, I was going to get the worst end of the deal,” Cooley said. Circuit Judge Gloria Bahakal sentenced her to life without parole.
Cooley spends her time at Tutwiler crocheting, working for the prison chaplain, “doing whatever they ask me to do,” she said. She keeps up with her family through letters and phone calls. She has asked them to not visit her in prison because she knows saying goodbye would be unbearable.
“I haven’t seen any of them in 17 years,” she said. “Seeing them again will be a blessing.”
Cooley’s attorneys filed a Rule 32 motion for relief on December 20, 2018. They wanted to wait until after Jefferson County’s election, with the hope that Danny Carr would win the District Attorney’s race. Mike Anderton, the incumbent, had prosecuted Cooley in 2006 and they felt he’d be unlikely to agree to a reduced sentence. They saw the stars align when Carr beat Anderton and replaced him as the first Democrat and African-American to be elected as Jefferson County’s top prosecutor.
Carr did not oppose Cooley’s sentence reduction. He told me he’s always seen sentencing non-violent offenders to life without parole as an injustice.
“My gosh, we can’t get murderers to stay in for 17 years,” he said. “Yet here’s a lady who never hurt anybody, never killed anybody, never pulled a knife or a gun on anybody. She was an addict. She’s not Scarface.”
A murder conviction in Alabama carries a 20 to 99-year sentence, but someone can be considered for parole after 15 years. Capital murder in Alabama carries two possible sentences, life without parole or death by execution.
A hearing was held in Judge Wallace’s courtroom in March in which Cooley took the stand and told the court her history with abuse and addiction and her role as a delivery person in a drug deal that landed her in prison for the rest of her life. She told the court she regretted her decisions, but had made use of her time in prison, taking part in every educational opportunity available. Cooley received one disciplinary during her time at Tutwiler for having an extra blanket on her bed.
Judge Wallace granted the motion. In his order he wrote that Cooley was nothing more than a drug courier and “is hardly the drug baron envisioned by the law,” and that she had no role in the manufacture or sale of drugs. “Her minor role was more the product of her own heroin addiction,” he wrote.
Additionally, the order spells out why Cooley’s sentence was disproportionate to the crime, including the nationwide movement away from life without parole for drug convictions. Among the provisions in the First Step Act, signed by President Trump in December, 2018, is the elimination of life without parole for third felony drug trafficking convictions. That now carries a 25-year federal sentence.
Cooley could have a parole hearing later this year and hopes to move back to New York to reunite with her family. Cross and Shaw plan to continue to help her through the parole process and getting readjusted to a world that has changed a lot since 2002. She wants to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and eat some shrimp and lobster. She has a great-grandson that she’s never met.
Cooley is the only woman to receive life without parole for drug trafficking in Alabama. 19 other people are currently serving life without parole for trafficking, eight from Jefferson County. Carr wouldn’t comment on any other specific cases, but said he hopes Cooley’s case will cause other prosecutors, judges and law enforcement to show some compassion and make sure the punishment fits the crime.
“In all honesty, it’s a delicate balance,” Carr said. “Some people want to see the DA as the toughest, baddest man or woman on the street, but it’s been my experience most of the DAs want to do what’s right. Hopefully some of those DAs will come around to look at those cases and use their discretion to make a determination. Sometimes it takes a little courage.”
Cooley’s legal team is grateful for that courage, but Cross pointed out that there are hundreds of other men and women like Geneva Cooley who may not be as fortunate to meet an activist like Susan Burton, or encounter a progressive prosecutor like Carr and a thoughtful judge like Stephen Wallace.
“What galls me is those of us who are getting any luck are getting it because we just happen to have the right combination of system actors and not because there is a mechanism for making this work,” Cross said.
Burton hopes to use Cooley’s story in her activism as an example of a system too focused on punishment and not on rehabilitation. She pointed out black women are imprisoned at twice the rate of white women and Cooley’s crimes were driven by poverty and addiction.
“I just think there is something that we can all do when the opportunity presents itself if we’re willing to extend ourselves,” Burton said. “That’s the way we’ll change the criminal justice system. We’re all going to have to do a little something or a big something."