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The Mercy Seat: Convicted Cocaine Kingpin Gets a Second Chance

Fifty-nine year old Jerry Anderson is the convicted “King of Cocaine” who was recently granted clemency by President Barack Obama. In 1991 in Bibb County, he was sentenced to life with no opportunity for parole - the second most severe sentence in our nation - for nonviolent drug distribution. Under his ‘91 sentence, he would leave prison only upon his death, but if he were sentenced today under current law, he would be free today. Now, Anderson will have the chance to walk out of prison in 2020, if not sooner. This is his story.

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Heavy, they say, is the head that wears the crown. For Jerry Jerome Anderson, dubbed the “King of Cocaine” by Federal prosecutors 28 years ago in a Macon courtroom, Shakespeare’s famous words proved prophetic.

       In 1989, after a prolonged (and some say infuriatingly cat-and-mouse) game of gotcha between Anderson and local authorities, the suspected 32-year-old drug dealer became an accused drug kingpin. Just days after Christmas and prior to the start of a new year, the jig was finally up for the former star athlete of Central High School turned streetwise sovereign. That year, during a traffic stop, local lawmen discovered a significant cache of cocaine in the car Anderson was riding in as a passenger, and he and the driver were hauled unceremoniously away to jail.

And there he has remained, in one cell or another, ever since.

Anderson was quickly charged and after a 9-count indictment was entered in 1990, the father and husband was tried in Federal court on charges of cocaine and crack-cocaine trafficking, money laundering, and operating a “continuing criminal enterprise.” By 1991, Anderson had traded in the notoriety he had gained among fans and friends in high school on the football field as fleet-of-foot #33 for a new kind of number. With the pound of the gavel and thudding clink of prison bars no doubt still ringing in his ears, Jerry Anderson of Macon, Georgia became Federal inmate #82944-020.

“The king of cocaine has been dethroned,” Federal prosecutor Miriam Duke was widely quoted as saying at the time. A sentence of life without the possibility of  parole was imposed on Jerry Anderson, and so began his long days and nights of life behind bars.

View the Clemency letter from President Obama

A Legal Quagmire

So what has since become a snakingly long legal morass of motions, appeals, pleas and arguments – almost all of which Anderson has lost. Even though Federal sentencing guidelines relaxed over the course of time, the court itself didn’t soften with regard to Anderson’s case. On July 18, 2006, in response to Anderson’s 1999 appeal for a reduced sentence, a court ruling acknowledged the guidelines change and recalculated Anderson’s sentence to include a range of 360 months to life imprisonment. Nevertheless, the bench upheld the life sentence motion as “appropriate,” specifically taking note of the amount of drugs involved (an estimated 208 kilos of cocaine sold by Anderson’s crew from 1986 to 1989). When the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling, it was a devastating legal blow for Anderson.

But like they also say, if the conditions are just right, it only takes one spark to ignite a blaze. For Federal Inmate #82944-020, that single spark came in the form of mercy from one man, a gentleman he’d never had the occasion to meet, but who would come to know the most intimate details of his life, all spelled out in legal document known at the highest levels of government as a Clemency Petition. In consultation with the offices of the Pardon Attorney, and the Attorney General of the United States, the President of the United States may exercise his powers of executive clemency at will, choosing to either commute a criminal sentence or grant a full pardon.

This unique Presidential power is a kind of judicial Mercy Seat, which is, if you know your Old Testament, the covering of the Ark of the Covenant. According to the scripture, each year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was directed to enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood from sacrificial animals on the Mercy Seat as atonement for the sins of the people. The key spiritual takeaway was that only the blood of sacrifice offered in God’s presence could remove the condemning stain of sin and mitigate violations of the sacred laws. Once the price of blood has been paid, however, the proverbial slate is wiped clean.

By any standard and regardless of religious preference, this deeply held concept forms the very marrow of the American judicial system – that justice is a kind of fine balance between law and mercy. The power of clemency in the hands of one person is no small thing, and the process for an inmate’s paperwork to even make it the President’s desk is rigorous at best. Just days before leaving office, Barack Obama left a unique legal legacy, granting more clemency requests than any other President in history. Among them was Jerry Anderson’s petition for a reduced sentence.

The overwhelming majority of the 1,715 inmates whose sentences the Harvard Law School graduate and Constitutional legal scholar commuted were convicted offenders serving lengthy stretches relating to the production and distribution of drugs. Like Anderson, the Middle District of Georgia’s crown “King of Cocaine,” 568 of those inmates had received life sentences for their crimes. Learning he had been granted, at a minimum, a firm release date, was the break Anderson and his family have prayed and pleaded for in letters they wrote for his Clemency Petition.

“He was joyful, thanking God that he could see light at the end of the tunnel after so many years,” said Margaret Love, who delivered the news. The Washington D.C. attorney specializes in executive clemency and restoration of rights, sentencing and corrections policy, and legal and government ethics had spent more than two years working on the Clemency Petition. Love, who served as the U.S. Pardon Attorney from 1990 to 1997, prepared Anderson’s Clemency Petition, having learned of his case through another Federal inmate who had previously served time with him.

The President’s decision was not, however, the outcome the U.S. District Attorney’s office had hoped for, or the one prosecutors argued for 27 years ago.

“Our office opposed the application for commutation but we accept the President’s decision.” said G. F. “Pete” Peterman, III, the Acting United States Attorney for the Middle District of

Georgia. Though he didn’t work on the case at the time, Peterman joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1990, just as Anderson was headed for trial. Though he didn’t work on the case himself at the time, Peterman remembers it well, he said.

Watch the 1989 Fox24 Newsclip of the Anderson arrest here

Living in the Shadows

A WGXA news clip dated December 29, 1989 shows a young and physically imposing but composed and calm-faced Jerry Anderson in handcuffs, as a newscaster’s voice-over reports his arrest has “put a major dent in local drug operations.”

In the clip, then Police Chief Jim Brooks calls Anderson “the head of one of the biggest if not the biggest drug operations here in Macon,” adding the takedown was long in coming, at least from the lawman’s point of view. “I think it’s going to do a substantial amount to see Mr. Anderson walking around handcuffed. I think his presence is felt continually throughout all areas of our city and county.”

Felt perhaps, but not necessarily seen. Jerry Anderson may have appeared bigger than life on camera, but in real life, he was the man behind the curtain.

By its very nature, a criminal drug enterprise operates in the shadows of society – with exchanges between buyer and seller occurring in secret and subsequent profits cycling through legitimate businesses of one type or another to wash away the residue of “ill-gotten” from the gains received. On paper and in court filings, Anderson’s “continuing drug enterprise” had all the hallmarks of such a criminal network, but fascinatingly enough, also of successful business practices.

Court documents bear testimony of dealers who worked for Anderson offering “buy-one-get-one-free” crack and cocaine sells during the holidays – a ploy that was unquestionably illegal and possibly abhorrent by civilized standards. But from a purely marketing standpoint, it was undeniably clever and out-of-the-box thinking.

Anderson – who went to prison for life with only 3 prior misdemeanor convictions under his belt – is also reputed to have taken care of his employees with bonuses and additional incentives to keep the profits rolling in. At the time of his trial, it was reported that cocaine sales in excess of $85K a night were not unheard of in “Jerry Anderson’s Crew” – and that was in the mid to late-80s. And though he was hailed on the streets as a hero by many, beloved for his affable nature and reputed generosity, it was not a success Anderson could ever publicly claim. There were no invitations to join the Civitan Club, no awards offered for civil service, no moving his wife and family into affluent neighborhoods or social circles.

Always, Anderson operated out of the shadows. But then again, that grey area was, in myriad ways, nothing new to him.

Driving through Jerry Anderson’s old stomping grounds in and around Central High School, there is very little mercy, or even kindness to be seen. Sitting in the shadows of Mercer University, just 6 or 8 blocks away depending on your route, porches sag under the weight of time; hastily nailed boards cover the windows and doors of empty homes left to fall into shambles; large, dagger-shaped shards of glass hang menacingly in the frames of broken windows. Most of the businesses have long since shut down too. Even a boarded-up convenience store with a sign out front that reads “For the Community!” has been hatefully spray-painted with graffiti. Everywhere you look, rust and weeds and rot seem to be in a race with each other to see which one can swallow the place whole the fastest.

It’s not so much the persistent decay of time, the poison of poverty or the tatters of a clearly failing-to-thrive community that suck the very air out of the atmosphere here, either. It’s the absolute hopelessness that seems to have set in like a thoughtless visitor, and long overstayed its welcome. It takes a long moment for that to sink in while driving past torn basketball nets and skittish pets cared for by no one – overgrown yards and buckling sidewalks and people sitting on porches or steps staring either suspiciously at a car they don’t recognize, or glassily at nothing at all. There are no white faces here either – at least none within view.

Immediately, you can’t help but wonder, did this place help shape Jerry Jerome Anderson? Or did the so-called “King of Cocaine” shape it?

Anderson and Family

Mercy or Justice?

In his request for clemency, Anderson’s legal team notes he has no history of violence, and a nearly spotless record in prison as an inmate. His friend and former football teammate Roger Jackson says his childhood friend never even used profanity in his presence. Jackson describes Anderson as soft-spoken but driven and kind but cool-headed. “You couldn’t rattle him.”

A year or two younger than his neighborhood cohort and classmate, Jackson went on to play professional football in the NFL, where he enjoyed a successful career before coming back to Macon to work with at-risk youth here. The former Denver Bronco says his friend, however, ran in a different direction, struggling to find his way.

“What was disadvantaged? That was the norm then,” Jackson said. Echoing a letter Anderson himself wrote last July for his Clemency Petition, Jackson says Anderson attended Knoxville University for a year following high school, but failed to find a footing and was unable to find work here in Macon when he returned home. In the meantime, Anderson was attempting to support three children, though their mother had married another man.

After a girlfriend introduced Anderson to selling a drug she called “the rich man’s high,” it didn’t take long for Anderson to weigh the odds and make his choice. “All I could think was how much money I could make and how I could help my mother and take care of my kids,” he writes in his Clemency Petition letter.

It also didn’t take long for cocaine to sweep through the streets of Macon. “Anderson directed a large-scale drug organization beginning in 1986 and continuing through 1989,” Federal prosecutors contend in court documents. “At one time Anderson employed 25-30 people, each of whom was assigned a particular task that furthered the day-to-day operations of the organization, including a bookkeeper and an “enforcer.” Anderson dealt in both powder and crack cocaine, and moved drugs between Atlanta and Florida.”

And while it may have been the “rich man’s high,” Anderson’s illegal wares were moved through the poorest parts of the city, prosecutors maintain. “Anderson’s operation was responsible for bringing substantial quantities of crack and powder cocaine into areas of Macon containing government housing.”

While that is a truth that even Anderson acknowledges in legal filings, it is also interesting to note that 1989 seemed to be a bumper crop year for cocaine trafficking in Macon. In April of that year, three men from Panama were snagged in a locally led undercover operation and charged with conspiracy to import 1,320 pounds of coke to Macon and launder the profits through dummy corporations they planned to set up. The amount of cocaine would have been almost three times the amount that garnered Anderson a life sentence following his arrest 6 months later.

The three men arrested and charged were renowned industrialist and former Presidential Panamanian candidate Carlos Eleta Almaran; former ambassador to Belize, Manuel Castillo-Bourcy; and Juan Karamanites, then 35. Following the arrests, it came to light in 1990 news reports that Almaran, a political foe of Manuel Noriega, had conspired with the CIA to help topple the military dictator. The operation (and millions in Congressional funding for it) ended when Alamaran was arrested on drug charges that Federal prosecutors here later dropped after the other two defendants submitted sworn statements that he was innocent of the charges and had no knowledge of the proposed drug deal to bring more than half a metric ton of cocaine to Macon, Georgia.

Castillo-Bourcy and Karamanites served time in U.S. Federal prison until 1992. And though he has spent more than two decades in and out of French and U.S. prisons stemming from his own drug-related charges, just this week Manuel Noriega has been allowed to return home to Panama, albeit under house arrest, to undergo brain surgery.

Meanwhile, Jerry Jerome Anderson remains in a Federal prison cell in Atlanta, waiting to see how his appeal to be released prior to Jan. 17, 2020 will play out. His contention is that with the application of so-called “good time” earned in nearly 30 years as a model prisoner plus time served in jail prior to his conviction apply to his commuted sentence, and make him eligible to come home sooner than 2020.

“Right now we are waiting for the government to file a response to our sentence reduction motion,” says local counsel, Ashley Deadwyler-Heuman. “Once we see that response we will be reiterating our request for a hearing on the motion. If we prevail on our motion, Jerry could be released with time served. That’s our goal.”

Federal prosecutors, who opposed the clemency, filed a motion on Jan. 27 fighting Anderson’s release prior to Jan. 17, 2020. In the motion, the U.S. District Attorney’s office says Anderson was the principle of a profitable drug operation that “preyed on the citizens of low income government housing. Anderson was responsible for the distribution of what is considered in Macon, Georgia, to be an enormous amount of crack cocaine, well above the amount that satisfies the highest offense level under the drug guidelines.”     The motion further states “that all of the positive things that Anderson might have done while in prison cannot undo all of the damage that he definitely did to the Macon community, and there is no reasonable basis for changing the sentence imposed by the President.”

Margaret Love, who remains part of Anderson’s defense team and who also headed up the Justice Department’s pardon program under President Bill Clinton, maintains Anderson’s debt to society has been paid. “The 2020 date set is literally the only one among the more than 1700 commutations issued by President Obama that sets a specific date so far out. We are still trying to understand it.”

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