Free at last 

Everybody knew that what happened to Donald Clark was a travesty of justice. His family knew it. His friends. His attorneys. The judge who sentenced him to life in prison in 1991. Even the Manatee County sheriff deputies who waded through the swamp to uproot marijuana plants he'd grown on part of his watermelon farm.

They all knew that Clark's sentence was too long, especially for a guy who'd already served several years in the state system for the same 900 plants that would later be the basis for a federal conviction, and who gave up growing pot in 1985. Too bad, said his federal prosecutor, Walter Furr. "Quitting doesn't count."

It mattered little that in 1997 Clark's sentence was reduced to 17 years. For a 56-year-old man, that many years in prison still basically amounted to a life sentence. His appeals exhausted, Clark's hopes had nearly run out when he discovered Jan. 20 that President Bill Clinton had signed Clark's commutation papers.

At 5:30 p.m., after being hailed with chants of "Donnie, Donnie" by fellow inmates, Clark was whisked back to Manatee County by his sister and daughter, who helped fight for Clark's freedom the 10 years he was in prison.

Amid all the hubbub surrounding Clinton's more controversial pardons, Clark and 16 other federal drug offenders endorsed by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) are the overlooked stories of Clinton's last days.

They likely never would have happened if not for FAMM, a 21,000-member nonprofit lobbying for an end to the harsh sentencing Congress places on certain crimes, especially on drug offenses, leaving judges with no latitude to make exceptions. Meanwhile, violent criminals often receive lesser punishment.

Clinton commuted five low-level drug offenders last summer. That gave FAMM founder and president Julie Stewart the impression that Clinton "would be more receptive to commutations in the fall," she says.

Stewart became "pleasantly shocked" when she discovered that Clinton had commuted nearly all of the FAMM-sponsored prisoners. Up to that point, there had been no indication that Clinton would sign any of the requests. "We threw these names into what felt like was a black hole," Stewart says.

One of those names was Donald Clark, among the first cases brought to Stewart's attention when she founded FAMM in 1992 after her brother was busted for growing marijuana near Spokane, Wash.

Clark's case was notable for the amount of time he received despite the fact that he wasn't a major narcotics trafficker.

"I've been in prison 10 years, and I haven't seen a kingpin yet," says Clark, sitting on his sister Sandra's patio, spitting tobacco juice into a red plastic cup. "It's the little guys doing all the time."

Clark's troubles began in the mid-1970s, when he began chasing women, snorting cocaine and growing pot plants on the edge of his 638-acre farm.

"I liked to dance and party and stuff," he says. "I just went wild."

In 1985 the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, acting on a tip, had caught up with Clark. They found 900 plants on his property and a grow room for his seedlings.

Clark pled guilty to six charges, including growing marijuana, possession of cocaine and possession of paraphernalia. He received probation and two years of house arrest from the state judge.

Then in 1987, acting on a tip that Clark had 100 pounds of weed in his freezer, Manatee deputies checked his residence. All they found were a couple of hunting rifles and a bag of pot. Still, Clark had broken his parole. He was shipped to prison for six weeks.

After that, Clark vowed to quit fooling with drugs and committed himself to growing watermelons. His two sons, Gary and Duane, however, had also been practicing some illegal farming, and they continued to do so.

Clark might have never had to deal with law enforcement again if it hadn't been for a couple of pot growers in nearby Glades County named Bruce Hendry and Gary Huffman. When the two were caught, they fingered more than 100 people who had allegedly grown pot in Manatee County. Among the people were Donald Clark and his two sons.

In front of a federal grand jury in March 1990, Clark declined to give any details. He says he knew his sons were still growing but didn't know specifics. In court, he pled the Fifth Amendment.

He sat in jail 11 months awaiting trial.

Clark was offered a seven-year plea sentence, but he felt he didn't do anything wrong. He wanted to take his case to court even though he knew he faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Of the 28 people indicted, Clark was the only one who took his case to a jury. Everybody else accepted a plea bargain. Hendry and Huffman received a three-year sentence. One of Clark's sons, Duane, received 10 years. The other son, Gary, received seven years.

Since the feds only had one person to try, they were ready to blame Clark for all 1 million plants that Manatee County officials claim the group had grown from 1980 to 1990. Clark went from being just another conspirator to the biggest pot grower on the East Coast.

"They say I was known as 'Mr. Bud' and 'Mr. Marijuana,'" Clark says, shaking his head. "Nobody ever called me that."

The jury eventually came back with a guilty verdict, in part because he was charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana, a charge is particularly difficult to disprove. Defendants often offer information about someone else that may or may not be accurate in exchange for a reduced sentence, and that information becomes the basis of a conspiracy-to-distribute charge. It's no accident that Hendry and Huffman received short sentences. They had information to provide.

"It was one-sided all the way through," Clark says. "My attorney's objections were overruled. The prosecutor got everything. I tell you, you don't think you're in America. The only reason they hammered me was because I fought the system. You can't fight Uncle Sam."

The judge at Clark's trial, Elizabeth Kovachevich, agreed in part with this idea, saying, "Judges don't make laws. And I can't question the wisdom of Congress."

Clark was first sent to the Bureau of Prison's worst penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. Eventually he ended up in Coleman Federal Correction Institution, about 10 miles west of Leesburg, Fla.

During his years in prison, Clark became the poster boy for everything wrong with mandatory minimum sentencing. The Tampa Tribune-Times ran a series on the Myakka City pot busts, prominently featuring Clark and his sons. The BBC ran a documentary that focused in part on Clark's plight. And the Atlantic Monthly included him in a cover story titled "More Reefer Madness."

Clark accepted the media coverage as a sign that public opinion was beginning to sway against mandatory sentencing.

"Up to that point," he says, "it was the cops doing all the saying."

When he received word in the fall that Clinton might commute sentences, Clark filed his paperwork. He didn't really believe he had much of a chance, especially not on Inauguration Day, when all the news focused on George W. Bush.

At 2 p.m. that day, Clark called his daughter, who asked him if he was ready to come home. It was true, she said. Clinton had signed Clark's commutation papers. Within hours he would be a free man. Clark was ecstatic. He gathered up his belongings and accepted congratulations from inmates, some of whom stood on a balcony and chanted his name.

But adjusting to the new world has been difficult. Clark wasn't able to receive the classes and briefings inmates normally receive as they depart prison.

"It wasn't as bad going in as it was getting out," says Clark, who has taken a job with his nephew in the sod and mulching business. "They say after five years you get institutionalized. I know I was. It's hard to get back into things. I feel lost, like I'm way behind. I got out and seen all the changes. It seems like I been in prison 20 years. Technology, everything, seems like it's changed so much."

Stewart, FAMM's president, says that some members of Congress, even several staunch conservatives, are beginning to realize that mandatory minimum sentences haven't achieved the ends they were supposed to. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, for example, has made a "sort of pledge" to avoid these kinds of sentences.

"The Republicans might be able to make changes that the Democrats couldn't because they don't have to prove they're tough on crime," Stewart says. "There are some particularly conservative members of Congress who seem to recognize that the laws are too severe."


More by William Dean Hinton


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