Former inmate's case draws attention to parole issue

State law repealed prior, persistent guidelines that disallowed the possibility of parole

By Grace Zokovitch
Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Dimetrious Woods served 11 years in prison for a nonviolent drug trafficking offense before being released on parole. Two years later, a Missouri Supreme Court ruling appears likely to send him back to prison.

Woods, 40, was charged in 2006 and sentenced in 2007 under the prior and persistent drug offenses guidelines because he'd already been convicted for one drug-related felony as a minor, reported the Columbia Missourian. That triggered the sentence of 25 years without the possibility of parole.

But the prior and persistent guidelines, which directed judges to sentence nonviolent drug offenders without a chance of parole, were repealed by changes to state law in 2014.

Working on his case in the law library at Jefferson City Correctional Center, Woods spotted the legal opening when the changes to the law went into effect in 2017 and wrote his own motion. Though legal precedent made it clear that the new guidelines could not be retroactively applied to affect the length of his sentence, whether Woods could claim parole eligibility was less certain.

His lawyers filed the motion for him, and in 2017, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green granted the motion, writing "(the Missouri Department of Corrections) is hereby ordered to apply existing laws concerning (Dimetrious Woods)'s parole eligibility." As a model inmate, his parole was quickly granted.

On Feb. 4, the Cole County Circuit Court sided 6-1 with the Department of Corrections in an appeal to Woods' parole approval, saying that the amendment to the state law should not have been applied retroactively to Woods' sentence.

Now, Woods, his attorney and the community supporting his cause are exhausting all options to keep him from being sent back to prison. He won't be the only one affected by the ruling - about 120 current inmates will remain in prison under the more stringent interpretation of the law, if the ruling stands.

Woods and another inmate, Gary Mitchell, whose situation is very similar, are working to circumvent the Supreme Court's decision. Woods' attorneys sent Attorney General Eric Schmitt a letter requesting that his office voluntarily dismiss the appeal. Taylor Rickard, one of his attorneys, said a voluntary dismissal would vacate the Supreme Court's ruling on the case and revert the decision back to the ruling from the Cole County Circuit Court.

They also filed a rehearing motion on Feb. 19 and resubmitted a request for clemency for Woods to Gov. Mike Parson.

Additionally, Woods's supporters are lobbying lawmakers to introduce legislation that would apply the 2014 changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively.

Woods feels a sense of obligation to inmates with similar sentences whose cases are not in the limelight.

"Once I (was released), I gave all those guys hope," Woods said. "So not just on the street do I help people to do the right thing, I've been able to give guys on the inside hope."

The case has become a cause célèbre because of recent changes in attitudes toward long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, has shown support for Woods, introducing him on the floor of the Missouri House of Representatives during an event on his behalf on Feb. 18 in the state capitol.

"And now hearing all of these people support what I'm doing, that's awesome," Woods said.

By all accounts, Woods, who is originally from St. Louis, has spent the last two years outside of prison building a rich and full life in Columbia.

"It's been amazing, just the opportunity to go get my kid from school when he says, 'Dad, I need a ride home from practice.' Just knowing whatever I'm doing, I can jump in the car and go do that," Woods said.

"Imagine your kid not having a ride, and you're behind a razor wire. And then you want to call yourself a man," he said. "It's hard to live with that. But being out, I get to just do that kind of simple stuff."

Since 2018, Woods has become a much larger part of his six kids' lives and has started two businesses with one of his sons, Woods Auto Spa and Munchi's Fish and Chicc'n food truck. Both businesses are doing well, he said, and these days he devotes most of his time to them.

He's also reached out to inmates, whose futures depend on the outcome of this fraught legal ordeal, and their families. He said he's appreciated the opportunity to step up, share his experience, and be a leader.

"This situation and what I've gone through has put more responsibility on me to put more time in speaking to kids and stuff," Woods said. "I did a speech for the high school kids at Rock Bridge the other day, and it was just amazing, the response."

There's less hope now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the issue.

Lisa Kelley's son Trevor Saller is one of the other inmates whose future depends upon what happens. He has served eight years in prison for small-scale marijuana distribution. Saller filed his motion to gain the possibility of parole two months after Woods, but his case, along with many others, has been on hold since the Department of Corrections appealed Woods's and Mitchell's cases.

"It's frustrating," Kelly said of the inmates' limbo situation. "While stuck there, they're seeing people who've done far worse come and go."

Kelley has been working hard to lobby officials and lawmakers to support the prisoners' access to parole. Recently, more community members have rallied to do the same.

On Feb. 18, a group of advocates for Woods traveled to Jefferson City in a "caravan of compassion and justice" to lobby lawmakers and officials on his behalf. During the caravan, he was introduced before the Missouri House of Representatives by Reisch and spoke to other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Iman Eldeib, an organizer of the event, said the recent increase in bipartisan support for criminal justice reform has given supporters hope that lawmakers will be sympathetic to Woods's situation.

"There's no reason to send him back," Eldeib said. "It doesn't serve the community he's a part of, his family, our already-overcrowded prison system or the taxpayers to send him back."

"The biggest thing we need to focus on now is gaining awareness and support," said Rickard.

In addition to the caravan, supporters have started two petitions and now have nearly 2,500 signatures. Awareness and support are building, but it isn't certain yet whether any of it will be enough to keep Woods out of jail.

Eldeib explained she was drawn to fight for Woods not just because of his character but because she believes this is an important step in criminal justice reform: "There's been greater acceptance that more incarceration is not helping us as a society. We have the opportunity now to act as a more compassionate society."

Published: Tue, Mar 03, 2020