Step Up, Mr. President

Free Demaryius Thomas’s Mom After 14 Years on a Drug Charge

The mother of the Denver Broncos’ wide receiver has done 14 years in federal prison on a drug conviction. It’s high time she went free.

01.30.14 10:45 AM ET

One simple way President Obama can act with bold independence is to pardon the mother of Denver Bronco Demaryius Thomas in time for the Super Bowl.

The mother, Katrina Smith, has already done 14 years in federal prison and faces another three for stashing proceeds her own mother made selling crack and powdered cocaine.

Enough is enough, particularly when a long-serving felon has committed no violence and must have been in some ways a top-notch mom for her son to have become such a remarkable young man.

If Mafia multiple murderers such as Sammy the Bull Gravano and Bonanno crime family boss Joe Massino can wiggle out of life sentences and even the prospect of the death penalty by ratting on their pals, why not cut a break for a mom who raised a great kid?

Never mind the mother, Katrina Smith, has only herself to blame for not taking a plea deal that would have enabled her to be in the stands to watch her son play in this weekend’s Super Bowl.

The same is true for her mother, Demaryius’s grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, who was convicted with her after also declining to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.

The two of them could have been cheering side by side in player family seats at the Meadowlands, sporting No. 88 orange and black jerseys reading THOMAS on the back to match the one worn on the field by the Denver star.

Instead, the mother and grandmother will be catching the Super Bowl from the federal correctional facility for women in Tallahassee, Florida, where they are both incarcerated. The only orange they will be able to wear will be prison issue gym shorts or jumpsuits that are the new black.

The mother, Katrina Smith, is said to have been offered a deal back in 2000 where she would have received 4 years if she pleaded guilty. That would have had her free before her son was even out of high school rather than still serving a 20-year term.

The grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, was offered 12 years. She would now have been at liberty for more than two years instead of continuing to serve two life terms.

And neither Smith nor her mother would have been required to testify against each other or anybody else. The prosecution already had a whole parade of co-defendants turned government witnesses, including the grandmother’s live-in boyfriend.

But, for reasons her lawyer, Elizabeth Lane, still cannot completely fathom, Smith insisted on taking her chances at trial. Smith did so even though she faced almost certain conviction as the result of wire tap recordings and physical evidence as well as the host of cooperators.

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Lane says that the grandmother seemed ready to take a last minute plea, but wanted to consult with her daughter first.

“She wanted to talk to Katrina,” Lane recalls. “Unfortunately, they let her do that.”

Lane says of Smith, “She just was determined to go to trial. She thought she would never be convicted, and unfortunately she talked her mother out of a fairly decent plea deal as well. They just didn’t believe it was going to happen to them.”

Lane wonders if Smith and Thomas actually counted on the power of the “Law Stay Away” candles that practitioners of hoodoo or root doctoring believe have the power to ward off the police.

 “The only thing I can figure out is somehow she didn’t believe she would be convicted because of all the Law Stay Away candles,” Lane says of her client.

The grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, also had Law Stay Away oil and a book containing Law Stay Away chants, as well as a Quick Money candle.

Lane notes that Minnie Pearl Thomas had been convicted twice on drug charges in state court and received only a few months. Lane suspects that Thomas and Smith failed to understand that federal court is considerably more stringent.

“I just think they didn’t believe it would be any different on the federal side,” Lane says.

Smith may also have resisted taking a plea precisely because she was not some hardened criminal able to recognize a good deal when it was offered to her. Smith may have felt that four years was too much when she had not actually participated in selling the drugs her mother peddled out of what court papers describe as a “double wide trailer on a dirt road.” Smith had only served as a kind of unpaid bank, stashing proceeds and dispensing them when her mother needed cash for a new shipment or simply for meeting everyday living expenses.

Otherwise, Smith lived an upstanding life, raising her three children.  Demaryius was her oldest. She had him when she was just 15. 

One could rightly argue that a good mother would never agree to stash even her own mom’s drug money, particularly after Demaryius began crying at night, telling her  that he had a dream that she had been arrested.

But it should also be recognized that when the youngster’s prophesy was fulfilled early on the morning of March 15, 1999, Smith’s first impulse was to ask the cops if they could hold off on hauling her away until she had dressed her kids, fixed them a quick breakfast and trundled them off to school.

In what would prove to be the first of a series of efforts by the local authorities to go relatively easy on Smith, the cops agreed to let her stand with 11-year-old Demaryius and the two younger ones until the school bus came.

In the meantime, the cops searched the residence and found a wad of cash inside a plastic bag stuck in the pocket of a coat that was hanging in a closet.

Minnie Pearl Thomas was arrested in another raid and remanded. But Smith was freed on bail. She worked at a nearby motel and continued being a mom, sending Demaryius and the others off to school and welcoming them home with hugs that must have reminded her how important it was for her to be there. And that could only have made it more impossible to accept a plea that would mean being away when there was even the smallest chance she could be acquitted at trial. 

As the case proceeded, seemingly everybody from their lawyers to the prosecutors to the judge sought to convince Smith and her mother to take a deal.

“I begged I pleaded, I put it in writing,” Lane recalls. “I did everything I could.”

Smith faced a mandatory minimum of 20 years behind bars. Her mother’s two prior drug cases meant she faced a life sentence.

“Everybody and his brother tried to talk them out of going to trial,” Lane says.

On the Friday before the Monday the trial was commence, Minnie Pearl Thomas and her lawyer, John Francisco, sat down with prosecutor Michael Solis, who is known outside his official duties to be so kindhearted he takes his neighbors’ pets as well as his own to the best and most expensive vet in Macon. Solis offered Thomas a last minute deal that she seemed inclined to accept until she was allowed to consult with her daughter.

Perhaps among other things, Smith mistook kindness as a sign of as weak case. The trial commenced on February 7, 2000 with both defendants determined to go ahead and both defense attorneys saying they had tried to persuade them otherwise.

“Because of the severity of the sentence that my client is looking at in this particular case, that is life without parole,” Francisco told the judge.

Lane reported to the court, “I would also like to indicate that because … she is looking at a mandatory minimum of 20 to life, this had also been discussed with Ms. Smith at length. And she is proceeding to trial over my objections and against my advice.”

The judge said, “Well, then, let me sum up. I understand that both defendants have considered various options and have determined that this case should go forward to a jury trial?”

Francisco said, “This is affirmative.”

Lane said, “This is correct.”

Lane later added outside court, “Once you get to, ‘Hell, no, I’m not taking any plea,’ all you can do is try the case and hope maybe something will break our way.”

The trial commenced, and little, if anything seemed to break in the way of the defendants. An ironic twist came with the introduction of people’s exhibit 28, which was identified by Samuel Rozier, a minister as well as a cooperating witness who had taken a plea. Rozier had met Minnie Pearl Thomas when they both worked in a pants factory and ended up becoming her lover and moving into her trailer. He helped her to sell crack and powder cocaine when he was not off preaching at various churches or singing gospel on a local TV station. 

The two former pants factory workers had used the code word “shirts” when speaking of drug consignments on the phone in case the police were listening. The prosecutor now asked Rozier if law enforcement was a constant concern for Minnie Pearl Thomas.

“It was a constant concern for all of us,” Rozier said.

“Was there some ritual or practice that she would follow to ensure her safety?” the prosecutor asked.

“You talking about root work?” Rozier asked.

“Yes,” the prosecutor replied.

“Candle burning or whatever,” Rozier said.

“Mr. Rozier, let me show you what I have marked as Government’s Exhibit No. 28,” the prosecutor said. “Would you identify that for the court and jury?”

“Yeah, that is a Law Keep Way candle,” Rozier said.

“And this was something that was kept in the home?” the prosecutor inquired.

“Right,” Rozier said.

“Was it actually burned on occasion?” the prosecutor asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Rozier said.

The prosecutor showed Rozier Exhibit 29.

“That is a money growing candle,” Rozier said. “So the people could come and bring the money.”

The profits must have been relatively modest, as Minnie Pearl Thomas was still making payments on her trailer and on her Hyundai, which had a bad transmission. The prosecutor asked if Minnie Pearl Thomas gave Smith a cut for stashing her mother’s drug money.

“No, she didn’t pay her for keeping money,” Rozier said.

After the prosecution rested and as the defense neared the end of its case, Minnie Pearl Thomas took the stand. She testified that she was 43 and had four children, her oldest, Katrina having been born when she was 16. The prosecutor asked her on cross-examination only a few not particularly incriminating questions. He did show her a handwritten note.

“That is your handwriting, isn’t it?” he asked.

”Yes,” she answered.

“The note that says, ‘Law stay away from Samuel Rozier,’” he said.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

Lane then called Smith to the stand. She said she was 27 years old and lived with her husband, Tyrone Smith, and her three children, Tiesha, age three, Tanisha, age 10, and a son.

“Demaryius Antwan Thomas, he is 12,” she noted.

“And where are you employed, Ms. Smith?” Lane asked.

“Currently, I’m employed with the Super 8 Motel in Dublin, Georgia,” she said.

“No further questions,” Lane said, having presented her client as what she was, a working mom.   

Then came a moment when the prosecutor could have torn Smith apart. Solis instead reconfirmed his reputation for being kindhearted.

“Your honor, no questions by the government,” Solis said.

After brief closing arguments, the jury retired at 3:55 p.m. to begin its deliberations. The jurors returned at 5 p.m. with a guilty verdict.

“Ms. Smith will be taken into custody by the marshal,” the judge said. “We are adjourned.”

Minnie Pearl Smith was already in custody and the two of them were consigned to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Minnie Pearl Thomas became prisoner No. 89378-020.

“Release Date: LIFE,” the records state.

Smith became prisoner No. 89426-020.

“Release Date: 06/25/2017,” her records state.

As if by some other kind of hoodoo, Smith’s release date will be Demaryius Thomas’s 30th birthday. He had gone on to live with aunt, Shirley Brown and an uncle, James Brown, who is a manifestly legitimate minister. The Browns should be lauded for helping to keep their nephew on the right track while his mother was in prison.

But, for all their efforts, if Smith had not otherwise been a very good mom in the earlier years, if those hugs had not been at least partly true magic, doctoring at the root of his being, Demaryius would not likely have grown into being such an altogether fine young man.

Smith has told a newspaper reporter that No. 89426-020 and No. 89378-020 will be sporting No. 88 in colored pencil on their faces and waving pom-poms fashioned from newspaper and as they watch the Super Bowl from prison. Maybe the warden will briefly relax the usual regulation stating, “Loud talking and excessive noise in the TV rooms is prohibited.”

Lane the lawyer will be down in Macon, heartsick that the two are still incarcerated.

“Nobody wanted that to happen,” Lane said this week.

Lane only wishes she and her fellow defense counsel had been able to convince Smith and her mother to take the deal.

“You feel like you failed somebody,” Lane said. “You wrack your brain … ‘What could I have done differently? Is there anything I could have done?’”

She adds, “It hurts you when you really care about your client and they do something catastrophically stupid—and that’s the only way you can describe it for both of them.”

As it is, Lane cannot see any way that Minnie Pearl Thomas will ever be allowed to stop paying for her errors, even though Mafia murderers keep walking free. She was just not a big enough criminal.

“Minnie Pearl will come out in a box,” Lane said. “Unless you’re Sammy the Bull, unless you’re somebody who can put away the Teflon Don, you’re not going to get much of anything.”

Smith is scheduled to be freed in three years, but that is three too many when she has already done 14.

A pardon could have her out in time for the next Super Bowl.