Race against time

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Ronald Norfleet’s eyes dart across the cinder block prison walls that will, if he does nothing, confine him until his death.

The weight of decades behind Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility’s barbed wire fences presses on Norfleet, a 47-year-old whose blue, orange-striped Michigan Department of Corrections uniform hangs loosely over his lean frame like a well-worn glove.

A misspent youth in Detroit made Norfleet familiar with the prison sounds — radio crackles, the slam of heavy doors and clicks of steel-toed boots. Two past stints were enough for Norfleet, but he landed in more trouble after a move to Traverse City.

Now, he often spends his one hour per day outside a cell at a law library, searching for obscure precedents that could ease his 56-year prison bit. He contends bias and racism led to his sentence — the longest in Grand Traverse County’s recent history for a felony drug case.

“There’s no other thing I can see in there because nobody got killed, nobody died," he said.

Norfleet, who is African-American, sits atop a stark statistical contrast between the felony drug sentences black and white defendants received in the local judicial system. All things equal, the law dictates Norfleet and other black offenders should bear similar punishments to their white counterparts.

But data shows when the coin flips in Grand Traverse County — and in several other communities nationwide, it is weighted in favor of white defendants.

‘Very concerning’

Attorney Janet Mistele seldom holds her tongue inside the 13th Circuit’s third-floor courtroom.

Mistele’s felony clients, black and white alike, rest their shackled hands on a worn wooden lectern while she pushes for fair, even lenient, sentences. But she recently found herself grasping for words when presented with a Traverse City, Michigan Record-Eagle data analysis depicting a disparity between the sentences her felony drug clients could expect in Grand Traverse County, depending on their skin color.

“This is very concerning … and I’m surprised,” she said. “I never would have suspected this.”

Local African-American felony drug defendants on average were sent to prison 43 months compared to white suspects’ 12 months between 2012 and 2016, according to data collected from 387 cases.

The data mirrors national studies showing African-Americans have more exposure to the criminal justice system and higher incarceration rates than whites. African-Americans account for 1.4 percent of Grand Traverse County’s population, according to U.S. Census data, but nearly a one-fifth of its felony drug sentences.

Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said all sorts of factors — from poverty, lack of proper legal representation, to racial profiling — can cause disparities in sentences.

“All of it is a manifestation of the structural racism that impacts the country as a whole,” he said.

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney denied the local sentencing disparity could be chalked up to racism. He said the data doesn’t account for case-by-case factors. Major drug dealers were predominantly black and many had lengthy or — like Norfleet — violent criminal records, he said.

“If you take out all of those factors, you’re really not looking at the cases individually as our judges are required to do,” he said. “I’m guessing that would account for a large part of the disparity that you see between black and white defendants.”

An independent data analyst verified the calculations and found differences by race to be statistically significant, with very little likelihood that chance alone accounted for the disparity. Additional tests found the difference between black and white defendants’ sentences, calculations that removed outliers like Norfleet, is even less likely caused by chance variations.

Local justice system officials maintain factors other than race led to lengthy sentences in major drug cases.

‘Certain people of certain color’

Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power liked Larry Gene Davis Jr., a smart, pleasant man who just happened to be heavily involved in heroin dealing across the Grand Traverse region.

Davis, 40, who is black, even thanked Power for his fair proceedings. Power responded with regret before he gave Davis to a 10-year minimum prison term — Grand Traverse County’s fifth-longest drug sentence since 2012.

“He seems like a really nice guy and it’s disappointing because it’s going to have to be a substantial prison sentence, that’s what it calls for,” Power said, according to a court transcript.

Michigan law sets strict principles and procedures for sentences. A defendant’s sentence on the same charge should be roughly proportional in Grand Traverse County and elsewhere in the state. Judges can only set minimum sentences, which they reach by scoring guidelines that account for an offense’s severity and a defendant’s criminal history.

Those guidelines in Davis' case scored between 99 and 160 months. Power opted for sentence on the guidelines' low end, below prosecutors' request for the opposite.

Attorney Jesse Williams believes the Record-Eagle’s data confirmed his impression that minority suspects “absolutely” receive longer drug sentences locally. The criminal justice system — a chain in which cases flow from police investigations to prosecutors and, if a conviction is reached, to judges — is “arbitrary,” he said.

“There isn’t any consistency in it,” he said. “I practice in multiple counties and you can run the same fact pattern in different counties and come up with completely different results. And let’s not pretend that there isn’t this tone and atmosphere that certain people of certain color from certain geographical areas who are bringing drugs into northern Michigan aren’t getting dealt with very harshly.”

The data shows African-American drug defendants from outside the Grand Traverse region received sentences averaging 46 months, more than four times longer than non-local white suspects.

Increased law enforcement focus on heroin cases, and associated overdoses, could account for the difference. Both Cooney and Power said heroin suppliers tend to be black and from the Detroit area.

Suppliers of another drug under recent scrutiny — methamphetamine — are associated with a more homegrown demographic, they said. Miles Bartnick, 28, a local white meth dealer, received the fourth-longest drug sentence in the data. His name long-peppered police reports in meth cases before he received a nearly 13-year prison sentence.

Cooney believes disparities in sentences have less to do with race than with defendants’ roles in drug dealing schemes.

“What I found was that our sentences in these cases tended to have more do with who was the supplier of drugs in the case versus someone who was a ‘runner’ for that supplier,” he said.

Runners often tend to be local white suspects who sold drugs to support their own habits, Cooney said.

It’s a role played by Bryan Nerg, 35, and Alysha Nerg, 26, in Norfleet’s case, authorities contended. The Nergs walked free from jail and prison after their testimony helped send Norfleet away for an effective life sentence.

‘Who Mr. Norfleet is’

The flashing lights and dinging bells of Turtle Creek Casino’s slots brought Norfleet, a self-described “avid gambler,” back and forth from Detroit to the Traverse City area, he said. His visits exposed him to a lucrative local market: he claims that was personal fitness, but authorities assert it was drug dealing.

Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Forsyth in Norfleet's 2015 trial depicted him as the “puppeteer” behind a major heroin dealing ring. He marshaled evidence that Norfleet's fitness "sessions" were code for heroin sales, which the Nergs sold at his direction. Authorities found heroin in the Nerg's motel room, but failed to uncover any drugs in Norfleet's home.

Jurors found Norfleet guilty on seven felony drug counts and a judge sentenced him to five consecutive 134-month terms. It wasn’t until Norfleet left the courtroom that he grasped what happened.

“I never got caught with no drugs,” he said. “I never got caught selling no drugs. And the amount of drugs … that was found on the Nergs, even if they’re saying it was under my watch or whatever, it was still a little amount. So, I’m just assuming even the worst case scenario would have been two years. I never envisioned it was going to be some decades.”

Laurel Kelly Young is a Grand Rapids-based attorney handling Norfleet’s appeal. She said his five consecutive sentences made it different than other cases she has seen across the state.

“Fifty-six years, to me, I found that shocking,” she said.

Norfleet’s sentence is so long it skews 2015’s average sentence for black drug defendants to 69 months, or six times longer than those for white suspects. That disparity drops to slightly less than two times when Norfleet’s case and other outliers are removed from that year’s data.

Cooney acknowledged Norfleet received the longest drug sentence he knew of, but said his drug dealing and, especially, criminal record justified it. He called Norfleet an “unusual case.”

Norfleet, unlike nearly every recent felony drug suspect, turned down a plea deal. He headed to a jury trial presided over by, in another oddity, a visiting judge — Richard Pajtas, from Charlevoix County’s 33rd Circuit Court, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Norfleet’s attorneys argued the Nergs received favorable plea deals for their testimony against him. Alysha Nerg and Bryan Nerg, who are white, received six months of jail time and a 23-month prison term, respectively, following their guilty pleas.

“I think it played a factor that (Norfleet) was not from Grand Traverse,” Young said. “I think that this happens very, very often that someone will get a very good plea deal in exchange for testifying against the defendant. They pick the defendant they want to send away for a very long time and then all the people who are involved will testify against them.”

Cooney said Norfleet’s criminal history played perhaps the largest role in his sentence. The data show that black defendants with felony records — habitual offenders — received sentences three times longer than similarly-charged white defendants.

Court records state Norfleet in 1987 began a prison sentence after he shot someone in the back four times. He shot another man 14 times in 1993 and told an accomplice to shoot the victim in the head.

“That’s who Mr. Norfleet is,” Cooney said.

Norfleet said he kept out of trouble after his last release from prison seven years ago. He worked toward an associate’s degree in sports management and became a trainer. He doesn’t see how his violent past should be a factor in a drug case.

“If this was a violent crime — if someone got shot — I can see my past sentence being a huge factor,” he said.

‘Heightened awareness’

Fitness still consumes Norfleet’s days while Young beefs up his ongoing appeal.

Young said Grand Traverse County’s sentencing disparities for black and white suspects should cause “heightened awareness” for a statewide problem. She said it could arise in future proceedings in Norfleet’s case.

“I’ll use every tool in my toolbox,” she said.

Michigan Court of Appeals judges in November handed Young a victory when they sent Norfleet’s case back to circuit court. Pajtas or another judge must justify each consecutive count individually, they ruled.

Prosecutors recently asked Michigan Supreme Court justices to overturn the decision. Their appeal argues Pajtas already justified Norfleet’s consecutive sentences in court. Young, for her part, asserts such sentences are a “leftover” from when state officials took a more harsh view toward drug offenses.

Power recently reviewed major felony cases involving drugs. Case after case showed factors other than race led to the sentences, he said.

“I’m comfortable with these sentences,” Power said. “I don’t see anything really wrong with them. I think they’re all explained by what the person did, the role they did it in this drug distribution scheme and by the extent of their prior record.”

Cooney likewise noted a slew of cases in which white defendants received harsher sentences than black suspects. But he still admitted the data should be cause for concern.

“We should be looking into any time that we see a disparity between black and white, or one ethnicity and another ethnicity, or whatever the discrimination is,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we look at these numbers and how do I explain that.”

There wouldn’t be a disparity between black and white sentences if everyone had equal access to income, employment and education, Cooney said. He belongs to a national organization called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids that advocates for quality education and other measures focused on children.

Fancher said justice system officials should account for factors that cause differences in criminal histories and disproportionately affect black defendants. He said presumptions about who is selling drugs — such as black dealers from Detroit — could also harm law enforcement efforts.

“If there’s a presumption if it’s people of a particular race who are trafficking in drugs that may be incorrect,” he said.

But changes might not affect Norfleet. He exercises during his prison yard time, trying to keep fit even if he suspects it's fruitless. He’ll be more than 100 years old when he’s eligible for release.

“I don’t care how many pushups I do,” he said.

Troutman writes for the Traverse City, Michigan Record-Eagle

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