Thirty-five years ago, Alice Marie Johnson lived a full life. She was a wife, a mother of five children, and a manager at FedEx. Then divorce, the death of one of her children, and job loss shattered her world. Ms. Johnson was able to find employment as a factory worker, a role which paid only a fraction of her former salary and was insufficient to support her children. Desperate and burdened, she became a telephone mule for drug dealers. She was instructed to “pass phone messages [and] [w]hen people came to town . . . [to tell] them what number to call for drug transactions.”
Alice Marie Johnson’s role as a telephone mule can be likened to some drug couriers in smuggling operations. Drug trafficking rings often recruit women as drug couriers. These female drug couriers are often disconnected from the intricate workings of the drug conspiracy and are only expected to transport the drugs. Their minuscule role in the drug ring means they are at a disadvantage during the prosecutorial process because they have little information to trade in exchange for a lesser charge. Such was Ms. Johnson’s story. She had never been charged with or convicted of a crime. Nor was she a drug kingpin or ringleader. Yet she was convicted of “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and deliver, money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and structuring a monetary transaction” after her codefendants testified against her.
In the end, Alice Marie Johnson was sentenced to life in prison as a first-time nonviolent drug offender under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In Ms. Johnson’s words, she “was given a death sentence without sitting on death row” when she was convicted on October 31, 1996.