Michael grew up in the most depressed neighborhood of Atlanta—the Bluff. When he was eight, he realized his mother was using crack cocaine. He had no information about his father. His older brother, “J-Boy,” was in training as a dope boy. By this time, Michael was taking care of himself and his younger sister, Tavia, called Ta-Ta, who was five years old. He washed their clothes, and, every weekday, fixed Ta-Ta’s hair and dressed her for school, where they would go to get free breakfast and lunch. Eventually, Val, his mother, as Michael would write, “smoked up the water.” Every dime she got from the welfare office and her own dope sales went into her crack pipe, leaving their house, such as it was, without food, lights, heat or running water.
When Michael was 11, the juvenile court declared him “deprived,” and removed him from “the home.” Ta-Ta had already gone off to live with a cousin from her father’s family. The court placed Michael under the “protection” of the state welfare agency, which sent him to a group home. Conditions there were so bad, only days later, he ran away, back to the familiar, to the streets of the Bluff. Homeless, he survived by working for J-Boy’s dope operation, standing on corners day and night selling drugs and doing runs for older dope boys. He slept wherever he could find a spot.
Known as “Little B,” this was his life over the next two years, running and living on the streets, riding with the older guys one night and riding a bike with his young partners other nights, like the night of the murder of Darrell Woods.
The “Bad Black” Boy vs. The “Good Black” Father
Michael’s arrest was publicized widely as the case of a “street thug” brutally murdering a “good black father.” Something was so obviously wrong with this depiction. There was the locale of the murder, a convenience store in the heart of the Bluff, and the notion that a good black father would take his family to that store on that corner at night to buy a soda. And, there was the testimony of Darrell’s wife, Kenya, that she had chosen to stop at that store in those unfamiliar blocks despite that the route they had just traveled was lined with liquor stores, gas stations, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants where she could have bought a soda.
There was the irrationality of the motive. Michael was said to have ordered the victim, sitting in a car parked in front of the store, to turn off his headlights so as not to expose all the drug trafficking going on there—even though the Woodses’ car had only one working headlight. When Woods was said to have refused, Michael purportedly warned him not to “disrespect” him—though no evidence or testimony of such a dramatic exchange was introduced at trial. After that, Little B was said to have run off, come back with a big rifle and shot Woods to death, firing through the closed car window, right in front of Woods’s two children—which the press sensationalized over and over.
The irony was, there was a lot of light where Woods was parked, including street lights and the store lights. Indeed, Kenya Woods testified she had been attracted to this remote corner by the store lights. In any case, there was nothing to hide. Everybody in the area knew dope was sold in those blocks. All those white kids from nearby Georgia Tech who rolled through for heroin and Ecstasy knew; and the black middle-class college students attending neighboring Morehouse and Clark-Atlanta and Spelman knew, frequenting the area to buy marijuana and cocaine. All the crack-heads that wandered the streets in the area day and night knew. And, the police certainly knew.
There was also the questionable characterization of the case. Darrell Woods was not quite the loving father and husband of press reports. Only a week or so before he was killed, his wife, Kenya, had filed her latest charge of assault and battery against him, telling police she never wanted to see “that fucker” again—though all of this went unreported in the press and at trial.
The killer—probably J-Boy or his drug-dealing cohort “Big E”—had blasted Woods with bullets from a rifle nearly as long as Little B was tall—yet another point not brought out at trial or in the press. Indeed, on the very night of the murder, it was J-Boy and Big E who were arrested as suspects. Later that same night, however, a narcotics cop who had worked the area for the last 13 years and who was now a homicide detective, Sam Lawter, known in the neighborhood as “Curly Top,” seized control of the investigation. Curly Top immediately announced that an anonymous informant had given him the name of the killer, which, he would testify, was “Little B.”—Charges against J-Boy and Big E were immediately dismissed, and J-Boy was released, while Big E remained jailed.—One week later, Michael was arrested.
The Kangaroo Court
The trial, which took place 10 months after Michael’s arrest, was a template for injustice. The prosecutor was a lying, histrionic black woman, Suzy Ockleberry, who suppressed the videotape of the Woods boys and committed a number of other gross legal violations. Michael was defended by the most incompetent lawyer imaginable, a black man named Gary Guichard, with the indigent defense office of the Conflict Defender, who, at the time of trial, it was later learned, was himself facing felony charges. And, the trial was conducted by a white woman judge, Cynthia Wright, who had no criminal trial experience as a judge or a lawyer.—Several years later, Wright would be shot down in the street by her woman lover, which she would survive, in time to preside over the new trial motion in Michael’s case, which she denied.
Big E, J-Boy, Other Dope Boys and Crackheads Profit from Michael’s Conviction
Big E, Ockleberry’s star witness, testified he saw Little B shoot Darrell Woods, and, even, begged him not to do it. What the jury did not know was that, at that very moment, Big E was facing 40 years to life in prison on his various drug-dealing charges. Months after his testimony, under a deal that remains “sealed” by the State, Big E was released from custody, completely exonerated of his felony drug-dealing charges.—Both Big E and J-Boy are reportedly still selling drugs in the Bluff to this day.
Tom-Tom, the heroin dealer, facing federal trafficking charges, testified he saw Michael with an Uzi. Chuckie Boy and Hootie, both crack dealers, testified that Michael had gone behind the store and gotten a rifle or, perhaps, a handgun. Bertha, the crack-head on whose statements the warrant for Michael’s arrest had been obtained by Curly Top and who would receive $2,000 of the $4,000 reward money, was high when she testified, stating the one who killed Woods was the one who pistol-whipped her the day before (which was J-Boy). Linda Mae Mitchell, another neighborhood crack-head, also high on the stand, testified she saw Michael shoot into the car with a handgun from her position in a vacant lot across the street, where she was waiting to buy crack that night. And, finally, Ockleberry’s investigator was able to vicariously testify for Michael’s mother, Valerie Morgan, that “her son” had “confessed” to her that he had killed Woods.—Years later, Morgan made out an affidavit that this was a lie, that she never told the investigator or anyone else that Michael had “confessed.”
Ockleberry presented no forensic evidence at all, and rested her case. Guichard presented no defense.
Within hours of the end of trial, the jury found Michael guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison because, as Paul Howard snidely declared, the death penalty was legally unavailable for a boy Michael’s age. After the verdict was handed down, Howard held a press conference. He promised Atlanta that after Michael had completed the mandatory minimum of 14 years, he would be at the parole board to make sure Michael did 14 more years.
Life after 14 years
Since October 2011, Michael has languished in extraordinarily abominable conditions in Georgia’s Jackson State Prison. He has been condemned to extreme solitary confinement on a charge of “suspicion of gang activity.” Until earlier this year, he was denied all visitors, mail, telephone calls. Even mail from his attorney was withheld. Requests by the press to interview him have been summarily denied. For those two years, the only time he was allowed to leave his isolation cell was when he was taken to the shower once or twice a week in chains, including a dog collar, led back and forth by a leash.—Now, he can have one 3-hour family visit a week sitting behind glass, and go outside into the fresh air once or twice a week to exercise in a cage. The one window in his cell has been painted black. The prison records he needs to file a civil rights complaint have been refused him. In the letters Michael has written since he’s been at Jackson, he speaks unabashedly of despair but resolutely of his commitment to his freedom—as, indeed, to the freedom of all human beings forced to suffer such gross injustice.
The 2010 Prisoner Labor Strike
Michael was not singled out for exceptional, albeit illegal, punishment because he’s a “gang leader,” the ruse used by the Georgia Department of Corrections (“DOC”) to justify its human rights violations. Michael has been punished because the DOC identified him as a leader of the Georgia prisoner labor strike in December 2010. Others so identified were similarly isolated though most have gone back into general population. His case is extraordinary.
On December 9, 2010, an estimated 10,000 men confined in numerous Georgia prisons waged a historic work strike with the demand that, among other things, they be paid for their labor. Their peaceful protest was historic in the unity of thousands of black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian, Rastafarian prisoners, including those at Augusta, Baldwin, Calhoun, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Rogers, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware State Prisons. For as many as four days, these men shut down all activity at these facilities by refusing to work.
The men sought to gain their human rights, so blatantly violated for so long, insisting they were men not slaves or dogs. They demanded to be paid for their labor, as they were, and continue to be, forced to work for free, in violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. They demanded an education beyond a GED and vocational and self-improvement opportunities. They demanded decent health care, nutritional meals and an end to cruel and unusual punishments. They cried out for access to their families, effectively denied by excessive telephone charges and burdensome visitation practices. And, they demanded justice in parole decisions.
The response of the DOC was to promote lies and perpetrate violence. At Augusta State Prison, prisoners were forced out of their cells and beaten mercilessly for refusing to work. At Hays and Macon State Prisons, the wardens ordered the heat and hot water turned off while Tactical Squads at these facilities and at Telfair State Prison kicked in cell doors and swept through dormitory areas destroying inmates’ meager property. At Smith State Prison, dogs were brought into several areas, guards threatening to release them to attack the men, while men were forced to stand outside in the cold partially clad and ordered to urinate in cups, guards man-handling their penises to force them. Guards roughed up striking prisoners, tear-gassed them, denied them food, taunted them with epithets, and menaced them by walking the grounds with assault rifles.—And, every inmate deemed a leader or a dedicated resister was thrown into “the hole,” an extreme isolation cell—such as the one in which Michael, at 31 years old, languishes today.