Write To Michael
Hancock State Prison
701 Prison Boulevard
Sparta, Georgia 31087
THE CASE OF LITTLE B
When Michael Lewis, known as “Little B,” was arrested for the murder of Darrell Woods in Atlanta, Georgia, in January of 1997, he was 13 years old.
Paul Howard had just been sworn in as the first black district attorney in the state of Georgia. Howard chose to try Michael as an adult under a new state law, based on the federal “Three Strikes” crime bill of 1994. Howard’s decision reflected the tenor of the times, in which there was a seeming mob-like, national hysteria and outcry for “toughness” on crime accompanied by a new, widespread willingness, even among blacks, to condemn black boys like Little B wholesale, as “super-predators.”
Despite that Michael was innocent and that his trial was a literal farce, a parade of drug dealers and addicts trading false testimony for reduced sentences and reward money, in November 1997, Michael was convicted of the murder of Woods. He was sentenced to life in prison, because, as Paul Howard snidely put it, the death penalty was not available for a convicted child, a sentence requiring imprisonment for a minimum of 14 years. In December 1997, at 14 years old and still under five feet tall, Michael was transferred to an adult prison.
Michael grew up in the most depressed neighborhood in Atlanta—the Bluff. When he was eight, he realized his mother was using crack cocaine. He had no information about his father. His older, half- 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 10, the juvenile court declared him a “deprived child,” 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. Placed in a single family foster home, he found himself abused, and ran away again, back to the familiar, to the streets of the Bluff. He was 11 years old. 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 spent nights wherever he could find a spot.
This was the life of Little B 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.
Michael’s arrest for the murder of Woods was publicized widely as the case of a street “thug” who had brutally murdered a “good black father.” Something was obviously wrong with this depiction. There was the locale of the murder, a convenience store in the heart of the Bluff, its streets notorious for widespread, brazen drug dealing, 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. 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’ two young sons—which the press sensationalized over and over.
Even more curious was that 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. Then, there was the fact that, in any case, the Woods’ car had only one working headlight. But, there was nothing to hide. Everybody in Atlanta knew dope was sold in those blocks called the Bluff. All the white college kids from nearby Georgia Tech who rolled through for heroin and Ecstasy knew; and the black 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, 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 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, the police arrested J-Boy and his drug-dealing cohort “Big E” as the prime suspects in the murder of Woods. Later that 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—on recent charges of possession to sell 150 hits of heroin, carrying a sentence of 40-years-to-life.
The trial, which took place 10 months after Michael’s arrest, was a template for injustice. The prosecutor was a histrionic black woman, Suzy Ockleberry, who not only suppressed a videotaped interview of the Woods boys, wherein the older boy said he “saw that man shoot [his] Daddy,” but also committed a number of other gross legal violations. Michael was defended by Gary Guichard, a black man who was the most incompetent lawyer imaginable, working at 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 as 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, Ockleberry’s star witness, testified he saw Little B shoot Darrell Woods, and, had even begged him not to do it. The jury did not know that Big E was facing 40 years to life in prison on his drug-dealing charges or that the State had made a deal with Big E. Months after his testimony, under that deal—which remains “sealed”—Big E was released from custody, completely exonerated of his felony drug-dealing charges.—Both Big E and J-Boy continued to sell drugs in the Bluff for years, though both are now facing new drug-related criminal charges.
Tom-Tom, the heroin dealer, facing federal trafficking charges, testified he saw Michael with an Uzi. Chuckie Boy and Hootie, both crack dealers, claimed in their testimonies 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 certainly not Michael. 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, Val, 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.” She died of kidney failure in 2014.
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, and sentenced him to life in prison. 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.
Michael was denied parole in both 2011 and 2016 on the same ground, “nature of the crime,” For six years during that time, he languished in extraordinarily abominable conditions in the “high max” wing of Georgia’s Jackson State Prison, which houses the State’s gas chamber. For the first year or more at Jackson, he was condemned to extreme solitary confinement on a charge of “suspicion of gang activity.” In violation of Georgia’s own prison standard operating procedures, he was locked down 24 hours a day, denied all visitors, mail, telephone calls, the one window in his cell painted black. Even mail from his attorney was withheld. Requests by the press to interview him were summarily denied. The only time he was allowed to leave that isolation cell was to take a shower once or twice a week, escorted in chains, including a dog collar, and led back and forth by a leash.
Michael was not punished with “administration segregation,” the “hole,” because he violated any prison rule. He was singled out for this exceptional—and illegal—punishment because the DOC arbitrarily charged him with being a “gang leader,” a ruse to justify putting him in isolation. The fact was, the DOC identified him as a leader of the Georgia prisoner labor strike in December 2010.
Michael remains in prison after 22 years, and is 36 years old now. He is in general population at Hancock State Prison. His supporters have engaged a new lawyer for him, Marcia Shein, and have real hope for his release under his 2020 parole petition.
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