Meet the California man serving life in prison for a marijuana conviction

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Barbara Tillis isn’t sure when she’ll get to see her son, Corvain Cooper, again.

Every few months for the past four years, Tillis, has driven five hours with her husband, daughter and Cooper’s oldest daughter, making the trip from Rialto to the federal prison in Atwater, near Merced. They’d spend the day visiting and chatting, and guards would let each family member give Cooper exactly one hug. When the visit was over, they’d reluctantly pile into the car and drive home.

But that routine ended a month ago. Cooper was transferred to a federal prison in Louisiana, and Tillis said her family can’t afford that trip.

So, last month, just before he left California, Tillis and crew made a shorter drive to Victorville, where Cooper was taken while in transit to Louisiana. There, the mother stretched out her arms to say goodbye by giving her son a mock hug through a glass barrier.

Then Cooper, 38, headed off to continue serving his sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for conspiracy to sell marijuana.

Life for one

On Oct. 21, 2013, Cooper was found guilty of money laundering, tax evasion and conspiracy to distribute more than one ton of marijuana. Court records say Cooper packed and shipped cannabis from California to North Carolina, and helped to funnel the proceeds through different bank accounts to avoid detection.

There was no allegation of violence and Cooper’s record does not include any violence.

The cross-country investigation that led to Cooper’s incarceration, known as “Operation Goldilocks,” resulted in more than 50 arrests. No one else got a life sentence, including the alleged leader of the network, and many of Cooper’s co-conspirators are already back home.

But Cooper, from Los Angeles, had two prior drug felonies on his record. Despite an Obama administration memo issued just before Cooper’s trial, instructing courts to not pursue enhanced sentences for people accused of non-violent drug offenses, prosecutors in North Carolina insisted on applying a Three Strikes law to Cooper’s case. At sentencing, the judge said he had no choice but to send the then-34-year-old away for life without the possibility of parole.

“You’ve got murderers and rapists and pedophiles doing these horrible crimes and getting out,” said Anthony Alegrete, a high school friend of Cooper’s who served a short sentence related to the North Carolina case and now lives in San Diego, where he works for a boutique marketing company.

“Meanwhile, you’ve got a guy locked up for life when there was no violence, no weapons, no hard drugs – just selling marijuana. That’s just wrong.”

Last year, Cooper heard some hopeful news. Changes in California law have reduced Cooper’s prior drug convictions from felonies to misdemeanors, leaving him with no prior strikes on his record.

Still, so far, a federal court in North Carolina has refused to reduce his sentence.

With few options, Cooper’s attorney is appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s also directly petitioning President Donald Trump for clemency, with many Cooper supporters anxious to see how such an appeal will play out under a President who prides himself on being unpredictable.

Patrick Megaro, an Orlando lawyer who has represented Cooper pro bono since 2014, described the last-ditch bid succinctly.

“I’m just hoping that somebody, somewhere — whether that’s in the White House or across the street at the Supreme Court — sees that this particular sentence is complete madness.”

Others reach out

Other advocates also are taking up Cooper’s cause.

Amy Povah, founder of the nonprofit Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders, or CAN-DO, included Cooper on a list of prisoners she believes deserve clemency. A week ago, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece, Alveda King, delivered that list of roughly 100 names — including Cooper — to the White House.

King called it “outrageous” for people to be serving long sentences for marijuana. And while she said she couldn’t discuss details of how Trump is handling clemency cases, she said, “I do believe that the President is very genuine about prison reform.”

Povah said Cooper’s case highlights a number of persistent problems with the criminal justice system, from how defendants who refuse plea deals are penalized to the seemingly unequal application of drug conspiracy laws and mandatory minimum sentences.

Cooper’s case also stands out, she said, because unlike other “pot lifers” he wasn’t locked up years ago, at the height of the war on drugs. Cooper received a life sentence for a non-violent marijuana crime during President Barack Obama’s administration, just four months before Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.

“It’s absolutely heinous to think that people can now legally work in this field, and invest in it for something that someone else is serving life in prison for – or any sentence, for that matter,” Povah said.

That conflict is central to a documentary expected out in early 2019, which will feature Cooper’s story. It’s also why Cooper’s portrait and letters are included in the “Pot Lifer Museum,” opening soon inside a marijuana dispensary in Ojai. And it’s a reason cited by many of the 15,000 people who’ve so far signed a petition calling for Cooper’s release.

Lessons learned

Cooper grew up in South Central Los Angeles. His parents weren’t together, and Tillis said his dad was in and out of his life. But Cooper was a happy kid, she said, always smiling and quick to help out.

A young Corvain Cooper with his mom, Barbara Tillis, and sister, Shqunda Cooper, at their home in Los Angeles. Corvain Cooper is now serving a life sentence for selling marijuana. (Courtesy of Barbara Tillis)

Cooper earned good grades in school, though Tillis said his teachers sometimes complained about his behavior. He liked to get attention, she said, and she hoped sending him to performing arts schools would direct that impulse toward acting or music.

At Hollywood High School, classmate Alegrete said Cooper was popular and known for his trendy style.

“He was the guy that everybody wanted to dress like,” he said.

Cooper’s love of clothes led him to work at Ross after high school.

But during this period, Cooper also started getting into trouble. From 1998 to 2011, Los Angeles County court records show Cooper was convicted of more than a dozen nonviolent crimes, including petty theft, forgery and perjury. After he was caught with a brick of marijuana and cough syrup with codeine that wasn’t prescribed to him, he served nearly a year in state prison.

When Cooper was released in July 2012, he said he’d learned his lesson. He turned his attention to his fiancée, two young daughters, and making an honest living. He opened a clothing store in his old Los Angeles neighborhood and trademarked a clothing line called “Old Money,” which attracted attention from the likes of Charles Barkley.

“He was changing his life around,” Alegrete said. “He was following his dream.”

Surprise arrest

On Jan. 28, 2013, as Cooper was taking his oldest daughter to drill team competition, federal agents appeared at Cooper’s driveway in Inglewood and placed him under arrest.

The family was baffled, Tillis said, since they believed Cooper had cleaned up his act. Then they learned that one of Cooper’s childhood friends had recently received a reduced sentence by fingering Cooper as one of the people helping to traffic marijuana to the East Coast since 2004.

Cooper’s federal case was headed to court in North Carolina at about the same time that George Zimmerman was going to trial for shooting unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. With Zimmerman found not guilty, Tillis said she had no faith in the justice system and she begged Cooper to plead out. But Cooper refused to disclose the names of anybody he knew to be in the drug distribution business or say that he was guilty of charges that he still insists were wildly exaggerated.

The trial played out like an echo. Authorities didn’t catch Cooper in the act or find him with cash or weed beyond that one brick in 2009. Instead, the case is a textbook example of what’s known as “ghost dope,” with investigators relying on phone records and testimony from a string of fellow conspirators about actions that previously occurred. They then did the math to estimate how much weed the group might have processed over the years, and they held Cooper accountable for all of it.

Megaro said Cooper felt confident about his case. So, even though he knew the Three Strikes law was on the table, he made the rare choice to go to trial. And Tillis said her son has never regretted that decision.

Enhanced sentence

By the time Megaro met Cooper, a jury had already found him guilty. But Cooper’s mom reached out to the lawyer for help with his sentencing and appeals.

“I liked the guy right off the bat,” Megaro said. “He was a complete gentleman, very polite and respectful. As a criminal defense lawyer, you don’t always get that.”

Corvain Cooper with his mother, Barbara Tillis, who visited him at federal prison in Atwater. Cooper is writing a series of books about his life titled “Look Into My Eyes.” (Courtesy of Barbara Tillis)

The life sentence was looming, but the men were hopeful. Two months before Cooper was found guilty, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a memo directing district attorneys around the country not to pursue enhanced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. It was part of a broader push under Obama to reduce the number of people behind bars for nonviolent crimes.

Megaro said the federal prosecutor in the case, Steven Kaufman, chose not to, requesting that Cooper be sentenced to life even though he could have used Holder’s memo as a rationale to do so. Kaufman, contacted recently, declined to discuss that decision.

In court, prosecutors painted Cooper as a leader in the trafficking ring, discussing the millions of dollars that must have been made. They brought up Cooper’s past criminal history. And they said one of the co-conspirators had seen Cooper carry a gun, though no such charges were ever filed.

Megaro insists Cooper was a middleman, at most, and that there was no evidence he’d used or threatened to use violence. And Cooper didn’t appear to have profited greatly from any role in the scheme, since, unlike some of his co-conspirators, he couldn’t afford to hire a private attorney for the trial.

When it came time for sentencing, Megaro recalls feeling Cooper tremble as he stood beside him.

Transcripts show that U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad, Jr. told Cooper he was sympathetic to his plight. Conrad said it was “troubling” not to have discretion when it came to imposing a life sentence on a 34-year-old man. But given the mandatory minimums and prior strikes at play, Conrad told Cooper his hands were tied.

Appeals denied

Megaro appealed Cooper’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 2016 the justices declined to hear it. Still, two decisions made by California voters while Cooper has been in prison serve to give Megaro and Cooper hope.

First, in 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, reducing many drug crimes to misdemeanors. Under that new law, Cooper’s conviction for possession of cough syrup with codeine was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Then, in November 2016, voters approved Proposition 64. In addition to legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, the measure reduced or eliminated nearly every marijuana-related crime. And in May 2017, Cooper’s felony marijuana charge from 2009 was reduced to a misdemeanor.

Earlier this year, Megaro went back to federal appeals court in North Carolina and explained that Cooper’s two prior felonies were no longer strikes. But they refused to reconsider his sentence.

In July, Megaro filed a new petition with the Supreme Court. And, last month, they got one bit of potentially encouraging news, when Solicitor General Noel Francisco requested more time to submit the government’s response to Cooper’s petition.

Though Francisco’s request might turn out to be inconsequential, Megaro noted that 99 percent of all petitions never make it to court and that of the roughly 50 petitions he’s submitted to the Supreme Court in his 17-year career as a lawyer, the government has filed a response in only one other case.

“It’s always a good sign,” Megaro said, “when you’ve caught someone’s attention.”

Pleading for clemency

As they wait to hear back from the Supreme Court, Megaro is also appealing Cooper’s case to the White House — for the second time.

In 2014, President Barack Obama announced a clemency initiative aimed at reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The initiative included a list of pre-requisites for clemency candidates and Cooper checked every box except one — he’d been in prison for just three years, not 10 or more. Still, in 2016, when Megaro submitted the petition, he thought, “There’s no way (Cooper) can get denied clemency.”

Corvain Cooper with his daughter Cleer Cooper at United States Penitentiary Atwater in Northern California. Cooper, who is serving life in prison without parole for crimes related to marijuana, is asking Trump for clemency. (Courtesy of Barbara Tillis)

The Obama administration didn’t offer an explanation beyond saying Cooper’s petition had been turned down.

Since taking office 18 months ago, Trump has granted seven pardons and commuted four sentences. Most reprieves have gone to figures popular with his political base, such as Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But in June, Trump moved to release Alice Johnson — a 63-year-old black woman who’d been in prison for 21 years on nonviolent drug charges — a decision that got many prisoners and advocates excited.

“He can just snap his fingers and make it so,” Megaro said, hoping for a similarly happy ending for Cooper.

For now, Alegrete said his high school friend is holding it together.

“He does not believe he’s going to do life in prison at all.”

His family tries to stay optimistic, too. Cooper’s sister said she dreams about the party they’ll throw when her little brother comes home. And his dad hopes to help him land a job and a fresh start where he lives, in Las Vegas.

The only time Cooper really gets down, Alegrete said, is when he lets himself think about the nearly six years he’s already missed with his now 8-year-old daughter, Scotlyn, and 12-year-old daughter, Cleer.

When he missed another birthday recently, Cooper sent this message to Scotlyn:

“Being real and true to these streets snatched me away from you. But know that upon my return (and it will be soon) that our lives will get reunited again and I’ll be the daddy you always wanted.”

By Brooke Staggs
The Orange County Register