“I had more time than people in there who killed somebody,” says Willie Roy Goodwin, who received the harsh sentence from the Supreme Court hopeful.
In 2009, Willie Roy Goodwin went before Richland County Circuit Court Judge J. Michelle Childs to plead guilty. He didn’t really have much of a choice, after inviting an undercover cop into his house repeatedly and selling him marijuana, all caught on hidden camera. He thought a plea deal looked like his best bet. So, plead he did, to five charges of possession with intent to distribute marijuana and one charge of failure to stop for a law enforcement vehicle.
He was prepared for more than a slap on the wrist. Even though he was a nonviolent offender, it was his third marijuana arrest, which in South Carolina brought with it a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. The length wasn’t the only concern: By the letter of South Carolina law, Goodwin would have to be housed with mainly violent offenders, because third-strike weed distribution charges were not eligible for parole at the time.
But there was also reason to be hopeful. The sum total of all five weed sales was only 8.73 ounces, a trifling amount to justify putting someone away for half a decade. It was the sort of situation where a canny judge, understanding the situation, could have found some sort of work-around. “Five years was what they were saying in the beginning. I’m thinking, ‘It ain’t nothing but some weed,’” Goodwin told me via phone. “Even my lawyer was telling everybody weed was about to be legalized, it wasn’t anything serious.”
Judge Childs didn’t see it that way. After hearing the prosecution’s argument, she sentenced Goodwin to 12 years for his half a pound of cumulative marijuana sales. Because it was a non-parolable third-strike offense, that meant that Goodwin was compelled to serve a minimum of 85 percent of that sentence locked up with violent offenders: ten-plus years of hard time, regardless of good behavior. “I had more time than people in there who killed somebody. It was crazy,” said Goodwin. “For bullcrap.”
Today, Judge Childs, now sitting on the federal bench, is a top candidate to receive a Supreme Court nomination, with powerful backers like House Democratic Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). But the outsized sentence for a relatively small nonviolent drug offense stands out on Childs’s record.
According to court documents obtained and reviewed by the Prospect, Childs’s harsh sentence came as a surprise. The Richland County Public Defender’s Office quickly filed a motion to reconsider the sentence, detailing “improper arguments, unfounded speculation, and incorrect legal assertions” by the prosecution.
“The assistant solicitor said that if the cumulative weight of the marijuana that [the] defendant was charged with selling on different occasions was added up, it would be the equivalent of trafficking marijuana and that the court should consider this,” the document reads. “This is simply incorrect. A defendant must be in possession of at least 10 pounds of marijuana to be found guilty of trafficking.” The prosecution, too, had, without evidence, “assumed that the defendant had been dealing drugs in larger quantities,” and made that a core component of a case, asking Judge Childs to consider the infraction tantamount to trafficking.
Childs’s record in the 2009 case would be distinctly at odds with the newfound commitment to criminal justice reform and smart-on-crime policies.
The prosecution even invited random community members who came from neighborhoods far from the site of Goodwin’s prior dealing cases to testify against his character, urging “the court to consider the opinions of unnamed members of the community, insisting that they were entitled to satisfaction derived from a substantially higher sentence” for Goodwin. “As the Court is aware, members of the community are not considered to be victims under Article 1, Section 24 of The South Carolina Victims’ Bill of Rights and have no standing at all to address the court or have their opinions heard on Defendant’s case during a guilty plea,” the public defender’s office spelled out in its motion.
Childs was unswayed and dismissed the public defender’s office’s motion.
Soon after that, the public defender’s office brought a Statement of Basis for Appeal from Guilty Plea. “The Judge stated that she did generally find neighbors and community members to be victims in drug crimes that it was proper to consider their views as a substantial factor in sentencing,” it articulated, again pushing for Judge Childs to reconsider the aberrant proceedings that went into Goodwin’s 12-year sentence. Again, Childs declined. Eventually, out of options, Goodwin had no other recourse but to serve his lengthy sentence.
“They had me sleeping next to murderers on a weed charge, and they were going home before me. For what I had, man, it was crazy,” said Goodwin. “I lost my family, I had a daughter, and couldn’t take care of her.”
Childs was not a household name at the time, but she was on the national radar. Goodwin’s case ended up being one of her last on the state court. A few months after sentencing him and denying his appeals, in December 2009, she was nominated by then-President Barack Obama to serve on the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. She was confirmed a few months later.
At that point, the criminal justice reform movement had not gained its current purchase with either party. Tough-on-crime policies and harsh sentencing decisions were considered to be good politics. A few years after Childs’s nomination, South Carolina Judge Alison Lee was nominated for a federal judgeship by Obama, only to have her candidacy tanked when reports came out that she had lowered the bail amount for 18-year-old burglary suspect Lorenzo Young, who was later charged in the slaying of a 33-year-old woman. Obama then withdrew the nomination.
“Childs was shooting for that seat, trying to make an example out of me,” Goodwin said. “Didn’t care what kind of lives she destroyed.”
Since Goodwin’s sentencing, South Carolina’s laws on weed infractions have gotten less draconian. Just last week, the state Senate approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana.
Weed, of course, is fully legal in 18 states and counting. And while Joe Biden has remained steadfast in his refusal to legalize cannabis at the federal level, his administration has gone to great lengths to indicate that it has moved past the Democratic Party’s 1990s tough-on-crime tradition, and the infamous 1994 crime bill that he once sponsored.
Childs’s record in the 2009 case would be distinctly at odds with that newfound commitment to criminal justice reform and smart-on-crime policies, one that has remained popular on a surprisingly bipartisan basis, even as a nascent crime panic has been stoked in recent months. Vice President Kamala Harris even wrote a book while attorney general of California called Smart on Crime, disavowing punitive sentencing and echoing a strategy put into effect in red states like Kansas and Texas.
Goodwin, meanwhile, got out in 2016, slightly earlier than expected. He still lives in the Columbia area, and has since started a business doing handyman work, called WG Home Remodel and Handyman Services. “I’m keeping afloat, not getting in any trouble, going to work every day,” he told me. “I was never a bad person.”
Michelle Childs Sentenced a Man to 12 Years for Selling Eight Ounces of Weed
‘I had more time than people in there who killed somebody,’ says Willie Roy Goodwin, who received the harsh sentence from the Supreme Court hopeful.