Corvain Cooper’s mother, Barbara Tillis, used to travel ten hours return with her husband, daughter and granddaughter to visit him in the federal prison in Atwater, California. Now, she doesn’t know the next time she’ll see him. Corvain has been transferred away from his home state of California to a federal prison in Louisiana and the family can’t afford the trip to visit him.
In January of 2013, Corvain was arrested in California and charged along with fifty other people for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 1000 kg of marijuana, along with several other law violations related to the financial side of the drug selling operation. Corvain was low down in the hierarchy of the operation, and hadn’t made much money from his participation. But conspiracy charges allow prosecutors to charge everyone involved in a drug supply operation for the same conduct, regardless of their individual role. This means that people near the base, like Corvain, may face the same penalties as those near the top. Corvain received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Corvain grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He loved fashion, and after high school he went to work at a clothing store. Around this time, he began getting into trouble, and between 1998 and 2012 he was convicted of a few low-level law offenses, including petty theft, marijuana possession, and possession of cough syrup with codeine for which he did not have a prescription. He served nearly a year in state prison.
After he was released in 2012, Corvain worked hard to get his life back on track. He began focusing on his family, including his two young daughters, and his passion for clothes. He opened a small clothing business in his old Los Angeles neighborhood, which his mother says became popular in the community.
But in 2013, federal agents showed up at Corvain’s house and arrested him as he was about to drive one of his daughters to a sports competition. Everyone was confused. The family knew that Corvain had had a tough time several years before, but they had watched him mature into a devoted father and pour himself into his clothing business. The arrest, it turned out, was related to a shipment of marijuana that the government had intercepted in 2009, years before the arrest. A childhood friend of Corvain’s had testified that Corvain had been involved in the shipping operation, which was sending marijuana from California to North Carolina.
The prosecutor offered Corvain a plea deal of 10 to 20 years if he agreed to testify against others. People with minor roles in drug supply operations are often threatened with severe sentences for conspiracy charges if they do not testify. Corvain chose to exercise his right to trial, believing that the charges he faced were unfair given his relatively minor conduct and low-level role in the hierarchy. Investigators estimated how much marijuana the network might have distributed over its entire history of operation, and then tried Corvain as if he were personally responsible for all of it. He was found guilty on October 21, 2013.
At sentencing, the prosecutor sought a life sentence for Corvain under the federal “three strikes law,” since Corvain had two previous possession charges for marijuana and codeine. Black people, such as Corvain, are disproportionately likely to be prosecuted for drug possession compared to white people. For this reason, three strikes laws have a particularly severe impact on these communities. Many people, like Corvain, end up in prison for life after a single non-violent possession with intent to distribute charge, because of prior possession arrests.
His mother described how awful it was to be far away during the trial. “We weren’t there for the sentencing, and we weren’t there for anything. And none of us had money to go, so you know, we did the best we could. We sent him a suit to go to court in and tried to send whatever he needed, you know. But that was, you know, all that we could do.”
After he was sentenced, Corvain challenged the sentence as Cruel and Unusual Punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and later, the Supreme Court, denied his appeal.
His 2015 petition for clemency to President Obama was denied without explanation.
Since then, voters in California have approved two proposition measures, reducing many drug felonies like Corvain’s to misdemeanors and legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. Under the new laws, Corvain’s conviction for possession of cough syrup with codeine and his felony marijuana charge were both reduced to misdemeanors. These new laws gave Corvain and his lawyer new hope.
Early last year, Corvain went back to court to explain that his two prior felonies were no longer considered felonies and therefore should not be considered “strikes.” The court refused to reconsider his sentence. In July 2018, Corvain filed a new petition with the Supreme Court, which was recently denied. As of now, his only hope is that President Trump will grant him clemency and commute his life sentence.
“When they led him into the courtroom,” Patrick Megaro, Corvain’s lawyer said, “the judge said on the record that he was extraordinarily uncomfortable with giving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, to a 34-year-old man with children on a case like this. Since then, we’ve been fighting and fighting and fighting and we’re hoping that somebody will see the madness in all of this.”
Interviews conducted September 7 and 18, 2018.