by Sharon Rondeau
(May 5, 2023) — Since October 2017, The Post & Email has reported on a case involving three Tennessee defendants alleged to have engaged in a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in a “drug free zone” in early 2016.
Following indictment and trial in Shelby County in July 2017, all three were convicted, with Judge Robert “Bobby” Carter, Jr. presiding.
Defendants Jason Lamar White and Montez Mullins were already in prison for convictions on much earlier, unrelated charges. Kristina Cole, a mother of three with no criminal record, was the recipient of a package left on her porch by the Bartlett Police Department, which launched the case.
The package had been addressed to “2552 Linwood Road, Bartlett, TN 38134,” (p. 7 of discovery documents) which does not exist, but the BPD generated a new shipping label bearing Cole’s address of “2552 Jenwood Street, Memphis, TN 38134.”
As The Post & Email reported:
Originating in Visalia, CA on February 2, the package bore a nonexistent Memphis residence on its shipping label. When FedEx in Visalia found the contents questionable, it summoned local police. From there, Det. Adam Collins contacted the Bartlett, TN Police Department, which has jurisdiction over a section of Memphis. The package was reboxed, given a new shipping label bearing the address of the Bartlett Police Department, and shipped overnight to the Bartlett PD.
On February 3, officers from the Bartlett PD brought the package to Cole’s home, whose address did not match the one affixed to the original box, and placed it on her porch.
Shortly thereafter, Cole retrieved the package as police observed from a distance, after which they executed a search warrant on her home and computer, the latter without a warrant. Cole was then arrested, taken into custody and her phone confiscated.
Curiously, the Shelby County grand jury indictment for Cole and White listed a BPD detective, Mark Gaia, as the “prosecutor” rather than the then-30th Judicial District chief prosecutor, Amy Weirich, or any of her assistant district attorneys general, as they are known in Tennessee.
The Post & Email has long reported that Tennessee criminal court judges routinely appoint grand-jury foremen outside of the legally-mandated procedure and reappoint them indefinitely, often for decades. At the time White and Cole were indicted, “Pat Vincent” was reportedly the longstanding grand-jury foreman.
Cole received a 13.5-year sentence, which included an “enhancement” of six months imposed by a provision of law relating to drug offenses committed within a “drug free zone” such as a school.
At the time of his conviction as Cole’s co-defendant on the new charge, White was within several months of completing a 21-year sentence on a burglary conviction stemming from when he was 18. At sentencing, then 36, Carter meted out a 60-year sentence without the possibility of parole plus a $2,000 fine, rendering him a prisoner for life.
Originally a witness and confessor to the crime, Mullins stated in a recorded interview that neither Cole nor White was involved but was later made a defendant in the case. Upon conviction, he received a 30-year sentence in addition to the time he was already serving, bringing his total imprisonment to 100 years.
White and Cole filed post-conviction petitions claiming ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) as well as direct appeals. Prior to his post-conviction petition hearing taking place last summer, White made an “extraordinary appeal” to the appellate court in Jackson, TN claiming the trial judge, Robert “Bobby” Carter, Jr., had abused his judicial discretion by postponing White’s hearing five times over the course of more than two years. White also accused Carter and Scruggs of engaging in ex parte communication in a May 2016 exchange without White or his counsel present.
To this day, White continues to fight his case, recently filing an appeal brief in response to Carter’s denial last year of his post-conviction claims.
Later representing himself, White indicated in earlier briefs the disadvantages he faces by having been sent to New Mexico in May 2019 with no access Tennessee law. He was sent away after then-District Attorney General Amy Weirich claimed he posed a threat to the prosecutor, Chris Scruggs; White’s one-time attorney, Claiborne Ferguson; and the community at large based on Ferguson’s claim that White assaulted him during a courthouse meeting.
Ferguson’s claim was refuted on the record by the deputy on duty (p. 14), and White was never charged in connection with the alleged incident.
Neither Gaia nor Scruggs would speak with or respond to The Post & Email about the case. According to Commercial Appeal in November 2016, Scruggs was to leave his position after a decade in Weirich’s office to work as a “special assistant United States attorney” on drug-related cases under then-U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton in January 2017.
In February 2017, Stanton, an Obama nominee, resigned, a move not unusual for U.S. attorneys after a new president assumes office.
Despite Commercial Appeal‘s reporting that Scruggs would join the U.S. attorney’s office in January 2017, The Post & Email discovered Scruggs’s federal affiliation to have been in place since at least 2013, according to a press release from the United States Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee.
Further to the case, evidence that Gaia lied on the witness stand exists and has never been addressed. Shortly after the trials, Gaia left the BPD after a reported 12+ years in law enforcement and is now reportedly working for FedEx.
White’s numerous attempts to subpoena Gaia for the post-conviction hearing were unsuccessful, with subpoenas seeking Vincent’s presence at the hearing meeting the same fate.
On September 15, 2022, two weeks after he officially retired according to court personnel, Carter issued a ruling denying White post-conviction relief.
In April 2022, Cole was successful in obtaining a favorable judgment on her post-conviction petition from an appellate court, which remanded the case to the trial court to conduct the “finding of fact” it found lacking.
Flouting the appellate panel’s ruling and just two days before retiring, Carter issued an opinion upholding his original judgment without acquiring more information to re-evaluate Cole’s assertions.
In 2020, the Tennessee legislature amended the “drug free zone” law to say that sentences for offenses taking place within a school zone “may also be” enhanced rather than “shall” be enhanced. It was on that basis that Cole received executive clemency from Gov. Bill Lee just before Christmas last year recommending her for early parole.
On March 28, a hearing was held by a three-member Board of Parole panel resulting in a positive disposition. A month later on April 25, Cole was released after serving nearly six years at West Tennessee State Prison (WTSP) in Henning, Lauderdale County.
In an interview Monday, Cole told The Post & Email that when she discovered she would be paroled, the feeling she experienced was “joy.” “When I called my mother and she said, ‘You have a parole date,’ I just bawled,” she said. “The friends I had made inside ran up to me and wondered what was going on, because I was never emotional. It was such a huge relief; there’s no description for how I felt.”
Although paroled, she said, she is still involved in a “post-conviction process” and cannot comment extensively on her case. “There were so many holes in my story,” she said. “I’ve never been in any trouble any day in my life, and to go from absolutely nothing to, ‘Boom, I’m in prison…’…I’m still fighting.”
“Is it true that you wrote your own appeal to the governor for clemency?” we asked.
“Yes,” she responded. “At the time it came through, I had a public defender because I had exhausted my funds with paid attorneys. I actually found out about the new ‘school’ law from a fellow inmate who came and told me. I got a copy of the application, filled it out myself and mailed it off.
“On the compound we get ‘Legal Mail,’ and there were a bunch of us who fit those qualifications,” she continued. “I contacted my attorney to ask him about it, and he didn’t even know about it. After I initially sent mine in, he sent me an application and a printed piece of paper on how he thought I should fill it in. But I documented it the way I wanted,” she said.
“What were the other women in prison like? Did you feel as if there was a connection there, or did you always have to watch your back?” we asked.
“I’ve heard so many stories about the men’s side, which is so much worse than where I was. It wasn’t so much that you felt you had to watch your back, but the first year I was there, I just kind-of got a feel for everybody. By the end, almost six years later, I had actually developed a few friendships. I was working as a clerk for the sergeant in our unit, so I socialized with a lot of people in our unit and on the compound.”
Truthfully, it was a horrifying experience for me because I was away from my kids. It was an uplifting experience for me because you have nothing but time to think and reflect on stuff, and I came out of there with a few friendships. You have a lot of girls there who you look at and say, ‘Why in the world are you here?’ You kind-of just stay away or whatever, but as far as violence or anything like that, I didn’t have that problem. I saw a lot of fights, but being a bunch of females, it was more hormonal than anything.
I made a few good friends, and as soon as I got out, I immediately got on the JPay email so I could reach out to them. Being away from my friends and family was the hard thing, but I created more of an adoptive family — there were girls who called me ‘Auntie,’ girls who called me ‘Momma.’ I had a very close-knit groups of girls I hung with, because we had to kind-of come together in there.
Where we were, you had to follow the rules or you would get written up for defiance and get seg(regation) time. But Ms. Sharon, I’ve literally heard and seen things over the years I was locked up that I had never in my entire 49 years ever heard. I wish some things I could erase from my memory, but I can’t. We try to come together and make the most of the situation. A lot of them are there for charges that they know they did; they admit they did it. With me, they’d say, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I’d tell them my situation and they’d say, ‘Oh, my, I can’t believe it.”
It wasn’t easy; I just tried to make do as best I could — get up in the morning, make it through the 24 hours, refresh and start over again the next day.”
“Were some women in for violent crimes or was it more things like shoplifting or writing a bad check?” we asked.
“Oh, no, the charges stemmed from petty stuff to murder,” she replied. “There were a lot of people in there for murder charges, child neglect and abuse. It’s ironic, because there were a few people in there on murder charges, but by their attitude you’d never know. I’m the kind of person where I try to get to know a person from the day I meet them. I don’t hold their past against them. I try to treat everyone depending on how they treat me. If I looked at the charges of everybody in a prison, I probably wouldn’t have anything to do with any of them.”
The Post & Email shared with Cole that beginning in 2015, we received what became hundreds of letters over 5+ years from Tennessee male inmates describing all manner of horrors and very little, if any, opportunity to acquire new skills.
“From the men, I used to hear they didn’t have training or job opportunities and just had a lot of time on their hands,” we told Cole. “Did all women end up with a job the way you did?”
“Over there, they try to keep people as busy as possible,” she responded. “For instance, if you didn’t have a GED, they’d put you in classes to get your GED. They offered so many different programs and classes. You even have the opportunity to take college classes at Dyersburg State (Community College). We reclassify once a year — we do our StrongR — and depending on how we answer, they can tap you for a certain class. I was tapped for ‘Cognitive Behavior,’ so I took that class, and then another class came up, ‘Group Therapy.’ They offer different classes where you learn to talk about yourself, deal with any kind of trauma — they’re trying to break the cycle of whatever brought you here so you get out and you don’t follow the same steps. I will say there are all kinds of different classes and programs for you to be involved in; you don’t have to remain stagnant. I know as far as the men’s side, they don’t offer stuff like that.”
We then asked, “What was it like when you were released last Tuesday?”
“Truthfully, I knew the day was coming, and up to that day, I was calm. Ms. Sharon, in there, you either learn to float or sink, and the whole time I was locked up — I got so much stronger; my faith in God went through the roof. So I was calm the whole time I was waiting up to the day. The day of — you go through the process before you get out — you go to the infirmary and check out your medications; you go to ‘Property’ and check out your property. So when it was time, I loaded up my stuff and got in the transport van — we had to go through the gates — and they drove me around to the front of the building. When I got in the van, I started hyperventilating a little bit. There’s so much relief, there’s no words to describe it, but at the same time, there was fear, because as I was riding around this compound, I’m looking at this prison, these buildings, and this is literally all I’ve known for the last years. There’s so much relief because I’m coming home to my family, but there’s so much fear because I’m starting over. I lost my home; I lost all my funds, so I’m really starting over from scratch. So while there is an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude, there’s also the fear and nerves of thinking about having to start over. I have to just learn how to apply the same way I was in prison — one day at a time — and do it the same way at home.
“But I got out of there, and my mom and my kids ran up to me, and I hugged and held on and did not want to let go. Hallelujah, I was just crying, but it was tears of joy, but at the same time, it’s tears of sadness, too, because like I said, our prison offered a lot of good things for the women. But I will tell you this: the medical stuff — the medical stuff there is awful. You’re literally hit or miss.”
Cole told us she has a non-life-threatening condition confirmed by a medical technician with access to the x-rays, but that when she saw the physician, it was brushed off with, “You’re OK. Lose weight, take ibuprofen and call me in the morning.”
To find relief, Cole said, she would ask the other women if they had any painkiller or for a “muscle rub.”
As an example of the medical care she observed, she recalled:
I have one friend, Ms. Sharon — she’s my sister in Christ and I love her to death — she has two life sentences because of a fire which started at her house; she lost her grandbabies. She has a pacemaker, and her battery has to be replaced every ten years. She went over a year and a half past the ten years before they got her a battery replacement. Her physician is in Memphis, and they kept sending her to Nashville, which we call ‘dry runs.’ Her appointment should have been in Memphis, but she went back and forth to Nashville four or five times on dry runs. They discontinued a lot of her medicines; you have nurse practitioners up there who say, ‘Well, you don’t need this’ and they discontinue it. She had liquid around her heart, but they discontinued her water pills. She would have a little episode and get short of breath and would have to sit down and calm down. I wish, if anything, they would do something about the medical, because it’s awful.
We asked about visitation with family before and after the COVID pandemic was declared, to which she responded, “When I first got there, they could just come in, and that was fine. After COVID, it became a strict protocol that they had to call in and make an appointment within a three-hour slot. At first they had it where they were going by our last names as to what weeks people could come. It became less technical and they were little bit more lax after that point. But as far as seeing my family, it was kind-of hard; I would see them maybe once every few months.”
“How has your adjustment been since your release, and what do you expect to happen now?”
“Right now I’m doing all kinds of job applications. I have to find a job. I’m going to have to do community service until I find a job. I have to go see my probation officer tomorrow and go through the process there. I’m just trying to make up for lost time, get settled financially and re-establish relationships.”
She noted, however, “I’m still on paper with this for eight more years.”
She also observed that Scruggs, Carter and Gaia are no longer in their respective positions.
In a final question, we asked, “Is it true Scruggs wrote a letter of recommendation for you to get parole?”
“Yes,” she responded. “It shocked me out. At the parole hearing, I submitted a letter of recommendation from a lieutenant who was no longer at the prison, and I was told, ‘You also have one from Scruggs.’ My family members looked at each other like, ‘What???’ And I thought, ‘It’s kind-of ironic; the guy who put me here wrote a letter of recommendation?'”
She was not actually shown the letter, Cole said. “I had mixed feelings; this was the same man who said I was in league with a whole bunch of gang affiliations and he’s going to give me a recommendation?” At the same time, she said, “Where were you six years ago?” went through her mind.
As we ended the interview, we wished Cole a pleasant day, to which she responded, “You, too, ma’am.”
Same bad actors Ferguson & Carter!