By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Sept. 5, 2012
Maryland U.S. District judge Richard Bennett on Aug. 27 gave a 32-year-old suburban Baltimore mother, who pleaded guilty to machine-gun possession, a chance to rehabilitate her drug-addled life without going to federal prison. Bennett sentenced Jennifer Debois Dickerson to the three months she’d already spent incarcerated on charges stemming from her sale, for $1,350, of an AK-style machine gun to an undercover agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) last November.
The maximum sentence faced by Dickerson was 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Bennett did not impose a fine, but put her on three years of probation, the first five months of which will be spent on home detention at Dickerson’s mother’s house in Bethany Beach, Del., where, the judge disclosed, he owns a second home.
The judge cited Dickerson’s drug-addiction problems and family situation in justifying the light sentence despite her two prior pot convictions. Though evidence in the case shows she sold a machine gun, Bennett stated that Dickerson “is not a machine-gun dealer,” adding that “the simple fact of the matter” is that she was “dragged into this by a husband that subsequently left her and her child.”
“I have looked very carefully at this case,” Bennett said to Dickerson, noting that he has a “second home within walking distance of your mother’s place” in Bethany Beach. “I was there just yesterday,” Bennett added, pointing out the irony of Dickerson’s “pain and heartache” amidst the resort community’s beachside beauty.
City Paper left a message at Bennett’s chambers, asking for comment, but did not hear back from him.
Similar machine-gun cases in Maryland federal court have had notably different outcomes. In 2010, Ernest Johnson was sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to possessing the same kind of machine gun Dickerson sold. Johnson did not sell the gun, but his prior convictions lengthened his sentence.
A decade ago, Bennett himself sentenced Edgardo Nieves, Jr., to 21 months in prison for possessing a broken machine gun that he had stored in a guest house on his parent’s farm. Nieves, whose conviction was overturned on appeal, appears not to have had a prior criminal record and, like Johnson, he did not sell the machine gun—in fact, Nieves told agents where it was.
During Dickerson’s sentencing hearing, Bennett twice asked Dickerson’s retained defense attorney, Lawrence Rosenberg, and assistant U.S. attorney John Purcell, who prosecuted the case, if they’d like to seal the proceeding to shield it from public scrutiny. Each time, they declined.
Before telling Dickerson “it is ironic that you are here, but it may be a blessing,” Bennett noted that “this court sees many drug-addiction cases” in which defendants go to “prison for 15, 25, and 30 years.” Bennett added that Dickerson’s appearance before him is “perhaps the best thing that could have happened to you.”
Dickerson—who has a 9-year-old son and had, until her legal troubles mounted, a $30,000-a-year job as an office manager at her husband’s construction firm—faces an uphill battle to put her life in order. Based on court records, it appears to have fallen apart starting last September, when police executed a no-knock, predawn raid at her rented Green Spring Valley home, which she shared with her husband and son, and found pounds of marijuana, hundreds of prescription pills, about $1,300 in cash, and evidence of a cocaine party.
Dickerson and her husband, John Turner Dickerson, were arrested, as were two guests, Alan Franklin Chapman and Elizabeth Supharat McCarron. Dickerson pleaded guilty to pot possession and was sentenced to time served. Her husband received an 18-month suspended sentence and currently has an open warrant for violating probation in the case; his last known address was in Eureka, Calif., in Humboldt County. McCarron received a six-month suspended sentence and the charges against Chapman were dropped.
Chapman was present when Dickerson sold the machine gun to the undercover ATF agent, according to court records. The agent “entered a residence” in the Baltimore area “and Dickerson followed with Chapman and placed the weapon on a couch.” The agent then “asked if it was fully automatic. Chapman replied by stating, ‘I don’t know, it’s not mine,’” and Dickerson “stated, ‘It’s fully automatic.’” After counting the $1,350 the agent had handed her for the gun, Dickerson agreed to sell the agent “high grade marijuana for $4,500 per pound” and handed the agent “two loaded 50 round magazines” for the machine gun, saying, “You can’t buy the fifty ones here,” according to the records.
Dickerson’s unraveling continued in January, when she sold four ounces of weed to an undercover ATF agent for $1,300 in the parking lot of Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore City. A warrant for her arrest was issued about two weeks later, and after she was spotted leaving Brown’s Motel in Ellicott City with her husband, Dickerson was arrested. They found joints on her husband (who was charged and is currently wanted on a warrant in the case) and, on Dickerson, they found weed, heroin, a syringe, a tourniquet, and a burnt spoon.
Later that morning, police raided the home of Dickerson’s dad, at the end of Hobsons Choice Lane in the nearby Allenford development, where she had been living and where her husband’s company, JTD Building and Remodeling, was based. They found marijuana stored in labeled glass mason jars, hashish, hash oil, and LSD, along with a handgun and other evidence of a high-volume weed-selling operation. Dickerson and her father, Richard Evan Debois, were indicted in Howard County as a result. Debois was found guilty of pot-dealing at an Aug. 13 trial before a judge, and is awaiting his sentence, while Dickerson is scheduled for trial in September.
Dickerson was first charged in the machine-gun case on Feb. 16, the same day another man—Robert Taylor Holderman—was charged for selling a machine gun to an undercover ATF agent for $1,500 in the Severn area. Court records describe Holderman as Dickerson’s co-defendant, though Holderman, unlike Dickerson, has not been indicted by a grand jury. Nothing has happened in Holderman’s case since March, and he has not yet been arraigned, though he is out on conditional release while the case is pending.
During Dickerson’s sentencing in the machine-gun case, Bennett expounded in detail on U.S. Supreme Court rulings that, over the past decade, have liberated federal judges from mandatory sentences under the federal sentencing guidelines. Now they are free to depart, sometimes significantly, from the guidelines’ astringent calculus, Bennett explained, based on factors that they have great latitude in weighing.
After announcing that the guideline range for Dickerson was 21 to 27 months in prison, Bennett called a bench conference, leaving courtroom observers unable to know what was discussed. When it was over, he announced that Dickerson’s criminal history had been “overrepresented” in the prior calculation, and now her range would be “reduced considerably” to eight to 14 months in prison.
“You are here because you put yourself here,” Bennett told Dickerson, and warned her of “the cycle that is created” by addiction that “is passed to the next generation,” so if she’s not careful, “you’ll see your son up here at the age of 19 or 20 . . . I see it all the time.”
After announcing the time-served sentence, Dickerson’s mother, Cheryl Debois, wept, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “I intend to keep a thumb on this case,” Bennett said sternly to Dickerson, adding, “I’ve got loads of defendants that come before me who have children issues,” so “don’t let me down on this.”
Dickerson, reached by phone in Bethany Beach on Aug. 30, declined to comment. “I just don’t want to be in the paper,” she said, adding, “every day is a new day.”