By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, May 8, 2015
“Leave the girl alone,” Richard Debois says to a reporter entering Maryland U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett’s courtroom on Apr. 16 to cover the violation-of-supervised-release hearing of Debois’ daughter, 35-year-old Jennifer Debois Dickerson, whose machine-gun case has drawn repeated City Paper coverage since August 2012. That’s when Bennett, despite Dickerson’s prodigious flurry of drug-related arrests in late 2011 and early 2012, gave her a surprisingly light sentence: time served for a conviction that carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. She’d sold a machine gun to an undercover federal agent.
Since then, Dickerson has already come before Bennett a second time, receiving a six-month sentence in 2013 for violating the terms of supervised release by testing positive for cocaine and morphine and failing to appear for court-ordered counseling. So this is her third trip before a judge who’s given her extraordinary opportunities to fly straight.
Dickerson, her long, straight hair flowing freely to the middle of her back, is wearing a yellow jumpsuit as she sits with her attorney, assistant public defender Susan Hensler. Bennett explains the alleged violations: In addition to testing positive for a variety of drugs, including cocaine, morphine, and marijuana, four times between Nov. 20, 2014 and March 12, 2015, she also left Maryland without permission on Dec. 31, 2014, failed to submit monthly supervision reports as required, failed to stay employed since her last job at Vagabond Sandwich Company in Bel Air, failed to notify authorities when she changed address, and failed to participate in required mental-health treatment.
Dickerson “has been a frustrating person to supervise,” assistant U.S. Attorney John Purcell tells Bennett, since she’s “not making whole-hearted efforts to essentially save her own life.” Still, Purcell explains, there is “an unusual way we are proceeding on this,” because, despite the fact that Dickerson’s “continued drug use” is clear, the government acknowledges the “uncertain nature of some of those tests.” So Dickerson is agreeing to plead guilty to only two violations: leaving the state without permission and failing to submit monthly reports.
Hensler says Dickerson is “struggling still with addiction,” since “she hasn’t been able to get her drug problem under control.” She adds that a recent “psychiatric diagnosis” is “the issue that has not been addressed,” and suggests to Bennett that treatment for the condition, which is not disclosed in open court, “may help Ms. Dickerson address this insidious addiction.”
Dickerson’s history of interaction with law enforcers, other than the machine-gun sale, depicts a working mother living in a nice Green Spring Valley home whose life spiraled out of control. The arrests started to mount in September 2011, when cops raided the home she shared with her husband and son and discovered a trove of pot, prescription pills, and cash. She pleaded guilty to pot possession in that case, but in January 2012, she sold 4 ounces of weed to an undercover cop in the Mondawmin Mall parking lot, and when she was later arrested, she was holding weed, heroin, and equipment for shooting it up. The same day, the cops raided her father’s Ellicott City home and turned up evidence of a high-volume pot-sales enterprise, along with some LSD, hashish, hash oil, and a handgun. Dickerson and Debois were both convicted of pot dealing in Howard County as a result.
“I apologize,” Dickerson says to Bennett, for “coming back here again” and causing “so much problems and worry” for those around her. She “made attempts” to get her act together, she continues, and when she served the six months at Federal Correctional Institution-Danbury (the facility where Piper Kerman was incarcerated, and subsequently wrote the book on which the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” is based), “all I got was a drug-education class.” But, she tells Bennett she was drug-free while in prison, and that “I’ve had periods of abstinence,” but “outpatient programs” were “not good enough” to help her stay clean in the long haul.
“Do you know how many people stand here and have drug issues?” Bennett asks Dickerson, rhetorically. Saying she’s caused “great pain” to her father, mother, and son, who Bennett said was 9 years old in 2013, “who’s doing quite well without you,” Bennett declares that she is going to “have to go back to prison again” and adds that “we’re determined to use all the resources we can to get to the root of this problem.”
Explaining his philosophy of handling offenders still beholden to him, Bennett says, “I’m not of the mind … to just cut them free,” because “we don’t give up on people. I want to keep my thumb on them. That’s how I feel about it. I’m not going to throw in the towel on people.”
“I wish you the best of luck,” Bennett says to Dickerson, after pronouncing another six-month sentence followed by two more years of supervised release. “You just have to buckle down. It requires a certain amount of self-discipline.” Meanwhile, he adds, “your son is growing up,” and he’s “doing it without you.”