A Question of Justice

Three young men, two coke deliveries, one prison sentence

Ashley returned to Oneida County on February 3 and pleaded guilty to a B felony as part of a deal his lawyer had struck. On March 22, he celebrated his 21st birthday at a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. Eight days later, at 5 a.m., his parents drove him back up to Utica, where a judge sentenced him to seven to 21 years.


Ashley entered the New York State prison system at the same time that legislators in Albany were debating the state's narcotics laws, known as the Rockefeller drug laws. This has become an annual spring ritual: politicians promising reform, then doing nothing. When the legislative session ended on June 22, hopes dimmed once again.

Ashley O’Donoghue, now 21, inside Clinton Annex, a maximum-security prison near the Canadian border
photo: Michael Betts
Ashley O’Donoghue, now 21, inside Clinton Annex, a maximum-security prison near the Canadian border

One of the major sticking points in the debate is who gets to decide how drug felons are punished—judges or prosecutors. The Rockefeller drug laws, which were enacted in 1973, established mandatory minimum prison sentences, stripping judges of the power to dole out prison terms as they saw fit.

In New York, 98.5 percent of people convicted last year of a drug felony pleaded guilty rather than risk going to trial. Prosecutors determine the amount of time these people spend in prison by how they negotiate plea deals. Plea offers vary from one county to another. If Ashley had been arrested in Manhattan, he likely would have received a shorter sentence. In Manhattan, the median prison term for first-time drug offenders convicted of a B felony is one to three years.

Ashley's arrest prompted his mother to join Mothers of the Disappeared, an organization fighting to abolish the Rockefeller drug laws. Since mid May, Cheri has made three trips to Albany. Her entry into the Rockefeller debate came just as legislators were paying increased attention to B-level drug prisoners, who did not benefit from the provision created last year that enables A-1 inmates to reduce their sentences. Of the state's 16,397 drug prisoners, the largest group—Ashley and 5,262 others—is doing time for a B felony.

In New York, a B-level drug felony is equivalent to rape, manslaughter, and armed robbery. New York's drug laws are the most punitive in the nation, according to a report released earlier this year by State Senate Minority Leader David A. Paterson. Cheri and many other activists want legislators to reduce sentences for B-level felonies and make the changes retroactive.

Not surprisingly, the families of Peter McEneaney and Preston Kraus are not eager to jump into the debate. When the Voice called Kevin McEneaney of Phoenix House and asked him about his son's arrest, he said, "I'm not really interested in talking about it. He lost a year of his life. So, end of story. He's trying to put it back together again." Neither Peter nor Preston responded to a letter requesting an interview or to phone messages left at their parents' homes.


Trying to forget the past is a luxury Ashley does not have. In early June, he was transferred to Clinton prison in Dannemora, near the Canadian border. There he is housed in the maximum-security annex, which used to be a state hospital for insane convicts and now holds 800 inmates. Ashley spends his days listening to Tupac and Nas and Mobb Deep on his Walkman. He put his name on a list for the GED program, but was told the wait is six to 12 months.

On a recent weekday morning, Ashley sits at a table in an empty visiting room. He wears the standard inmate uniform—forest green pants and shirt—plus a pair of black New Balance sneakers. It is easy to tell that not long ago he was a cocky teenager—the sort of kid who thought he could beat the system by selling drugs, making a lot of money, and never getting caught. On the side of his neck, in elegant script, are the words "God's son."

Ashley rolls up his left sleeve and reveals his newest tattoo. This one suggests an older, more mature, less carefree self. "R.I.P. Brenda and Maria," it reads, a reference to his girlfriend's mother and sister. They died when a fire engulfed their Bronx home on December 30. Ashley and his girlfriend narrowly escaped the blaze by leaping out a third-story window.

Ashley looks down, picking at the edge of the visiting room table. "I've got my whole family stressed out," he says. "My fiancée is out there by herself, struggling to get an apartment with Section 8." He pauses, then begins again, softer this time. "I've never seen my mother like this," he says. "She's crying all the time."

It is not hard to predict how much Ashley's prison sentence will cost. For taxpayers, the price tag will be $32,000 a year, likely more than $200,000 in total. Already, the O'Donoghues have exhausted their life savings and had to borrow from friends. They've spent nearly $50,000 on lawyers, bail fees, and collect calls.

"I feel like he has to pay for the crime that he has done," Cheri says. "I wouldn't want anything less than that because I want him to learn to do the right things in life. I don't expect him to get off easy. But it doesn't seem to me that the amount of time fits for the crime he committed." Ashley O'Donoghue will be eligible for parole in 2010.

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