A Knock at Midnight by Brittany Barnett is a great book subtitled A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom. It’s a memoir about her growing up in central Texas, having a mother who went to jail for a drug offense, then becoming a lawyer advocating for the release of people serving life sentences without parole for drug offenses.
Barnett grew up first in the small Texas towns of Fulbright and Bogata and was ten when she found her mother’s crack pipe in the house. She along with her sister Jazz went to live with their father and grandparents in nearby Campbell and it was difficult having a mother who was an on again, off again addict. Barnett when she started high school moved to Commerce to live with her other grandparents and get away from her mother’s addiction. She in college studied accounting, receiving a bachelors and then masters degree, with her mom unable to attend the graduation as she was in jail, sentenced to 8 years in prison for repeatedly failing drug tests while on probation for an arrest 6 years prior. Barnett notes how in her county growing up, blacks were 34 times more likely to be charged for marijuana possession than whites.
Barnett was a first-year law student at SMU, taking a class on the intersection of race and law, when she came across the case of Sharanda Jones, someone who had served ten years of a life sentence for a first-time drug offense. The environment under which Jones arrested was one with drug laws focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation, which is what sent Barnett’s mother to jail, and one with a racial bias. There was a sentencing disparity of 100 to 1 between crack and cocaine and prosecutors had enormous latitude to charge people with conspiracy to distribute drugs, a charge that required no physical evidence to prove. Additionally, mandatory minimum sentences were attached to many cases, effectively taking sentencing out of the hands of judges or juries. Prosecutors would also frequency focus on flipping defendants, even having higher-level dealers testify against lower-level dealers, and stacking charges or adding on 851 enhancements, bringing into sentencing past transgressions, no matter how small.
When Jones was sent to prison on a conspiracy to distribute charge, she had been a low-level mover of drugs, was no longer involved, and entrapped by a friend looking to be an informant and get a lesser sentence. Jones was told by prosecutors she as well could get a lesser sentence if she flipped on her Dallas police officer friend, someone not involved at all with drugs. Jones didn’t testify against anyone else and after her lawyer told her she would likely go free, and worst case would have a five-year sentence; she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, going to prison when her daughter eight years old.
While still in law school, Barnett began advocating for Jones, and continued to do this pro bono work as she became a corporate lawyer in a large firm. She in the book details the dehumanizing conditions for inmates, including visitors having to ask for people by their prison number rather than name. While Barnett trying to get Jones released, mandatory sentencing guidelines were ruled unconstitutional, but not retroactively. Barnett then felt that the best path to release was clemency, something that could be granted by the President and noted in the book as being described by a fellow lawyer as “where justice meets mercy.” Barnett mentions a 2015 Washington Post story by Sam Horwitz on Jones and others serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, even though they would have received lesser sentences under current guidelines, and Jones was pardoned by President Obama, with release in 2016. Also noted in the book are others that Barnett would help get clemency, including Donel Clark, Alice Johnson, Corey Jacobs, and Chris Young (with the judge that sentenced him, Kevin Sharp, having left his seat because he felt mandatory minimum sentences were wrong).
It’s a remarkable story from Barnett about a grave injustice. Also interesting was both how strong the writing in the book is (it seems many lawyers are often good writers) and how Barnett before she left corporate law combined her accounting degree and the tangible skill it gave her with the tangible skill from her law degree.