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Time served, but sentence continues

RELATED: See more crime news from the Fredericksburg region

David Eugene White knows he made a mistake when he decided to start selling drugs in his native King George County back in the mid-1990s.

But by far his biggest mistake came after he got caught.

He decided to take his chances with a jury trial—and ended up with a jail sentence far worse than what others who pleaded guilty received.

White, now 50, was arrested in July 1995 on three counts of distributing cocaine. He made three separate $50 sales to undercover police officers from his home in the Princess Anne Trailer Park near U.S. 301 and State Route 3 in February and March of that year, court records show. The total amount of crack cocaine involved in those transactions was 1.41 grams.

During White’s pre-trial legal maneuverings, defense attorney Herbert Hewitt worked out a deal with then regional drug prosecutor Sarah Deneke that called for White to plead guilty to the charges and serve 14 months in prison.

Hewitt advised White to take the deal, but White decided to try to beat the charges. The prosecutor requested a jury trial that took place on March 14, 1996, in King George Circuit Court.

His subsequent conviction wasn’t all that surprising, but the sentence recommended by the jury certainly was. The jury recommended that White, who had no prior felony record, serve two life sentences plus 35 years in prison. The jury also recommended a $1.1 million fine.

“I was in shock,” White recalled during a recent interview. “I thought that I would get two years at the most.”

At White’s formal sentencing a few months later, Judge James W. Haley Jr. suspended the two life sentences and dropped another 15 years. Haley also reduced the fine from $1.1 million to $50,000.

But that still left White with 20 years to serve, way above the norm for a first-time drug offender. And because Virginia had just done away with parole, White spent 17 years in prison before being released on Aug. 9 after serving the required 85 percent of his sentence. White was one of nine county residents arrested in July 1995 as part of an investigation into cocaine and marijuana sales in the county. The other eight pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from probation to two years.

White blames his lack of familiarity with the legal system for his ill-fated decision to contest the charges.

His sentence had a profound impact on drug cases in King George and elsewhere. Area attorneys at the time said they were told by clients to avoid jury trials at all costs, and King George Circuit Court Clerk Vic Mason said he can’t recall another jury trial involving drugs in the county since the White case.

Prior to his convictions, White lived his entire life in King George except for a four-year stint in the Army. When he returned home after leaving the military, White said he worked various construction jobs before falling on financial hard times. He said he began selling drugs as a way to make ends meet.

He sold drugs for about a year before getting caught in a sting operation. He said he was set up by a former childhood friend. White has been living with his mother in the county since his release this summer. He said he has been unable to work because of a back injury he suffered while in custody.

His three children were 5, 3 and unborn when he went to prison. He said it was tough watching them grow up from behind bars, especially since he knew he could have been free much sooner.

Marlo Conway, the mother of White’s oldest child, has been assisting White since his release. She said her main goal is to get White’s 40 years probation and the $50,000 fine set aside. She also feels that White’s race played a factor in his receiving such a lengthy sentence and steep fine.

“We feel that he’s already paid more than enough,” Conway said.

A lawyer has told White that he has little recourse in getting his probation and fine rescinded or reduced. The circuit court lost its jurisdiction 21 days after the final sentencing order was filed years ago, and White’s appeal to the Virginia Court of Appeals has already failed. The only remedy that White and Conway are aware of now is asking Virginia’s governor for relief. Neither is yet sure how to go about doing that.

Meanwhile, White will go on trying to put together the pieces of the life he left behind 17 years ago.

“I know I did wrong,” White said. “But I didn’t do that much wrong.”

Keith Epps: 540/374-5404