The fight to free America’s cannabis prisoners

In 2009, Evelyn LaChapelle was 23-years-old and living in Los Angeles when her friend Corvain Cooper asked if he could deposit the money he was making shipping cannabis to North Carolina into her bank account. “He said: ‘I’m paying Western Union $300 a time when I could just pay you,’” she remembers. “So I thought: ‘Why not?’ Growing up in California, cannabis has always been in my life in some fashion. I never once thought about the consequences.”

Three years later, LaChapelle had finished university, had a daughter and moved to Oakland, where she was working at a Marriott hotel. One night she was visiting her mother when a neighbour called the police to report a “suspicious vehicle”. The officer who ran her name discovered a warrant out for her arrest. In 2013, she and Cooper stood trial in North Carolina, where despite being minor players they were convicted for the crimes of the entire California – North Carolina cannabis shipping network. Of the 63 people indicted, only three stood trial. “I was charged with something like $1.2 million in money laundering,” says LaChapelle, who estimates she made around $10,000 from the nine months she allowed Cooper to use her account. “I had not at all seen $1.2 million.”

LaChapelle was told she was facing 24 years in prison. Terrified she wouldn’t see her daughter grow up, she took a deal offered by prosecutors that cut her sentence to eight years in exchange for giving up her right to appeal. Cooper, for whom the conviction was a ‘third strike’, received the life sentence he is still serving to this day.

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