Appling was sentenced last month to 27 years and three months in prison after federal prosecutors characterized him as the head of a distribution network that acquired heroin in Chicago and sold it to dozens of regular customers in Waterloo, Iowa.
But Appling was never linked to any acts of violence or overdoses, and his attorney believes the sentence was excessive and counterproductive. "I would just say that federal guidelines are draconian and outrageously high," says attorney Murray Bell. "It's time to recognize that long incarcerations aren't the answer."
I wrote about Appling's case in December as an example of how Chicago has become a hub for the international heroin trade. Mexican cartels are moving large quantities of the drug into Chicago, where sophisticated street businesses serve customers from across the midwest while wholesalers supply dealers in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. Seeking new opportunities, other Chicago dealers—some tied to gangs, others independent operators—have set up shop in smaller cities and towns from Vermont to Missouri.
It's happened despite more than four decades of ever-tougher drug policies that have sent hundreds of thousands of offenders into state and federal prisons.
But Appling's January 30 sentencing came amid a shifting landscape. For several years federal authorities have indicated that they're refocusing enforcement on large-scale operators, and in August, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo urging federal prosecutors to "ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers."
President Obama followed by commuting the sentences of eight men imprisoned for dealing crack, including six sentenced to life terms. And last month a bipartisan group of senators voted to advance legislation that would cut mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more leeway to evaluate each case.
But it was no coincidence that one of the opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act was Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, where a spike in overdoses has hit communities that weren't used to open drug activity. "Heroin addiction is spreading in areas that have never seen the problem before," Grassley said. "Why should we vote to cut mandatory-minimum sentences?"
Heroin from Chicago has been available in eastern Iowa for years, but officials say it's now far more pure and dangerous. "It's not first-time users who are ending up on our autopsy table—it's habitual users," says Dr. Donald Linder, an emergency room physician and the chief medical examiner for Linn County, Iowa, which includes Cedar Rapids. "People think, 'It's not going to happen to me, I've been injecting for years, I know what I'm doing.' But these people who prey on the addicts don't care."
Prosecutors portrayed Appling as one of the dealers who encouraged and then capitalized on heroin habits. Appling grew up in Chicago before moving to Waterloo in 2001, where he worked as a hairdresser and began selling drugs. In 2004 he was convicted on a crack charge but paroled just a year later. By 2007 he had recruited at least eight others to sell heroin for him, according to court records.
Most of his dealers had habits, faced financial emergencies, or both. In 2007, for example, Waterloo resident Darryl Williams was laid off from his job at Tyson Foods, one of the biggest employers in town. After a friend introduced him to Appling, Williams began selling heroin to help pay for his own addiction.
By diluting and marking up heroin he purchased in Chicago, Appling could make $40,000 a month. But in March 2010 authorities raided his two Waterloo homes and arrested him. When he discussed cooperating with authorities, they let him go. He skipped town within the month.
In November 2012, after almost two years on the lam, Appling was pulled over by police in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he was living under a pseudonym. In a court hearing, authorities produced copies of his fingerprints and photos of his tattoos to prove that he was indeed the Dwayne Appling wanted in Iowa.
Appling's behavior was often erratic over the next year. Last summer he decided to represent himself, and on the morning his trial was scheduled to start he abruptly pleaded guilty to two of the counts against him without negotiating any kind of deal. Then he rehired Bell, his attorney.
Before the sentencing, Bell conceded that Appling was a low-level dealer but disputed the government's claim that he was the "boss" or "kingpin" of a large-scale operation. When prosecutors argued that Appling should face at least 20 years in prison, Bell countered that they should "comply with the most recent Holder memos" and suggested a ten-year sentence.
But the attorney general's memos aren't binding, and Bell eventually had to acknowledge that prosecutors had the discretion to ask for the longer sentence.
They got it. On January 30, Judge Linda Reade gave Appling 327 months in prison.
Prosecutor Lisa Williams said she couldn't comment on the sentence. But she noted that Judge Reade described the case as "one of the most significant" drug conspiracies she'd been involved with.
Though Appling was reportedly the operation's leader, his sentence wasn't the longest handed out in the Waterloo investigation. Lawrence Johnson, one of more than 30 others prosecuted, received a life sentence last year based on prior drug convictions.