Darryl Henley: A Case of Chance or Choice?

It’s 1995, Darryl Henley has been living the dream playing a defensive position for the LA Rams for four years, playing 76 games, and amassing 12 interceptions over five years, when it all comes crashing to a halt. Henley is convicted, along with three others, for trafficking cocaine. While he denies the charges, Henley eventually admits that he financed a childhood friend’s criminal activity. Whilst awaiting sentencing he allegedly paid a prison guard to smuggle a mobile phone into the prison so he could speak to his family, including then-girlfriend and baby daughter. Things took an even worse turn as Henley decided to put a hit out on the judge in charge of his sentencing and a key witness. However, neither hit went through as Henley was, in fact, talking to undercover agents who recorded these conversations. In 1996 Henley pleads guilty to soliciting the two murders and is sentenced by two separate judges to a combined 41 years for the drug charges and solicitation of murder. 


Darryl Henley now 54, was drafted out of UCLA by the LA Rams in 1989. He had a successful career in the NFL for six years before he was convicted, along with three others, for trafficking cocaine in 1995. Key witness Tracy Donaho was apprehended smuggling Cocaine across the country, but she pointed the finger at Henley, declaring him to be the mastermind behind the drug trafficking scheme. She made a deal to be a witness for the prosecution of Henley and the three others, in exchange for a lesser sentence. Eventually, Henley admitted to lending his childhood friend money which went towards his criminal activities but denied receiving any financial gain from the trafficking of cocaine. 

Whilst in jail awaiting his sentencing, Henley paid a guard to smuggle a mobile phone in so he could talk to his family and his fiancée, who had just given birth to their daughter. Another inmate on his cell block found out about this phone and put Henley in contact with a man called Joey Gambino, a mafia member. At this point, Henley was appealing his conviction but had run out of money because of the long-running costly trials. So when Gambino offered him a stake in a heroin deal, Henley accepted after some consideration. Henley was desperate. He stated that “I did it purely for the money, I had a baby daughter.” Henley did not have any money to give upfront for the drug deal, so Gambino offered to murder key witness Donaho and the judge of Henley’s case, Gary Taylor, and then take his fee from Henley’s upcoming drug earnings. Being so angry and humiliated by the injustices seen during the case proceedings, Henley agreed to this deal in a phone conversation. Like all the other conversations between the two, Gambino, who was not actually a mafia member, but an undercover DEA agent, recorded this one too. The phone recordings were given in evidence against Henley in court, leading to him being convicted of both drug trafficking and solicitation of murder. On the day Henley was charged, the inmate, an informant for the DEA, who put Henley in touch with ‘Gambino’, the fake mobster, was released from prison.

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There is much controversy over the legitimacy of this case. For example, for drug trafficking, Henley would have been sentenced for ten years minimum purely because of laws that had been put in place much earlier due to “the war on drugs”, which for a man who only ever lent money to a friend seems like a harsh sentence. Not to mention the number of injustices that took place during Henley’s trials. The jury contained a great deal of corruption, with one juror being openly racist towards the defendants. A second juror admitted to using methamphetamines during the trial. A third juror not only discussed the trial with the other two deviant jurors in their daily carpool, but showed up to Henley’s residence a week before the verdict to bribe Henley with an innocent vote for $25,000. The racism within this case is further displayed by the fact that Donaho, the only caucasian, who was caught red-handed trafficking suitcases full of cocaine, was sentenced to only four months in a halfway house. 

Another cause for concern within this case is the possibility of entrapment being the only cause for Henley’s extended sentence. It has to be asked whether Henley himself would have chosen to participate in another drug deal if he had not been offered the money when he was in a desperate situation. Then comes the issue of the solicitation of murder. It’s a massive leap from being silent financial aid for a drug deal to paying for the murder of two people, one of which you know quite well. Could Henley have even thought this up himself? He was desperate and going through a lot but is that enough to convince yourself that murder is the only way out? The undercover DEA agents suggesting this is and offering this without any upfront cost to make the deal that much sweeter is textbook entrapment, which should not have held up in court. As if this wasn’t enough, the injustices within this case were made worse when the Ninth Circuit reviewed the case in 2001 and decided that Henley’s case’s racial bias warranted a more in-depth look. However, the judge and the presiding prosecutors made it all go away by releasing the rest of the defendants who had served a fraction of their sentences, which were already two decades shorter than Henley’s. Henley was not released because he had given up his right to contest the verdict of the trial as part of his guilty plea in the drugs for murder scheme invented by the DEA.

Henley was initially placed in a maximum-security prison. However, due to good behaviour, he was transferred to a low-security facility in Yazoo City. He has frequent visits from his daughter, with whom he has managed to maintain a good relationship despite his incarceration. He has also utilised his good education and his degree from UCLA to help other inmates to gain their GEDs. 

In 2018 Henley released a personal statement about his time in prison. He spoke about prison reform and his belief that “true reform must address both public policy and personal identity”. At the time the Republicans were trying to get a bill called the First Step Act passed within the US Senate. Republican senator Chuck Grassley stated that this bill “Focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals… instead of non-violent, lower-level offenders” which could be done by doing away with mandatory minimum penalties for low-level, non-violent crimes and leaving sentencing to a judge’s discretion. This gave hope to ending prolonged family separation and re-occurrence of criminal behaviour. Henley stated that the efforts to pass this bill gave him hope that reform policies would improve and be made more effective. Henley described his first-hand experience of the 2018 prison policy’s detrimental effects in his capacity as a prison educator. There were limited vocational and educational opportunities for prisoners, as well as separation and estrangement from family, with “at least 90% of men incarcerated in federal prisons receiving few to no visitors.” All of this creates a very lonely existence which we know to be incredibly damaging to a person’s mental health. Henley then goes on to talk about a visit from two clergy members and his conversation with them, which lasted at least two hours. This visit and show of compassion was a gift Henley said, confirming in him a sense of worth and hope. Henley ends his statement with a quote from the 17th-century scientist, theologian, and mathematician Blaise Pascal; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” 


Henley has lead a tragically interesting life so far, accomplished his dream and had it all taken away because of a few decisions made by him and those around him. Who knows whether things would be different had he not been put in contact with ‘Joey Gambino’. Would he have received such a harsh sentence were there not so much racism and bias present in the jury? He is reported to be an intelligent man who spends his life educating others and giving them the chance to make better lives for themselves once they are released. Do we really believe that this is the kind of man who could come up with a scheme to have people murdered on his own? No, I don’t believe so, and I’m sure many others would agree. Today, Henley has served just over 25 years of his 41-year sentence and is due to be released in 2036 at the age of 61. 

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