About rights, not role models

Possible precedent: Gay ex-cons get equal parole contact.

Posted: August 21, 2007

Having served their time, convicted drug dealers Daniel Mangini and Steven Roberts, a couple for more than 20 years, were eager to resume their life together.

Both had survived a hellish descent into methamphetamine addiction, and had emerged from prison clean and sober. Both were ready to serve their five-year parole, with mandatory weekly drug-testing and counseling.

Any dreams of a reunion for the Montgomery County men quickly dissolved, however, when they learned they could not have any contact. Why? Because they weren't married or family in the eyes of the law.

Federal probation policy forbids felons on parole from associating in any way with other felons unless they are spouses or blood relatives. That meant, for the duration of their parole, no overnights, no visits, no phone calls, no letters, no e-mails.

No way, they said. While Mangini and Roberts acknowledge that their criminal background hardly makes them poster boys for a cause, their predicament prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case. On July 31, in a legal victory that could set an important precedent in constitutional law for same-sex couples, Judge Marvin Katz of U.S. District Court in Philadelphia ruled that the two men have the same right to associate during their probation as do heterosexual married couples.

"It's fair to say we're not role models, but that doesn't mean we should have less rights than anybody else," Mangini said in the couple's first interview. "We weren't going to take it without a fight."

Leslie Cooper of the ACLU, a co-counsel in the case, said the ruling could have significance equal with the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws.

"It's important that the court recognizes that gay couples are entitled to the same protection of their relationships as heterosexual couples enjoy," said Cooper, staff attorney for the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and AIDS Project.

The government had argued that Mangini and Roberts should be able to resume their relationship, but gradually and under supervision, to avoid "whatever temptations and mistakes" had led to their criminal acts. Under the U.S. attorney's plan, the couple would have been limited to one 12-hour visit and two phone calls per week for at least six months. At that point, they could have requested more contact.

Technically, Katz's ruling is not binding because the case did not reach the appellate level, Cooper explained. For that to happen, the government would have to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which would have to uphold the decision. Robert A. Zauzmer, assistant U.S. attorney, said the government had no plans to appeal.

Still, Cooper said, Katz's decision "ought to be very persuasive" to courts facing similar issues "because it was such a well-reasoned, well-written opinion."

By all measures, Mangini and Roberts are an unlikely couple.

Mangini, 42, a St. Joseph's University graduate and onetime senior executive at John Wanamaker, comes from a solid middle-class family in Wilmington. Roberts, 43, is a child of abuse who was living on the streets of Philadelphia at 13.

"When we got together, everybody said it wouldn't work," said Mangini, the duo's verbal alpha male. "We were brought up in two different worlds."

The two met in 1985 at a gay men's bar in Center City. At the time, Mangini, a St. Joe's sophomore, was dating another man. Roberts, then a waiter in Norristown, was seeing a woman and had never been to a gay bar before, said.

There was chemistry. Mangini brought Roberts home with him that night "and he never left."

Living in a rowhouse in South Philadelphia in the early 1990s, the out-of-the-closet couple had "an Ozzie and Harriet life," Mangini said. They were known as "the boys" around the neighborhood, Roberts said.

"People liked us. They made us gravy and meatballs. If I had a flat tire, they argued about who would change it," he said.

Both men had solid jobs. Like most couples, their biggest arguments were about money. They went clubbing and did what they considered recreational amounts of meth, but only on weekends, they said.

All that stopped around 1995, when Roberts' 13-year-old niece, Christina, was placed with them as a foster child by the city's Department of Human Services.

When Christina left at 18 to live with a friend, Mangini and Roberts experienced "a midlife crisis," in Roberts' words. With no parental responsibilities, they returned to the club circuit.

They also returned to the after-club party scene, in which "doctors, lawyers, young professionals" were using meth, Mangini said.

"I was very antidrug," he explained. "My perception of drug addicts was that they're dirty lowlifes. Unfortunately, because of my bad judgment, I decided it can't be bad if [professionals] were doing it."

The couple's meth use progressed quickly from a weekend "social thing" to a daily addiction that eventually had both men taking the drug intravenously. In December 2002, unable to focus and chronically late, Mangini quit his job. Roberts had already been fired.

"I think I was incapable of getting a job," Roberts recalled. "People around me convinced me it would be easier to sell" meth.

Mangini said he was not happy that Roberts was dealing, but "we were both so lost in the addiction, we couldn't rescue each other. We didn't even look human. Those are some of the most ugly memories of my life."

In December 2003, police broke through their front door and arrested the couple. Out on bail, they fled to Florida. Mangini attributed their getaway to "fear, stupidity, and being at the height of our addiction." Less than two weeks later, they were apprehended in Miami Beach.

The two men pleaded guilty in 2004 to possession of 100 grams of meth with intent to sell. Roberts, who did most of the dealing, was sentenced to 30 months, served at Allenwood federal prison. Mangini got 18 months at the minimum-security jail at Fort Dix, N.J.

Two months after Mangini was released, in June 2005, he was diagnosed with AIDS. (Roberts, out in June 2006, remains healthy, he said.)

Less than a week before Roberts was released, he and Mangini were told about the law banning contact between them.

"We were desperate," Roberts said. He reached out to the national ACLU, which, after some debate, took the case, along with the Philadelphia office of the state ACLU and Peter Goldberger, an Ardmore-based criminal defense lawyer and member of the state board.

Because Mangini and Roberts were convicted drug-dealers and former addicts, there was some concern that the public would not be sympathetic and that the case would not move opinion on gay equality. The two men themselves also agonized over whether to go public.

"We weren't politically active. We just lived our lives," Roberts said. "This was the first time we had been discriminated against, and it made us angry."

Mangini was the more reluctant of the two. "I've never been one to buck the system," he said. "Steven convinced me that this horror story we lived through had implications for a bigger cause."

The victory didn't come easily.

In January, Katz declined to consider the couple's request on procedural grounds. On July 9, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit directed Katz to address the issue on its merits.

In his 30-page opinion, Katz said prohibiting contact between Mangini and Roberts was unconstitutional, and ruled that they were entitled to the same treatment "as individuals in other kinds of family relationships."

Roberts is living with his brother in Spring City, and works as a roofer. Mangini resides with Roberts' uncle in Devon, and is on disability. The men no longer need permission from the U.S. Probation Office to associate, but it is required if they want to change residences or live together, said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney of the Pennsylvania ACLU.

Mangini and Roberts see each other about every other day, and on weekends. They want to reconnect gradually before moving in together.

"We have a lot of growing, talking to do," Roberts said. Also, Mangini's health is an issue. It's so fragile at this point, he said, that he must be in a stress-free environment.

Emotionally, nothing has changed, Mangini said.

"When I hug him, touch him, hear his voice, it feels like your favorite blanket when you were little. I'm a big worrier. He always calms me down."

Their legal victory has granted them a certain profile, although not everyone in the gay community feels warm and fuzzy about being represented by convicted drug-dealers in what could be a precedent-setting case.

"I don't think they'll be embraced by the gay community as a whole," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Equality Forum, a national gay-civil-rights organization based in Philadelphia. Regardless, Lazin emphasized the importance of their case. "In principle, people should be treated equally," he said.

Mangini concedes that their criminal background could put people off. They are happy for acceptance on a smaller scale.

"It's the people that matter most to us whose opinions we care about," he said. "I regret what I did, but I'm not embarrassed by what I did. It all started with a disease, no different from cancer or AIDS," he added, referring to drug addiction. "That led to some bad choices and criminal activity."

For Cooper, the ACLU's staff attorney, the issue is not how the men are perceived but the legal victory they now represent. "An important principle needed to be addressed," she said.

In retrospect, both men said their arrest was the best thing that could have happened, because it forced them to get clean. "I would have died in Florida, or wherever we ran," Mangini said.

He has good and bad days, and he tires easily. "This might be as well as I get, but I'm alive," he said. "I'm here. I can breathe, I can see. I'll be around to haunt Steven for a while."

Mangini remains estranged from much of his family. Two of his four brothers do not speak to him, he said, and he is unable to see his nieces, nephews, and godchild. His mother died in 1994; his father remarried and lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

There are no such familial fissures on Roberts's side. He and Mangini plan to attend the first Roberts family reunion, on Aug. 25 at his brother's home in Spring City. Thus far, there are 73 confirmed attendees.

"It's not a fairy-tale ending, but true love prevailed," Mangini said.

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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