Posts Tagged ‘drugs and the justice system’

He looked at prison like a chess game: a thinking game that could be outsmarted.

Chris Wilson was sentenced to life in prison for murder at age 17. These days, he’s a free man who heads up two Baltimore companies and has been honored at the White House twice in the past month. He’s currently in talks with publishers to write a book about his life.

After all, his journey has all the makings of a Hollywood story: poverty, addiction, gun violence. He grew up in rough neighborhood in Washington, D.C., sandwiched between two housing projects. There were days where he’d step over dead bodies on his way to his grandmother’s house. But his life is also marked by a turnaround that’s against the odds.

A conversation with his dying grandfather early in his prison sentence instilled what he refers to as “positive delusion,” the belief that one day he’d be out in the real world, making it a better place.

“Promise me you’ll turn your life around … You can do it. Promise me you’ll try,” Wilson recalls his grandfather telling him.

Read the rest on CNN Money…

Did you know that a judge can sentence a defendant as if they were convicted of a more serious crime even if a jury acquitted them?  And more shockingly even if they weren’t charged at all?  At least they can, according to the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case.  The practice is frowned upon by many who ascribe to the tenets of American law, including innocent until proven guilty, and the Constitution, but judges are allowed to continue to go unchecked as the Supreme Court refuses to end this controversial practice.

Appellate lawyers in the case Jones v. United States hoped that the court would grant them the right to present their case, but they denied their petition.  Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Ginsberg dissented to the denial.  Dissents to denials of certiorari are rare.  If the justices had one more vote the case would have been accepted.

The case began in Washington, D.C. when Joseph Jones, Desmond Thurston, and Antwuan Ball were charged with running an “open air” drug market.  The jury however acquitted them on the conspiracy charge meaning the men shouldn’t be held liable for the drugs dealt by the organization and convicted them only on the drugs they were found to personally have distributed.

The judge used the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which is used to ensure that defendants are fairly sentenced uniformly.  The state requested a sentence of 27 to 40 years, arguing that the judge could take into account “relevant conduct” and that the conspiracy charge, though they were found not guilty, is “relevant”.  Normally, their conviction would have called for a 2 1/2 to 6 year sentence.  The judge, ignoring the jury’s verdict, saw “clear evidence of a drug conspiracy.”

The jury foreperson was shocked at the conduct of the state and judge, “it seems to me a tragedy that one is asked to serve on a jury, serves, but then finds their work may not be given the credit it deserves…it appears to me that these defendants are being sentenced not on the charges for which they have been found guilty but on the charges for which the District Attorney’s office would have liked them to have been found guilty.”

The foreperson’s letter has been cited in other cases concerning what is called “uncharged or acquitted conduct”. (more…)

In a recent appeal, Jerry Crew prevailed when the Fifth District Court of Appeals of Florida tossed his murder conviction and remanded his case back to the trial court for numerous inappropriate comments made by the prosecutor against the defendant and his defense attorneys during closing arguments.  Further, the court agreed with the appeal that the defendant’s robbery charge was improper and should have been reduced to theft with special instructions.

Crew routinely bought drugs from one person.  At the time of the murder, Crew was living in a motel room.  After his drug dealer sold him drugs, he pressured the defendant to allow two of his friends to use the room to confront a rival dealer.  The defendant declined, but when given 3 crack cocaine rocks he agreed.  Crew hid in the shower while the argument took place.  Crew’s dealer stole drugs from the rival dealer.  One man was shot dead in the parking lot after the confrontation.

Crew was arrested on second-degree felony murder charges.  A person who participates in the commission of a felony that results in the death of someone can be charged in connection with that death despite intent or other factors.

“This case reads like a primer on what not to do during closing arguments,” the concurring judge in Crew v. Florida wrote,  “The errors committed by the prosecutor are so numerous and so egregious, and the comments directed at opposing counsel are so unprofessional, I am amazed it was allowed to occur unchecked.”

Prosecutor Ryan Will’s made the following statements to the jury, including character attacks:

  • He “clearly and continuously” misrepresented the evidence to the jury by saying without support that the defendant “would share in the proceeds” of the robbery that resulted in the killing.
  • The prosecution “abandon[ed] any semblance of professionalism” when he dehumanized and ridiculed the defendant with personal attacks, including calling him “our favorite crackhead”, saying he had a “crackhead little brain”, and describing him as having “beady little crackhead eyes [that were] glowing in that shower.”
  • He made repeated “denigrating” and “sarcastic” remarks against the opposing counsel, using their first name only, and mocking them for having a “poor, misunderstood client” and disparaging the defense’s theory of the case.
  • The prosecutor also urged the jury to consider “improper grounds” for conviction by invoking the victim’s family and telling jurors that they shouldn’t “spit in this family’s face.”
  • He also said “It’s like Christmas come early for a crackhead.”

The Open File, a website that chronicles prosecutorial misconduct cases around the country, criticized the media’s coverage of the case saying that they trivialized the egregious behavior of the prosecution.

“This is a useful reminder that while there may well be a sea of change underway in the media’s and the public’s willingness to consider the idea that prosecutors aren’t infallible, their clearly documented legal and ethical violations are still routinely trivialized when the men and women being prosecuted are people we are not supposed to care about.  NBC’s headline [Florida Prosecutor’s Crackhead Insults Get Murder Conviction Tossed] does its ideological work with great concision.  A 57 year-old man addicted to cocaine and hiding in a bathroom becomes a murderer, while violating Florida’s laws regarding fair trials is reduced to the implicitly trivial (and perhaps even laudable?) matter of insulting a crackhead.  It’s a headline that’s been written, in one form or another, for the last thirty years: lowlife gets off because of stupid legal procedure…This case isn’t about exoneration…It’s a routine [case]…yet it captures…where we still are.”

Judge Wendy Berger treated Will’s inappropriate comments, as well as the judge’s lack of action, much more seriously, “Although the trial judge in the instant case properly sustained objections by defense counsel, not once was the jury instructed to disregard the improper comments, nor was the prosecutor called to task for his conduct.  In my view, [a judge] sitting silent absent an objection by opposing counsel, tacitly, albeit unintentionally, condones such conduct…[I]t is no longer—if it ever was—acceptable for the judiciary to act simply as a fight promoter, who supplies an arena in which parties may fight it out on unseemly terms of their own choosing…Judges have a responsibility to protect jurors from improper closing arguments.  Failing to do so demeans the system of justice we serve to protect.”