Endless pre-trial detention in Buffalo
By Bill Trolinger, prisoner of the war on drugs
I'm a fifty-one-year-old baby boomer from Baltimore, Maryland whose formative years were the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s.
I am married and have two grown daughters, two sisters, three brothers, a grandson, a very special mother, and more good friends than I can count on my fingers. I have not seen most of these people for almost four years now, and I have missed them every day of that time. My mother is getting older and may not have many years left. My younger daughter has an aneurysm in her brain that could cause death at any time. So why not go see them? America is a free country-the self-proclaimed defender of liberty throughout the world. What's the problem, then?
The problem is that I am a Federal pre-trial detainee. For the past 47 months, I have been imprisoned without bail or trial on charges that more than ten years ago I conspired to possess and distribute marijuana. If I am convicted on all charges contained in the indictment, I face a sentence of life in prison without parole; yet I have no prior convictions or any accusations of violence on my record.
For all intents and purposes, the Federal government owns me like a slave. I am nothing more than a piece of meat, like a sheep or cow, to be shipped from place to place under strictly controlled conditions. For two and a half years I was not even allowed to go outside, and for ten months before that I was only allowed outside for one half hour per day. I have felt 'blessed' the past six months to be in a facility where I can spend up to five hours per day outdoors, albeit in a small caged area. It has been like a beautiful dream to finally see the sun and sky again after so much time inside.
After several former friends were charged in a cannabis conspiracy in Baltimore in 1993, they decided to become informants in order to get lighter sentences. Although they confessed to many serious violations of the marijuana laws, some of them received no time or weren't charged at all. Initially a Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) charge was lodged against two of them, which carried a sentence of mandatory life imprisonment upon conviction. However, the Federal Judge in Baltimore ruled that the charge had to be dismissed due to the statute of limitations and the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution.
One of the accused refused to cooperate and received a five-year sentence for his part in the conspiracy. The others received much lighter sentences. My name was brought up several times in allegations, but the US Attorney felt that there was not enough evidence to make a case against me. The DEA case agent, not satisfied with this outcome, decided to "forum shop" the case around the country to find a judicial district that would give it the attention he felt it deserved. He came to Buffalo and hit pay dirt.
The first grand jury in Buffalo, after hearing the allegations from the key witnesses, declined to issue an indictment. Undaunted and undeterred by the weakness of the case, the Buffalo prosecutor and the DEA agent waited ten months for another grand jury to be empanelled, then tried again. This time it was just the DEA agent as the sole witness against me. Of course, his testimony was hearsay "summary" of what the former witnesses said to the previous grand jury. Needless to say, this "summary" was inaccurate at best, but it accomplished his goal: An indictment was issued in great haste on the last day of the grand jury's service.
The next task was to get the desired judge assigned. This too was easily manipulated. The prosecutor merely had to unseal the indictment when the judge he wanted was next on the case list. Like magic, a 'hanging judge' was found who would readily deny bail.
The legal basis for my detention is the 1984 Bail Reform Act, ostensibly designed to make bail more obtainable to those who need it. Like many 'doublespeak' laws, the reality is very different. Essentially, it suspends the 8th Amendment, allowing virtually anyone accused of violating the Federal drug laws to be held without bail, giving broad discretion to the trial judge. If the detainee can then be persuaded to plead guilty to any one charge (overcharging is standard procedure), the detention is thereby justified.
The pressure to plead guilty is overwhelming in a district like this one where juries routinely convict anyone accused of drug crimes. It is particularly compelling in light of studies showing that a detainee has a four times better chance of being convicted than an accused out on bail. Juries always know who is detained despite rudimentary precautions to prevent that knowledge, and they assume it signifies guilt.
The rules have apparently changed in the past 20-30 years. Despite much reasoned opposition, the Federal government has cast aside a critical principle of Constitutional law and thereby decided that the ends justify the means. It is evil enough that the government would make war on its own citizens in such a hypocritical and futile effort. To do so in such an ignoble, pitiless and win-at-all-costs manner, as these public servants are treating me now, has left those who claim to make and enforce the laws completely bereft of any shred of decency or moral authority. There is no justice in the war on drugs.
795 South Cedar - Colville, Washington 99114 - (509) 684-1550