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July 1, 2004 - The Winston-Salem Journal (NC)

Man Halves Possible Sentence In Drug-Case Plea Deal

He Agrees To Testify Against Person He Says Set Him Up In Cocaine Sale

By Lisa Hoppenjans

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A Winston-Salem man who faced a possible 15 years in prison on drug-trafficking charges reached a plea agreement with prosecutors yesterday after he told jurors that he was manipulated by an acquaintance into unknowingly participating in a drug deal.

Prosecutors, who had seen the same defense work six months before, said they didn't want to take the chance that it would work again.

"We don't want this to be an effective defense," District Attorney Tom Keith said. "We know now that this is in the popular mythology. We will train law officers to do things which will pre-empt their ability to use this defense."

Under the plea agreement, Ruben Rodriguez, 21, will serve a maximum of seven years in exchange for agreeing to provide "substantial assistance" to investigators and testify against the man who he said set him up. That man, whose whereabouts are uncertain, has never been charged.

Rodriguez had no previous criminal record, and Assistant District Attorney Tim Severo said he thought that the sentence Rodriguez received was appropriate.

"When someone is caught red-handed with a kilo of cocaine, we aim for the archer, not the arrow," he said.

Rodriguez's case had another twist - police reports filed by officers involved in the investigation are missing.

Officers who testified did not know what had happened to the reports, which they said were handed over to the records department.

"I wish I had this great excuse that it's here or there, but records just doesn't have it," said Detective Jeff Branham of the Winston-Salem Police Department.

Keith said that his office has never had a case in which all the reports had disappeared, but, he said, the missing reports did not affect his decision to reach a plea agreement.

Rodriguez had been offered the same plea agreement before but did not provide information about his acquaintance. He chose to take the agreement yesterday rather than risk a guilty verdict, his attorney, Chris Beechler, said.

During testimony Tuesday, Rodriguez told jurors the following through an interpreter:

An acquaintance came to Rodriguez's apartment March 19, 2003, and asked to borrow Rodriguez's car because his own was broken. Rodriguez said yes and the acquaintance, whom he identified only as Daniel, took the car for about half an hour.

Daniel also told Rodriguez that he was going out of town and asked if a man who owed him money could leave it atRodriguez's apartment. Rod-riguez agreed.

Later, Daniel called Rod-riguez and asked if he could meet the man at a local Taco Bell restaurant. Rodriguez drove to the restaurant, and as he pulled into the parking lot he received another call from Daniel, telling him that there was a package under the seat to give to the man. Rodriguez said he did not know what was in the package, which contained a kilogram of cocaine.

When he parked his car next to one described by Daniel and spoke with the driver, he was surprised by police officers who moved in to arrest him. The driver of the other car was a confidential police informant.

"His excuse cut off everything," Keith said. "He goes there to pick up some money for a friend, he'd never done this for the friend before, he didn't have control of his car for part of the day. He has done a good job of minimizing the state's chance in proving he was involvedand it wasn't a dupe."

Beechler and Severo interviewed jurors after they reached the plea agreement. After hearing testimony from police officers involved in the investigation and Rodriguez's account of what happened, some jurors had doubts about Rodriguez's guilt, Beechler said..

"Several of the jurors said they actually believed that in a tight-knit Hispanic community in Winston-Salem, a young man may do a favor for his friend without understanding that he's being manipulated," Beechler said.

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