Critics have said that the traditionally harsh penalties in federal court have led to jury nullification, in which jurors rule with their conscience instead of the law, and that the tough-on-crime spirit of the federal system is losing the war on drugs.
Take the recent case of a Charlottesville man. Jurors in a 2004 federal trial acquitted city resident Todd Jones, charged in a violent drug conspiracy, though they convicted two others in the same case. At least one juror believed Jones was guilty.
Under recently abolished mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, a conviction would have sent Todd Jones to prison for life.
The Jones juror, who asked not to be identified, said there was no evidence that Jones had any knowledge of guns or the large amounts of drugs moved by the major players of the conspiracy. "The rest of us thought that what he did did not rise to the level of what the others did," the juror said.
Jones sat alongside Gregory Antonio Bates Felton and Tadashi Demetrius Keyes in the two-week trial while jurors heard testimony about violent ways Felton and Keyes protected their narcotics business, dubbed "Estes Street Inc." by prosecutors because of the neighborhood in which they operated.
Because of his previous criminal record, if Jones, 36, had been convicted, federal sentencing guidelines would have required that a judge sentence him to life in prison. But it was clear Jones was not a major player in a violent drug ring, the juror said.
"He was a user, that was obvious. He was ... what sounded to me, an alcoholic. He was not a complete innocent," the juror said.
Caught Up In The System
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Booker that the sentencing guidelines, which would have required Todd Jones spend the rest of his life behind bars, are just that: guidelines. The decision gives judges discretion in sentencing for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Because drugs often cross interstate boundaries, drug conspiracy cases that involve many participants are regularly tried in federal court. Indeed, drug cases are the most common type tried in the system. According to case statistics for 2003, 46 percent of all defendants in the Western District of Virginia, which includes the Charlottesville area, were charged with drug crimes.
Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman said lower-level drug dealers can sometimes be caught up in federal prosecutions as the government seeks to bring down the leaders of violent drug enterprises. Such prosecutions must be done responsibly, he said.
"You don't want ever to take lightly the plight or status of the lesser player in the enterprise and take people to federal court without having the appropriate regard for the consequences," Chapman said.
Though federal penalties for drug crimes are often harsh, the community has benefited from such prosecutions, Chapman said, and some homicides in the city would never have been solved had it not been for the power of a federal drug conspiracy prosecution.
Sometimes the only witnesses to a murder are members of the drug ring itself, and many reveal what they know only after they are faced with the bitter reality of a federal drug charge. In the Estes Street case, a string of neighborhood shootings was solved, as was the murder of Gerald Michie.
Capone And Co.
Greg Felton, known as "Capone" on the street, shot Michie in the head after accusing him of stealing his guns. Keyes, described as his second lieutenant, shot a rival in the arm. For most of their trial, prosecutors called on witnesses who connected Felton and Keyes to guns and drugs used to further the violent conspiracy. Only a handful of the 30 or so witnesses mentioned Jones, and most said he was an alcoholic and a user.
Alonzo Trice, the group's ringleader, was one of the government's critical witnesses. In addition to pointing to Felton as the triggerman in Michie's slaying, Trice testified that Jones acted as a liaison between him and other lower-level dealers.
Marlon Daniel, who brought cocaine to Trice from New York, was also a key witness for the prosecution.
For their cooperation, prosecutors filed a motion for substantial assistance - known in legal circles and among the prison population as a "5k" motion - for Trice and Daniel that allowed these top conspirators to receive relatively light sentences of 15 years in prison.
Though investigators captured Jones on video surveillance hanging out with Felton, Keyes and other members of "Estes Street Inc.," and what appeared to be him delivering a package near Trice's house, jurors did not find him a relevant participant.
On the stand, Jones said he had hung out on Estes Street and that police eventually tapped him to be an informant. Jones, however, turned out to be of little help to police. He spent money police gave him to buy alcohol, according to his testimony.
After he angered police, Jones said, his name was added to the conspiracy.
The juror said it appeared as if law enforcement sought retribution against Jones for his ineffectiveness as a witness.
"All he did was get busted for using," the Jones juror said. "I don't know his whole criminal record, but I don't think he deserves life."
A Winnable War
Since the inception of mandatory guidelines in 1987, drugs have continued to move through society even as an increasing number of men and women are locked up.
"If you want to use the war on drugs analogy, then let's use it. We're losing," lawyer J. Lloyd Snook III said. "If the definition of insanity is doing something over and over and hoping for a different result, then this is insane."
According to the National Office of Drug Control Policy, in 2003 the federal government spent $19 billion on the war on drugs - a rate of about $600 per second. And the Bureau of Prisons reports that 89 percent of federal prisoners were convicted of drug crimes.
The Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force, a collaborative effort of local and federal law enforcement, continues to report high numbers of drug seizures. This year, JADE officials recorded their second-largest cocaine seizure in a decade with 2,635 grams.
The agency announced in its 2004 annual report the disruption of three Jamaican-led drug-distribution groups and another criminal group with leadership in New York.
Since its inception in 1995, JADE has arrested 1,906 people.
"The more they send away, there are those who will take their places," local defense lawyer Fred Heblich said. "The harsh penalties have not resulted in a decline in drug trafficking. My impression is that there is more drug trafficking here than 15 years ago. Certainly not less."
On The Web
Statistics of crimes committed by federal defendants (www.uscourts.gov/judbus2003/appendices/d3-def.pdf)
Bureau of Prisons quick facts on inmates (www.bop.gov/news/quick.jsp#3)
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