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Thousands Are Victimized by the Mandatory Harsh Sentencing for Crack -- Will They Get Justice?

Over 12,000 prisoners serving harsh sentences for crack cocaine possession and distribution may have their sentences reduced.

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They found guns and drugs--but not at her house. Tito Abea, a major drug dealer in the neighborhood, pleaded guilty to selling drugs from his auto body shop. He cut a deal with prosecutors, and he was pointing his finger at the Garrison twins. Though the twins were never found with any drugs, the testimony of three drug dealers--Tito, his brother Pedro Abea, and Felix Ogando--and almost nothing else was enough to put them behind bars. The defense requested that that the District Court judge remind the jury that the testimony of witnesses seeking a deal from prosecutors should be “weighed...with greater care than the testimony of a witness who has not testified pursuant to a cooperation agreement,” and “should consider whether the witnesses who fit that circumstance are testifying falsely and in order to obtain favorable consideration from the government or some other disposition in their own case."

The judge denied the request. The large amount of drugs the twins were convicted of distributing was based solely on Tito Abea’s testimony.

Lawrence says that they were initially charged just for powder cocaine, but that the prosecutors found a way to pin crack on them, dramatically upping the sentence. He says the prosecutors wanted to use the large sentence to pressure them to cut a deal and name names--like they did with Tito.

“The government came and said, ‘you have to tell us who these people are, these people in New York.’ And we didn’t know these people!”

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“Conspiracy” charges allow prosecutors to charge anyone found to be part of a “conspiracy” for the same underlying drug crime.

“The effect of this amendment was to make everyone in a conspiracy liable for every act of the conspiracy,” Eric E. Sterling told PBS. Sterling is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and former Counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, where he helped draft drug enforcement legislation including the 1986 law. “If a defendant is simply the doorman at a crack house, he is liable for all the crack ever sold from that crack house -- indeed, he is liable for all of the crack ever sold by the organization that runs the crack house.”

And, says Sterling, defendants “can also be the victims of lies by codefendants who have figured out how to cut a deal and manipulate the sentencing laws to their advantage.”

“A drug offender while in jail awaiting trial may learn the names of other persons awaiting trial. He may learn all about substantial assistance. He may learn that he can easily make up a story that will get him out of prison fairly soon if his story provides ‘substantial assistance’ in the prosecution of someone else as a ‘high level trafficker.’ The quantity of drugs in a drug case need not be shown by physical evidence. You don't need 500 kilograms of cocaine powder to establish 500 kilograms for sentencing purposes. The simple testimony of a witness, usually offering ‘substantial assistance,’ is enough to ‘prove’ that a quantity of drugs was sold. A clever informant can prove that someone else is a ‘high level trafficker’ without too much trouble.”

Indeed, the highest-level dealers are in the best position to inform on the largest number of people, and thus most likely to benefit from a sentence reduction. If defense attorneys attempted to pay a witness, of course, that would constitute an illegal act of bribery.

The wide use of conspiracy charges have been condemned for allowing hearsay evidence obtained from government informants to help convict innocent people and for convicting girlfriends, mothers and sisters with no substantial connection to drug dealing.

 
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