How Can a Man Who Won an Appeal, And a Major Supreme Court Case, Still be Locked Up for Life?
So, a guy gets convicted in a cocaine conspiracy case and sent to prison for life without parole, but wins on appeal and then wins again in a landmark US Supreme Court ruling on search and seizure law that overturns his conviction and forces dramatic changes in the way federal law enforcers go about their work. You would think this guy would be a pretty happy camper, getting back to his life and enjoying his freedom after sticking a thumb in the federal government's eye. But you would be dead wrong.
Meet Antoine Jones, the Jones in US v. Jones, last month's Supreme Court case in which the high court held that tracking a vehicle's movements by placing a GPS tracking device on it without first obtaining a search warrant is constitutionally impermissible. That ruling set off an earthquake under the Justice Department, evidenced this week with reports that the FBI has turned off some 3,000 GPS tracking devices that were in use.
FBI General Counsel Andrew Weissman told a University of San Francisco conference appropriately titled "Big Brother in the 21st Century" that the FBI had had problems locating some of the turned off devices and had sought court orders to get permission to briefly turn them on again, so agents can locate and retrieve them. The Supreme Court decision had caused "a sea change" at Justice, he said.
The Jones case may have been a victory for civil liberties and constitutional rights advocates, but Antoine Jones is still sitting in prison. Determined to nail the former Washington, DC, nightclub owner, federal prosecutors have announced they will seek to retry Jones without the evidence garnered by the GPS tracking device, and they want him securely behind bars until they get around to doing so.
The decision to not free Jones even though his conviction has been vacated and his case sent back to the trial court is of a piece with prosecutors' earlier tactics. After Jones won his case on appeal, prosecutors argued successfully then against granting him bail as they awaited a Supreme Court decision.
They think they have a big time dope dealer. Back in 2005, when the case began, Jones was targeted by the FBI and other federal and state police agencies as a major player in a multi-million dollar cocaine ring with ties to a Mexico-based organized crime group. Investigators said Jones and his co-conspirators distributed cocaine throughout the DC metro area. They eventually won a conviction against him, although it took them two separate prosecutions to do so. It was that conviction that was reversed by the Supreme Court.
Veteran Houston-based crime beat reporter Clarence Walker has been in communication with Jones via mail and the occasional phone call for the past several years. He's also been talking to Jones' appellate attorney, Stephan Leckar, who is exploring a possible plea bargain, although Jones doesn't appear interested in anything less than complete exoneration.
While Jones is pleased with the Supreme Court decision, he's not so pleased with the fact he is still being denied his freedom.
"All I can say I am very happy with the Supreme Court decision and I hope the decision helps millions of Americans preserve their right to have reasonable expectation of privacy," Jones told Walker in a phone interview this month. "The ruling came right on time because who knows how many American citizens the government continues to track and monitor for weeks and months without a warrant. Even some of the men here in prison with me have warrantless GPS issues, like a friend of mines named Sigmund James. The government tracked his vehicle for 14 months."
James was convicted in a massive cocaine trafficking case in Orangeburg, South Carolina, an operation called "Bitter Orange." Like Jones, James was sentenced to life without parole.
Jones said he expected to be released after the Supreme Court decision and that he was "shocked" when Leckar told him prosecutors were seeking to retry him or get him to accept a plea bargain.
"Matter of fact, I thought once the mandate was released, I would be freed from prison right away," Jones said, "but Mr. Leckar said the government will never let me go unless I beat them at trial."
"The government is permitted to retry the conspiracy charge, provided they don't use the GPS evidence," Leckar told Walker. "But there are a number of other serious legal issues that must be resolved including whether drugs and cash said to be from a stash house could be admitted," he explained. "But like I told Antoine, the feds have no intention of letting him go and that they will probably retry him on the evidence that was not obtained by the GPS tracker."
Jones got a sentence of life without parole the first time around, Leckar noted, and if he loses a second time, he could face the same sentence. But Jones is not ready to compromise. Instead he is going to fight, both in the criminal courts and the civil courts.
Jones filed a pro se civil suit against numerous law enforcement agencies alleging numerous abuses, but that jailhouse lawsuit was dismissed by the US District Court for Washington, DC, in 2009. Now, however, Jones is refiling, and he has professional legal assistance this time. He is being represented in the civil suit by the DC law firm of Miller & Chevalier.
"The federal authorities know they not only violated my civil rights, and my wife's and son's rights, but they lied on the witness stand, and they burglarized my home and warehouse," Jones charged. "And so now that I have attorneys representing me in the civil suit against the government, they want to wrongfully convict me again to cover up their lies and the crimes they committed during the investigation of my case. The feds know what they have done was wrong."
Jones is not only on the offensive with the civil suits. He has also filed obstruction of justice complaints with the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and the Office of the Inspector General. He is alleging that FBI and ICE agents committed various illegal acts in attempting to nail him, including falsifying federal reports, conducting searches without a search warrant, planting evidence, forging signatures on search consent forms, and perjury.
Purvis Cartwright, a former federal prisoner and highly respected Houston, Texas-based writ writer who has been closely monitoring the GPS case, told Walker that Jones may have made a mistake by suing the federal government because now prosecutors will come back at him very hard to convict him by using "snitchers" to testify against Jones, snitchers that Jones never met.
Cartwright called that strategy a "get on board" scheme, a way for informants to get their sentences reduced by helping prosecutors. "A rat don't have friends," he said, "only victims."
So far, one high-profile snitch has already gotten on board to help convict him in his upcoming retrial, Jones said. He said Leckar told him the government is planning to call a high-level Mexican drug dealer to say he shipped large loads of cocaine to him.
"I've never met nor talked with the guy in my whole life and he never testified in either of my trials," Jones said.
"The feds, like the DEA and FBI, have snitchers in the joint," Cartwright explained. "They will go to these guys and tell them they are trying to get something on a particular guy and then the feds will share with the snitchers some important background information about the target and next thing you know they ready to testify in court against someone they don't even know," he said. "This is rampant in the federal joint."
"The government still thinks they have a case, but they must have forgot what the Court of Appeals stated in their opinion," Jones said, before quoting word for word: "The evidence linking Jones to a conspiracy was not strong, let alone overwhelming, and the government did not have a drug transaction in which Jones was involved, nor any evidence that Jones possessed any drugs."
Prosecutors are reportedly offering a plea deal that would result in a 12-year federal prison sentence for Jones, but he isn't going to take it despite the possibility he could once again doing life without parole. He maintains his innocence, he said.
"I'll fight this case until the end."
Clarence Walker can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.