Marijuana ring, lacking violent history, gets lenient sentences in N.Y.’s Southern District

The marijuana, it was said, originated in Mexico before making its way to the West Coast and then, finally, driven to New York and New Jersey before being sold in Spring Valley, Mount Vernon, the Bronx and elsewhere, at incrementally smaller amounts by the foot soldiers of the operation. At the top was Dunston “Killa” Foote, who “played a smooth game,” one of his 16 mistresses said. But further down the ranks were women like Deborah Griffith and Sophia “Bridget” Jones, the wives of core members of the ring, and men like Ian “Chiggs” Smith, a lifelong pot smoker who reconnected with an old friend — and higher-ranking dealer — at just the wrong time, as the federal agents began listening in. Before a 2005 Supreme Court decision that loosened sentencing guidelines, Smith, Griffith, Jones and others indicted on drug charges in the ring may have faced years behind bars. But because of a lack of violence in the case — and a federal judge who thinks law enforcement might have bigger fish to fry — nearly all of the ring’s players got off with less than three years in prison, or less time than it took the government to even investigate the case. Experts say this is far from uncommon in upstate drug cases, largely because many of those that originate in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties just aren’t that significant — even if the cops who do the investigating and the arresting think they are. The members of the Foote organization, indeed, may have reached a bit of a criminal sweet spot, being charged with no violent crimes — which can lead to exponentially longer prison terms — while dealing only in marijuana, which is prosecuted far less in the Southern District of New York than it is in the rest of the country, where more offenders are charged with marijuana offenses than any other drug. But in New York, prosecutions of powder cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin represent the vast majority of federal criminal cases, and nonviolent marijuana rings like the Foote organization can pale in comparison to more vicious and deadly drug gangs in other places in the Southern District of New York, like the Bronx, Newburgh and Yonkers. “Some of the investigations pursued by the enforcement agencies feeding cases to the White Plains courthouse would not have been pursued with the same intensity by downstate agencies,” said Daniel C. Richman, a law professor at Columbia University. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, but Erin Mulvey, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman, bristled at the suggestion that the agency prioritizes illegal behavior. She also defended the agency’s 4 1/2-year investigation of Foote and his accomplices. “Every drug that is illegal — that is listed on the Controlled Substances Act — we investigate,” Mulvey said, adding that violence could have erupted at any point along the Foote ring’s supply line.

“We go after drug-trafficking organizations at every angle.” The case started in May 2006, when federal agents began conducting wiretaps on several of the suspects’ phones. Nearlyfive years later, on Jan. 13, 2011, 26 of the suspects were arrested in predawn raids, and all initially were slapped with charges that could have led to life in prison. Later that same day, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a news release heralding the arrests as yet another victory in the war on drugs, saying, “We will continue … to identify, arrest, and prosecute drug dealers who profit by damaging our community.” Backing up Bharara was a mountain of evidence, an attorney for Foote said, including phone calls recorded over years, and all of the defendants decided within months not to fight the charges. But as guilty pleas started to come in and sentences were pronounced in U.S. District Court in White Plains, a theme emerged: leniency, for nearly everyone. Twenty-two people got less than three years in prison, and nine of those were sentenced to time served, or around a year in prison — departures from what sentencing guidelines called for in several cases and a far cry from what many had first faced, the statutory maximum of up to life. Even Foote, the ringleader, who was sentenced to 11 years May 11, got less time than what he would have received under mandatory sentencing guidelines, which would have meant 14 to 17 1/2 years. “The bottom line is that SDNY judges across the board have been more moderate when it comes to drug sentencing than their colleagues across the country,” said Richman, the Columbia law professor. He said 41 percent of drug-trafficking sentences in the Southern District were below the guidelines, versus 16 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Part of the reason, he said, is that the district has a higher proportion of drug cases that are “historical conspiracies” — gang cases that involve many different players at different levels of participation, inviting judges to use their discretion more broadly. In the Foote case, that meant the original January 2011 raid swept up more than just core members, like Rodney “Struggo” Mushington, Steven “Troy” Richard and Jeffrey “Leon Leslie” Gentles; the sweep also got minor players like Griffith.

In court papers, some defense lawyers have argued for leniency based on only marijuana being involved, with one, Sam A. Schmidt, quoting the evangelical leader Pat Robertson, who said in March that he thinks marijuana should be treated the same way as alcohol. Defense lawyers also said that many of their clients — most of whom are Jamaican — would be deported after they were released, “in and of itself, a harsh and lasting punishment,” one wrote. Other lawyers asked for leniency because many of the defendants were the products of broken homes and because most were heavy users of marijuana when they were arrested, several admitting at their arraignments to having smoked pot within the past day. Other defendants were the victim of unfortunate circumstances, like Smith, who first became a father in his 20s, when his 19-year-old girlfriend — who later earned a graduate degree at Harvard — became pregnant. But Smith smoked marijuana nearly every day for two decades, his lawyers wrote, and when he agreed to let Mushington — a “core member” of the conspiracy — stay at his apartment, his usage only increased. “He was continually high,” his lawyers wrote, before arguing for leniency. “He is a first-time drug offender who has repeatedly expressed his remorse .” Still others were employed at jobs that may have helped facilitate moving drugs, working at the post office or private shipping companies like DHL and UPS. But in sentencing, Judge Cathy Seibel suggested many of them were less dangerous criminals than those who simply had a marijuana addiction spiral out of control. “You smoked too much weed,” she told one. At Smith’s sentencing Wednesday, at least a dozen of his family members and friends showed up in support, some of them crying when Seibel ordered him to spend another year in jail on top of the 16 months that he had already served. But that sentence was about half of what the guidelines suggested, and even a prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Collins, said that Smith appeared to be a “heck of a father.” Seibel, too, sounded conflicted as she described Smith’s circumstances, noting that he was more of a passive participant in the ring and likely wouldn’t have committed any crime had the opportunity not “come to his doorstep.” “I feel like I’m giving you a pretty good break today,” Seibel said. “I wish you luck.”

via : The Journal News

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