Drug sentence due for review

Supreme Court to hear arguments on life terms imposed by U.S. judge

`Pretty stiff punishment'

April 14, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

For police fighting Baltimore's unending drug war in the late 1990s, the case against Stanley "Boonie" Hall Jr. seemed to provide one bright-light victory.

Hall, working with his brothers, parents and grandfather, had built what authorities described as a million-dollar crack cocaine ring in East Baltimore, complete with its own "Batman" brand and logo. When investigators caught up with Hall, they seized a $47,000 Acura, $60,000 in men's jewelry and more than 380 grams of crack.

In court, that last figure would matter. A jury convicted Hall and eight others of conspiring to distribute a "detectable amount" of cocaine -- a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. But a U.S. judge in Baltimore handed down life sentences to Hall, then 26, and four co-defendants after finding that the men were eligible for steeper penalties because they had trafficked more than 50 grams of crack.

The U.S. Supreme Court could decide whether the life sentences, praised by law enforcement as a decisive win against the corrosive effects of the drug culture in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, should be reduced to 20 years. At issue in arguments before the court tomorrow is whether the jury, not the judge, should have made the finding on drug quantity.

A federal appeals panel ruled last year that U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake had, in effect, sentenced the Baltimore defendants "for a crime with which they were never charged, thus depriving them of the constitutional right to `answer' only for those crimes presented to a grand jury."

"It just makes common sense to say if you're charged with speeding, you can't get the death penalty," said Timothy J. Sullivan, a defense lawyer from College Park who will argue the defendants' case to the high court.

Government attorneys say the issue in Hall's case is hardly that stark. There was overwhelming proof, prosecutors argue, that far more than 50 grams of crack were trafficked by the drug ring on North Duncan Street, which operated out of a dozen vacant stash houses and pulled in as much as $12,000 a day. They say judges should have the discretion to give the worst offenders the toughest punishment -- a position backed by one of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges last year.

"There is no injustice in holding these defendants accountable," Chief U.S. Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in a sharp dissenting opinion in the Hall case. "The true injustice comes from this court reducing their sentences and ignoring the effects that their vast drug distribution ring had upon the citizens of Baltimore."

The Hall case is one of three criminal cases the court agreed to hear this term to examine crucial sentencing issues left unresolved by a landmark ruling two years ago. In that decision, a review of a hate-crime prosecution in New Jersey, the court ruled that only a jury can decide whether a defendant should face a sterner sentence than lawmakers set out for a crime.

The high court must decide how far the decision in Apprendi vs. New Jersey extends. Across the country, federal prosecutors and many state court systems have for years relied on a system where juries vote on guilt but judges make rulings on whether the factual details can shape a defendant's sentence.

In its 5-4 ruling in Apprendi, the Supreme Court said any element that would make a crime eligible for an enhanced sentence must be charged in the indictment and proved at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. To allow a judge to make that determination, the court said, would violate constitutional rights to due process and a trial by jury.

Hall and his co-defendants were charged in October 1997 in an indictment that specifically alleged they were part of a drug conspiracy involving more than 5 kilograms of cocaine or more than 50 grams of cocaine base, known as crack -- the distinction necessary for a defendant to face a life sentence.

A second, superseding indictment in March 1998 added several more defendants to the case and charged that the group had distributed a "detectable amount" of cocaine and cocaine base, without alleging specific amounts.

With each indictment, the defendants were advised that the maximum sentence in the case was life. At trial, jurors were instructed by Blake that they "need not be concerned with the quantities" in determining whether the defendants were guilty, court records show.

In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, government attorneys said the first indictment, combined with the instructions at arraignment, gave the defendants sufficient notice. But defense attorneys say it fell short.

"We're on notice to the penalty, but you've still got to prove the case," said Stanley H. Needleman, a Baltimore defense lawyer who represented Hall at trial. "The government's theory is that when there's overwhelming guilt, that it makes no difference -- that you can ignore Apprendi."

Defense attorneys say their clients' lives -- not mere sentencing technicalities -- are at issue in the case before the high court.

"What's at stake for my client is 20 years vs. life," said Arthur S. Cheslock, a Baltimore defense lawyer who represented one of Stanley Hall's brothers, Marquette "Butt Naked" Hall, who also received a life sentence, along with another brother, Jesus "Weedy" Hall.

"These are all young guys, and I would think 20 years without parole is pretty stiff punishment," Cheslock said.

In his staunch dissent, Chief Judge Wilkinson said other lives should be considered.

"Changing the rules of the game after it has already been fairly played does a profound disservice to the individuals whose lives have been affected by the drug trade," Wilkinson wrote. "In one sweeping motion, this court nullifies the sacrifices made by law enforcement officers, prosecutors and trial courts in enforcing this country's drug laws."

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