Monday, May 14, 2012

Where's the justice in that?

Scott Greenfield over at Simple Justice posted a very interesting piece on the abuse of mandatory minimums in federal drug cases. While one defense attorney, prosecutor turned defender of liberty, Jim Walden, argued that mandatory minimums were a useful tool - when used "properly" - in the War on Whatever Drugs; Mr. Greenfield pointed out that the problem wasn't how mandatory minimums were (or weren't) used, the problem was with the entire concept of mandatory minimums.
Yet again, we're asked to trust those in power to exercise it as they see fit.  Trust them. Believe in them. Don't worry our naive heads about it, as they will protect us from the evil people.  Let them have their mandatory minimums, and smarter people than us will remind the Prosecutors should they forget Congress' will, to exercise their vast but necessary power with mercy and discretion, fairness and equity. 
Except that's neither how the law works, nor is supposed to work.  The law is not meant to be a bludgeon in the hands of the government, where the powerful get to exercise it if and when they deem it necessary.  That Hawkish Mr. Walden trusts the Department of Justice to tread lightly where he, in his hawkish personal opinion, believes it's warranted is not a substitute for my vision of fairness and equity.   
It's not that we disagree that street level drug dealers should not be subject to the mandatory minimums. Indeed, we are in complete agreement, to that extent.  But I have no plans on handing unfettered discretion to the government to decide if and when to slam a defendant, because someone in the United States Attorneys office has decided that he's the one who deserves it.
And a recent example here in Texas makes Scott's case.

Meet Elisa Castillo. She's a 56-year-old first time offender who is serving life in a federal prison for her role in a drug smuggling operation. She was convicted for being the manager of the operation that smuggled over a ton of cocaine across the border into the United States on tour buses.

Probably not the wisest of business moves, I think we can all agree. But Ms. Castillo isn't a drug kingpin. She's never ordered the killing of anyone. She's never killed anyone. No one put a reward out for her arrest. But now she sits in a federal prison in Fort Worth where she will one day die.

The most notorious drug kingpins have never been sentenced to life in prison. Of course those farther up the food chain have something that Ms. Castillo didn't - information. She couldn't provide the feds with any information that proved useful in putting anyone else behind bars so she was of no use to federal prosecutors.

The latest case in point came this week with the negotiated surrender of a Colombian drug boss Javier Calle Serna, whom the United States accuses of shipping at least 30 tons of cocaine. 
While how much time Calle will face is not known publicly, he likely studied other former players, including former Gulf Cartel lord Osiel Cardenas Guillen. 
Cardenas once led one of Mexico's most powerful syndicates and created the Zetas gang. He pleaded guilty in Houston and is to be released by 2025. He'll be 57.

But, no matter how bad a man you are and no matter how many deaths you are responsible for, if you have some information to barter with, the US Attorney is more than willing to talk to you.
In 2010, of 1,766 defendants prosecuted for federal drug offenses in the Southern District of Texas - a region that reaches from Houston to the border - 93.2 percent pleaded guilty rather than face trial, according to the U.S. government. Of the defendants who didn't plead not guilty, 10 defendants were acquitted at trial. Also, 82 saw their cases dismissed.
Ms. Castillo had the unmitigated temerity to hold the government to its burden of proof. She claimed that she didn't know that cocaine was being smuggled on the tour buses. I have no idea what really happened - and neither did the jurors.

But because Ms. Castillo chose to exercise her right to a trial, she paid the ultimate trial tax.

That's right, Mr. Walden, let's just put our trust in the judgment of federal prosecutors - because we know they'll always do the right thing.

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