Judge declares mistrial in D.C. area drug case

March 4, 2013

A federal judge declared a mistrial Monday in the latest prosecution of former D.C. nightclub owner Antoine Jones, after jurors deadlocked on charges that he funneled hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into the Washington area from Mexico.

The decision means Jones is likely to face a fourth trial, prosecutors said.

Jones’s conviction and life sentence were reversed last year by the Supreme Court in a landmark privacy case that restricted the police’s ability to use Global Positioning System devices to track criminal suspects. An earlier trial also ended in a hung jury.

From the start, the third trial was unusual. Jones, who has no legal training, acted as his own attorney. He put his wife on the stand, and he repeatedly referred to himself in the third person.

After hearing testimony for three weeks at the District’s federal courthouse, jurors could not reach a verdict on one felony drug conspiracy charge. The 11 women and one man were evenly divided after more than seven days of deliberations in part, two of them said, because there was not enough evidence directly linking Jones to the Maryland stash house where law enforcement seized 97 kilograms of cocaine in 2005.

“We had trouble pinpointing him in a certain place,” said one juror, Sheila Clarke. “Not enough photos,” said another, who declined to give her name for privacy reasons.

The outcome belied Jones’s lack of legal experience as well as the major investment of resources made in the case by law enforcement. Assistant U.S. Attorney Darlene M. Soltys told U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle that she “fully expects” the government to try again. It is a difficult case to walk away from, former prosecutors said, because of the amount of cocaine involved and because of Jones’s previous felony drug convictions.

One of Jones’s supporters, Jauhar Abraham, the co-founder of the anti-youth-violence group Peaceoholics, called it “excessive” to seek another trial.

Before the trial began, Jones, 53, passed on a plea offer that could have allowed him to serve as few as eight more years behind bars. A conviction, meanwhile, would have led to a life sentence because of previous felony drug convictions.

During the trial, prosecutors set out to show that Jones was a high-level cocaine dealer who stored shipments from tractor-trailers in and around Prince George’s County. Jones’s legitimate business as the owner of a now-defunct nightclub, Levels, was failing, prosecutors said.

At the heart of the government’s case were recordings of Jones’s telephone conversations with suppliers, with whom he spoke in code, referring to different quantities of cocaine as “music” or “tickets,” prosecutors said.

“There was no DJ, there were no tickets, they were kilos,” Soltys told the jury. “All that cocaine was flooding our community.”

Some jurors said Monday that the evidence didn’t support the government’s interpretation of the phone calls.

By the end of the trial, Jones paced the courtroom like an experienced litigator, his hands in the pockets of his baggy suits. During his closing argument, he tossed copies of the prosecution’s exhibits into a trash can and made an impassioned plea to the jury: “You have a life in your hands.”

Jurors who sided with Jones seemed persuaded that he was the target of a powerful government that never caught him directly with the cocaine he was accused of selling.

“Not once did they stop Mr. Jones with any drugs. Not once did they find any drugs in Mr. Jones’s club,” he said. “Can you say today that Mr. Jones had drugs on him?”

The Supreme Court’s 2012 decision threw out GPS evidence that prosecutors said linked Jones to the stash house. The court said Jones’s rights had been violated when law enforcement officials attached a tracking device to his Jeep and monitored his movements for 28 days.

This time, the government connected Jones to the house with surveillance videos that showed his Jeep — but not Jones — going back and forth to the stash house. Prosecutors also presented location data from his cellphone.

The prosecution’s case was also built on the testimony of four alleged co-conspirators, including some of Jones’s Mexican suppliers who agreed to cooperate with the government as part of plea deals.

In one mysterious scenario that Jones tried unsuccessfully to raise in his defense, he claimed that a man had entered the courtroom carrying $100,000 in cash, according to court transcripts. Jones told the judge that the man was a government informant trying to make it look like Jones wanted to buy off the jury.

“Whether it’s true or not true, it’s completely irrelevant to the facts here,” Huvelle told Jones, according to the transcript.

Another dramatic moment came when Jones called his wife to the witness stand: “Tell the jury, if you even thought Mr. Jones was selling drugs, what would you do?”

Turning to face the jury, Deniece Jones said, “I would probably kill him.”

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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