Cash and Cocaine, but No Conviction
Monday, March 5, 2007
The haul was unprecedented. A wiretap on the cellphone of a reputed drug kingpin led police to a stash house where they found almost 100 kilos of cocaine and nearly $1 million. A force of more than 100 federal and local agents swept up nearly a dozen suspects in raids across the region.
The evidence to put everyone away seemed strong. There were the drugs, the cash and the wiretaps, filled with curious talk of "tickets" -- "little tickets," "VIP tickets" -- code, prosecutors said, for wholesale quantities of cocaine.
And there was the Global Positioning System device, secretly planted in the suspected kingpin's car, tracking his comings and goings between the stash house in Fort Washington and his supposed customers in and around Washington.
Then the case went before a jury in U.S. District Court. The outcome was hardly what authorities would have expected on that October morning a year and a half ago when they found themselves staring at the biggest seizure ever made in a D.C. drug investigation.
The jurors, after deliberating for weeks, deadlocked earlier this year on many charges against alleged kingpin Antoine Jones, including the most serious: conspiracy. And on more than a dozen other counts, the jury came back with verdicts of not guilty. The three men on trial with him, charged with conspiracy as well, fared even better.
Kevin L. Holland and Adrian Jackson were acquitted of all charges; Michael A. Huggins was acquitted of all but one lesser charge, and that eventually was dismissed by the government. All three men, jailed for more than a year pending trial, are now free. Jones remains in jail, awaiting retrial.
It was a stunning loss for prosecutors and police, who claimed they had busted a major drug-trafficking ring with direct links to suppliers in Mexico. But the case had weaknesses that became apparent once it went to trial.
First was the profile of the alleged conspiracy. Unlike cases against other such enterprises, this one did not allege that anyone was killed or even assaulted by Jones or his alleged co-conspirators. Although the absence of violence was a relief for investigators, it also could have had consequences with the jury, lawyers said.
"If there's blood in the case, it kind of spreads out to everybody," said Jon W. Norris, who won an acquittal for Jackson. "But when there's not, the jury can really evaluate the evidence against each person -- as they're supposed to."
Nothing in the law requires prosecutors to present evidence of violence to prove a conspiracy to distribute narcotics. And whether the lack of bodies was pivotal in this case is a question that veteran prosecutors debate.
But experience tells many prosecutors that a body, or two or three, can make juries more apt to tie defendants together in a conspiracy and return verdicts in which everyone shares blame.
Without the sort of violence people have come to expect from major drug gangs, a case such as the one against Jones can seem more like an elaborate financial crime, lawyers say. A jury may see a lot of money and perhaps a bit of greed, but it doesn't see any pain and perhaps doesn't feel much emotion. And that could sway a case.