A D.C. Superior Court judge convicted a New York woman of carrying 14 pounds of marijuana into a District apartment, where a fellow suspect was arrested with $45,000 in cash. The judge was convinced that she lied on the witness stand.
But in the District, Janice L. Landell's crime of marijuana possession is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months in jail. Judge Shellie F. Bowers yesterday sentenced her to two years' probation, including 100 hours of community service.
There is a message in the way the District treats marijuana sellers, contend D.C. prosecutors, who are pressing the D.C. Council to boost certain marijuana crimes to felonies punishable by as long as five years in prison.
"D.C. is facing a huge problem," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jelahn Stewart told Bowers during yesterday's sentencing hearing. "These people come down to D.C. because they know marijuana is a misdemeanor."
Although crack and heroin more routinely make headlines, U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis argued in a letter to the D.C. Council this year that 21 homicides in the past 10 years have been tied to marijuana turf wars.
A federal indictment in March named nine men in 18 killings in the Greenleaf Gardens neighborhood of Southwest Washington, all involving marijuana sales. Two government witnesses were among the dead, prosecutors alleged.
"Time and time again, marijuana dealers are arrested and immediately returned to the street," Lewis wrote. "Marijuana trafficking is a highly lucrative, low-risk enterprise."
In Maryland, marijuana dealers can be sentenced to five years in prison. The five-year term becomes mandatory if the amount sold--or possessed with an intent to sell--is greater than 50 pounds. In Virginia, dealing any amount over half an ounce is a felony, with anything over five pounds requiring at least five years behind bars.
Selling marijuana in the District is almost always a misdemeanor, no matter the quantity. Prosecutors can apply federal laws in certain situations, but history shows that cases involving less than 220 pounds are usually prosecuted in Superior Court.
Landell, 27, is a registered nurse in the Bronx. She said she was just visiting the apartment in the 3900 block of 14th Street NW. An undercover D.C. police officer posing as a janitor testified that he watched Aug. 20 as she carried marijuana into what Bowers called a "den of iniquity."
It didn't help Landell's credibility that she carried false identification in her purse, or that police found more marijuana and other drugs in the apartment, or that a co-defendant was carrying $45,000 in cash.
Initially charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana, punishable by as much as one year in jail, Landell was tried for simple possession. Bowers found her guilty.
"She took the stand and gave this story, which I totally disbelieve," Bowers said. "The whole thing's almost bizarre, the way she's in denial."
Landell sobbed loudly throughout yesterday's hearing. She told Bowers she could not summon a key witness because he'd told her he had killed three people.
As for doing the crime, she said, "I swear with all my heart I didn't."
Bowers, noting that Landell had earned A's and B's in school and had no prior criminal convictions, said he was half inclined to give her jail time. In the end he ordered a 150-day suspended sentence.
"One mind says, 'Please, lock her up, quick,' " Bowers said. "But the other says, 'I don't know.' "