As a Metro cop for more than 15 years, Ernest Cecil helped nab countless gang members, drug dealers and other violent criminals on Nashville’s streets. But last week, the longtime law enforcement officer stood before a federal judge as a convicted felon pleading for mercy.
“I am really just throwing myself on the court to ask for as much leniency as you can give me,” said Cecil, who was convicted on cocaine, conspiracy and robbery charges in October for helping his nephew pull off a profitable drug robbery disguised as a legitimate narcotics bust.
Cecil, 50, has maintained his innocence all along, claiming his only intention was to encourage his nephew to lead a law-abiding life. But because Cecil chose not to testify on his own behalf at trial, the jury never heard his version of how he became entangled in a criminal drug conspiracy.
“I attempted to help a family member stay on the straight and narrow, but it didn’t happen that way,” Cecil explained at last Friday’s sentence hearing, during which details of a family drama emerged, making this more than a simple case of a good cop gone bad.
Defense attorney Rayburn McGowan told the judge that in seeking to convict Cecil, the government relied on the stories of career criminals, including 37-year-old Corey Cecil, who testified against his uncle in exchange for a lighter sentence.
“A lot of the people you heard testify against Mr. Cecil are dangerous offenders, and that’s how they spent their entire lives. They were willing to say whatever it took to get a lot less time,” McGowan told the judge, adding that his client is a devout Christian and a dedicated family man. Years ago, he was an all-American football player, attending Vanderbilt University on scholarship and eventually going on to work as a well-respected officer for nearly two decades. It was an obvious career path, given that a number of Cecil’s family members had pursued jobs in law enforcement before him, including a brother who works as an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Although Cecil’s lawyer asked the judge to impose a three-year sentence, federal sentencing guidelines dictate he must serve a minimum of 12 years behind bars. Given the mandatory minimum, Judge Aleta Trauger said 12 years without parole was the least prison term she could impose, although she believes it’s too harsh in this case. “If my hands were not tied, I would not give Mr. Cecil 12 years,” she said. “It’s way too much. It’s draconian. It’s way greater than necessary in the court’s view.”
Judge Trauger echoed many of the remarks made by the defense, which told the court Cecil was a first-time offender with no prior convictions. In contrast, she acknowledged that Corey Cecil, the primary witness in the case, had a sordid criminal past: “He is not an admirable person, but he did render substantial assistance and helped himself in that way. He helped the government convict a police officer who engaged in criminal conduct.”
In turn, Corey Cecil, who had a lengthy rap sheet before this latest brush with the law, was sentenced to five years without parole for his role in the crime.
On the afternoon of April 30, 2003, prosecutors say Officer Cecil conspired with his nephew to steal more than 3 kilos of cocaine from a local drug supplier.
The plan, according to the government, was for Corey Cecil to arrange to purchase the cocaine stash in a parking lot near the corner of Wedgewood and Eighth Avenue South. But when he arrived to make the deal, he claimed he didn’t have enough cash on him to pay for the drugs. Because the supplier knew and trusted Corey Cecil, he turned over the drugs and agreed to follow him to another location to retrieve the rest of the money. That’s when prosecutors say Officer Cecil arrived on the scene with his lights and sirens blaring, and pulled over the supplier, in turn letting Corey Cecil get away with the drugs without ever having to pay. They say the officer searched the supplier, knowing he no longer had the drugs on him, and then let him go. Prosecutors say Corey Cecil escaped the seller’s retribution by saying he too was chased by police and had to ditch his car, which he claimed was seized with the drugs inside.
Corey Cecil later distributed the stolen cocaine—unbeknownst to the supplier—earning more than $70,000 and paying $10,000 to his uncle for his assistance in the heist.
Not surprisingly, Ernest Cecil’s defense lawyer tells a different story of what transpired that afternoon, claiming his client was oblivious to his nephew’s plans to squeeze the drug dealer. McGowan explains that Ernest Cecil worked as a gang intelligence officer with Metro police, and that he occasionally relied on his nephew to gather information from the streets. In fact, McGowan says Ernest Cecil’s superior often requested that he contact his nephew to get information.
Metro Police spokesman Don Aaron refutes that claim, saying, “We have no reason to believe what Ernest Cecil said is true. Corey Cecil was never documented as an informant by anyone in this police department.”
Though it seems hard to believe, McGowan claims his client never envisioned a drug bust. “He used his nephew to make contact with this individual so that he could make a stop and question him.”
McGowan declined to reveal further details about his defense theory, saying only that any illegal activity carried out by Corey Cecil in connection with that stop was his own doing, adding that his client “seriously underestimated the immoral and deceptive self-serving nature of his nephew.”
The government suppressed at trial much of the evidence that would have helped prove this theory, according to McGowan, who says he plans to appeal the verdict this week.
Officer Cecil wasn’t arrested in connection with the 2003 drug heist until December 2006, following a lengthy investigation that started with a “citizen tip.”
Also arrested in connection with the crime was former Metro Officer Charles Williams, who accompanied Cecil when he pulled over the drug supplier that day. Williams told investigators he was unaware of the phony drug bust until just before it was under way, but because he failed to intervene or report the information, he too was tried, convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison.
In a motion filed with the court, the lawyer representing Corey Cecil argued his client admits he committed crimes against society, but that he paid society back “tenfold” by testifying against corrupt police officers. “But for Corey Cecil’s testimony at trial, his uncle, a Metropolitan police officer, would still be working the streets of Nashville with a gun, badge and all the power under color of law that he needs to commit crimes at will,” wrote defense attorney Billy J. Marlowe. “[Corey] Cecil is a victim in the sense that his uncle could have served as a proper role model; however, he did not.”
But according to a handful of relatives of both Ernest and Corey Cecil, the younger Cecil is to blame for his uncle’s legal troubles.
Ernest Cecil’s brother, Sherman, himself a DEA agent, wrote a letter to Judge Trauger explaining that his big brother always tried to help Corey Cecil change his life. Although his nephew was in and out of jail, Sherman Cecil says his brother never gave up on him: “I think that because of that close relationship, my brother now finds himself in the position of losing the job that he loved passionately and facing federal jail time.”
Ernest Cecil’s sister, Ruby Joyner, wrote in a letter to the judge that Corey Cecil created an entire life around stealing, cheating and wreaking havoc on his community and his family. She predicts in her letter that when Corey Cecil gets out of prison, he will almost certainly return to a life of crime.
In yet another emotional letter, the defendant’s 80-year-old mother, Ruby Cecil, asks the judge to impose a lenient sentence on her son, saying, “He is a good son and will continue to be a good member of our community when he comes home. I will be there for my son, Ernest Bernard Cecil, for as long as God keeps me on this earth and even after.”
During Cecil’s sentencing, family and friends filled the courtroom, waiting to learn his fate. His elderly mother, both his wife and ex-wife, brothers and sisters, his pastor, and a few longtime friends stood and introduced themselves one by one at the judge’s request. “As you see,” Cecil told the judge, “I do have a family who loves me.”
When Cecil’s sentence was handed down, a few family members struggled to hold back sobs. Unable to speak to his family before being escorted out of the courtroom in shackles, Cecil instead nodded, mouthing the words, “I love you.”
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