If you’re testifying for the prosecution on a drug case, here’s a bit of advice: don’t be hooked on the stuff yourself. Last week, in a ruling that somehow slipped under the radar, Criminal Court Judge Randall Wyatt granted a new trial to six Hispanic defendants convicted on conspiracy to sell over 70 pounds of marijuana in April 2001. The judge ruled that a key prosecution witness, T.B.I. agent Patrick Howell, was addicted to cocaine during the investigation and proceedings of the case. Wyatt set aside a 15-year-sentence for each of the defendants, who had been ordered to serve their entire sentence because they were arrested within 1,000 feet of a school zone.
“I’m sure the state is considering appealing the decision, but as far as we’re concerned, we’re going to plan as if they are going to get a new trial,” says Jerry Gonzalez, an attorney for one of the defendants.
Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson says his office is still reviewing the ruling.
Later fired from the bureau, Howell was the lead investigator in the case. After tracking down members of the alleged drug ring, he got one member to cooperate. Howell also took the case to the grand jury, testified at a preliminary hearing and, during the trial, identified two of the defendants with being at the crime scene. As Wyatt wrote in his order, Howell “played a leading role in acquiring evidence that was used against all of the Petitioners.” But all the while, the judge ruled, Howell had been high on coke, undermining his credibility.
It was not Howell’s first use of the drug. Howell admitted to using cocaine “in late 1997 or 1998,” Wyatt wrote. He then left the bureau, returned to his role as an agent and, once again, resumed his coke habits right around the time he began investigating the Hispanic defendants. Howell was later arrested on drug charges, including one count of possessing cocaine “with intent to deliver to various prostitutes.” He also admitted to stealing cocaine from the T.B.I. evidence locker.
Wyatt did not opine on when the Davidson County District Attorney’s office first knew about Howell’s cocaine activity, although he notes somewhat suspiciously that the prosecution diminished the agent’s role in the case as time went on. (Torry Johnson declined comment on the particulars of the case.) Gonzalez, the defense attorney, claims that Johnson definitely knew about Howell’s drug problems after the sentencing and failed to tell the defendant’s attorneys as they were preparing motions for a new trial.
There’s an interesting side note to the story. To support his habit, Howell later admitted to stealing cocaine from investigations he was involved in. Gonzalez points out that if he had the cocaine on him while he was working at the old T.B.I. building in South Nashville, he would have been in possession of a drug within 1,000 feet of Tennessee Preparatory School. And we already know he had been distributing cocaine as well. So why wasn’t he prosecuted under the same statute used against the Hispanic defendants? In fact, all Howell got after pleading guilty to two counts of tampering with evidence was three years probation.
“What this says,” Gonzales charges, “is that the district attorney’s office will prosecute Hispanics who come within 1,000 feet of a school but not the law enforcement officers who likewise have drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.”
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