After he admitted shooting and killing a 24-year-old D.C. man, Dominic Samuels received a sentence of seven years in prison.
After his conviction for a $600, half-ounce cocaine deal, Antwaun Ball got a sentence of 18 years in prison.
But their vastly different punishments provide a stark reminder of just how much discretion federal judges have at sentencing. The outcomes also shed light on a controversial but perfectly legal practice that lets judges mete out tougher sentences based on conduct that jurors rejected at trial.
“There is absolutely no doubt that defendants who plead guilty get a benefit from prosecutors and the judge, but it does seem pretty dramatic here,” said Doug Berman, a sentencing analyst and law professor at Ohio State University.
Prosecutors charged Ball and Samuels in what they termed a violent conspiracy to deal crack cocaine in the Congress Park neighborhood of Southeast Washington. Ball and Samuels were among six defendants tried in 2007 before U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts.
But after two months of deliberation, the jury acquitted Ball — who had rejected a 25-year plea deal and, at one point, faced a possible death penalty prosecution — of murder, racketeering, conspiracy and other charges. The jury convicted Ball of a single hand-to-hand drug transaction with an undercover FBI informant in 2001.
The jury deadlocked — seven voting for acquittal, three for conviction and two undecided — on whether to convict Samuels in the 2002 murder of Jamel Sills, 24, in Congress Park. Prosecutors vowed to retry Samuels.
However, after the mistrial, Samuels had a change of heart. And so did prosecutors. Both sides agreed to a plea deal under which Samuels would receive seven years in prison if he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, including the years he had spent in the D.C. Jail before, during and after trial.
“Were his matter to be retried, both sides would be taking a great risk,” Samuels‘ attorney, A. Eduardo Balezero, said in a sentencing memo. “For the government, it could mean a possible acquittal. … [F]or Mr. Samuels, it could mean a conviction and possible life sentence.”
“You’re going to have to learn how to respond to those temptations that gnaw at you, that eat at you, in ways that don’t bring you back into the criminal justice system,” the judge told Samuels, who is no longer in federal prison.
Ball would have to wait more than three years after his conviction before he was sentenced in the same case. Unlike Samuels, though, Judge Roberts ensured that Ball would not be getting out of prison anytime soon.
While Ball was convicted of a half-ounce drug transaction, prosecutors cited evidence that the jury rejected at trial in asking that he be sentenced to 40 years in prison. They said Ball was the leader of a long-running and violent conspiracy to deal drugs in Congress Park.
The prosecution also pointed to Samuels‘ guilty plea to bolster testimony at trial from several cooperators who testified against Ball. Samuels‘ attorney said in court papers that he didn’t want the plea to be used in sentencing his co-defendants.