A D.C. man sentenced to nearly two decades in prison after his conviction on a $600 drug deal saw his closely-watched appeal rejected Friday, as defense attorneys prepare to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Antwuan Ball and two other D.C. men in the same case were convicted of dealing small amounts of crack cocaine and were later sentenced from 15 to nearly 19 years in prison.
While the jury acquitted the men — Ball, Joseph Jones and Desmond Thurston — of conspiracy charges, U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts nonetheless ruled they had taken part in a conspiracy at their sentencing hearings. The judge’s findings led to far tougher sentences for each defendant compared to the prison terms they would have faced on the basis of their convictions alone.
Under federal sentencing rules, however, judges can consider “relevant conduct” that jurors rejected or never heard at trial. It’s a practice that lawyers for Ball and his co-defendants called unfair during a lengthy appeal.
Still, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Friday ruled against the defendants, all of whom were accused of being members of a gang called the Congress Park Crew.
“Although we understand why appellants find sentencing based on acquitted conduct unfair, binding precedent of this court establishes that the practice does not violate the Sixth Amendment ” the judges wrote.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District could not be reached for comment Sunday, but Stephen Leckar, an attorney for Ball, said the case isn’t over.
“Most people would be shocked to know that in the federal system zealous prosecutors can overcharge cases and then, after a jury has rejected all but the most modest of charges, convince a judge to sentence the defendant as if the prosecutors had proved their case to the jury’s satisfaction,” Mr. Leckar said.
“The Court of Appeals in effect said its hands are tied by the Supreme Court. We look forward to asking the Court to remedy this injustice,” added Mr. Leckar, who in 2011 successfully argued before the Supreme Court against the warrantless use of GPS data in another high-profile D.C. drug case.
The Washington Times previously reported on Ball’s case in a series of articles that included the thoughts of a juror, who later wrote to Judge Roberts to complain after learning that prosecutors had wanted to sentence Ball to 40 years in prison.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association of Federal Defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital filed briefs on behalf of Ball, Jones and Thurston.
At Ball’s sentencing, Judge Roberts said while he respected the jury’s verdict, he couldn’t ignore what he called “clear and convincing” evidence that Ball took part in a long-running conspiracy to deal crack cocaine in the District’s Congress Park neighborhood.
• Jim McElhatton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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