- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A former judge’s regret could lead to the early release of a drug kingpin whose case became well-known because of its connection to an organ transplant that saved Pennsylvania’s ailing governor in 1993.

As a federal judge in 1996, Robert Cindrich sentenced Ronald Whethers to life in prison for cocaine trafficking because federal guidelines mandated it given the violence and the amount of drugs involved. Prosecutors proved Whethers‘ group was responsible for about 390 pounds of cocaine being smuggled into western Pennsylvania from New York.

But Cindrich, now retired as a judge but still a practicing attorney in Pittsburgh, wrote a letter on Whethers‘ behalf saying he would have imposed a shorter sentence had his hands not been tied by the sentencing guidelines. The guidelines were amended in 2014 and now recommend a prison sentence of 30 years to life.

“Because I view sentences of life imprisonment appropriate only for those so depraved and dangerous that they constitute an ongoing danger to the public and are incapable of reformation, I would have sentenced Mr. Whethers to something short of a life sentence,” Cindrich wrote in the letter defense attorney Adam Cogan filed with the court earlier this year.

Cindrich wrote that a 30-year sentence “would have been sufficient to punish the defendant, protect the public, and act as a deterrent to others in my view.”

Federal prosecutors earlier this year “strenuously” opposed reducing Whethers‘ life sentence, according to court filings.

The prosecutors cited the scope and violence of Whethers‘ organization and noted a life sentence is still permissible under the amended guidelines. They also alleged Whethers “has continued to engage in significant illegal conduct while incarcerated,” without giving specifics.

Nevertheless, they recently filed, without explanation, a joint motion with Cogan agreeing that Whethers‘ sentence should be reduced to 37 years.

Cogan and the federal prosecutors have declined to comment. Cindrich couldn’t be reached.

If that deal is agreed to by U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, who has yet to rule or schedule a hearing, Whethers could be free in about 2028. Whethers, now 57, would get credit for time spent jailed before trial and up to 54 days of “good time” he can earn each year.

Whethers‘ life sentence stems from his federal drug conviction, but he also pleaded no contest to separate state court charges, including third-degree murder, in the June 1993 beating death of Michael Lucas, of Monessen.

Lucas’ heart and liver were transplanted into then-Gov. Bob Casey, who was suffering from amyloidosis, a disease in which protein deposits cause organ failure. Casey resumed his official duties six months later and finished his second term in office in 1995. He died in 2000.

According to court documents, Whethers‘ underlings fatally beat Lucas because they believed he had stolen more than 2 pounds of cocaine from them. His attorney argued the killing was carried out without Whethers‘ knowledge after he told them to get his stolen drugs back.

Whethers has already satisfied his 10- to 20-year sentence on his third-degree murder conviction because it was imposed concurrently.

Whethers concededly was no angel and his conduct in this case warranted a very severe sentence,” his attorney wrote. “It did not, however, warrant a life sentence and the district judge who sentenced Whethers has concluded as such.”

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