It's very fashionable these days for United States Attorney's Offices to bring large indictments charging many people with involvement in a drug conspiracy.
They almost always get convictions.
Yet in the case of United States v. Gaskins, the D.C. Circuit - in an opinion written by a former federal prosecutor - ruled that the United States Attorney's Office indicted, and a jury convicted, a man for being a part of a drug conspiracy when no reasonable juror could have found that he was involved.
The government's case was pretty standard for a large drug conspiracy. They indicted 21 people, including Mr. Gaskins. The government had wiretaps. The government executed search warrants.
After the indictment, lots of people flipped and testified for the government. Many of them were working down from a mandatory life charge.
Again, in a drug case, this is pretty much par for the course.
Yet none of this evidence tied poor Mr. Gaskins to the conspiracy he was indicted for belonging to.
Here's how the D.C. Circuit described the government's best evidence based on a cooperator:
Briggs . . . testified that he was motivated to get his pending criminal cases resolved and to get out of jail. In January 2004, he entered into a plea agreement pursuant to which he was released to help the government obtain information regarding several suspects, including Gaskins. As a condition of release, he had to report to the FBI on a daily basis. Briggs testified that he had multiple contacts and conversations with Gaskins after he was released. Although he said that Gaskins helped him fill out job and housing applications, Briggs said that none of their interactions involved the subject of narcotics.
That Gaskins - helping a man get housing and a job. Still, not exactly Stringer Bell.
The government executed a search warrant at Mr. Gaskins' mother's house. As the D.C. Circuit said:
In addition, the government searched the apartment in southeast Washington where Gaskins lived with his mother. That search yielded neither drugs, nor records, nor any other evidence linking Gaskins to the conspiracy. Nor did it (or any other search) yield evidence that Gaskins had expensive jewelry, clothes, cars, or homes -- as searches did uncover with respect to other conspirators. The government's only evidence was that Gaskins lived in his mother's modest apartment.
And of the wiretaps:
FBI Special Agent John Bevington testified that the government conducted four months of wiretaps, from February 17 to June 26, 2004, during which it intercepted more than 14,000 calls. Recordings of many calls were played to the jury. Bevington and Detective Hall testified that two signature traits of a narcotics conspiracy are using coded language and asking conspirators to go to a land line, both of which could be discerned in several of the recorded calls. None of the calls by other alleged conspirators mentioned drugs or drug transactions in connection with Gaskins, whether in clear or in coded language. No call in which Gaskins participated mentioned drugs or drug transactions at all, in code or otherwise, and he was never asked to go to a land line.
See - that land line thing from Pulp Fiction is real.
The jury, nonetheless found him guilty.
Actually, to be more specific, the jury eventually found Mr. Gaskins guilty. The narcotics conspiracy he was alleged to be involved in had four separate objectives. The jury first found that he was guilty of the conspiracy, but that the government hadn't proven that he was seeking any of the objectives of the conspiracy. The district court, rightly puzzled by this, sent the jury back to resolve the conflict (over Mr. Gaskins' objection). The jury, then, returned a guilty verdict, determining that Mr. Gaskins was involved in the drug conspiracy.
Because the D.C. Circuit resolved Mr. Gaskins case based on the sufficiency of the evidence, and not based on the trial court's handling of the odd verdict form, the court of appeals did not resolve the question of what the court should have done with the odd jury determination.
Mr. Gaskins was ultimately sentenced to 22 years. The D.C. Circuit ordered him released and the judgment of conviction vacated after oral argument.
Think about that. Your government sought 22 years for a guy who wasn't on a wire, who no snitch said was involved, and who - when they searched his house - had no evidence of drugs there.