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Judge gives Pittsburgh man life sentence after cocaine conviction

Back in August, Attorney General Eric Holder repealed federal policy requiring that prosecutors pursue the maximum possible penalty for defendants accused of drug crimes. The new policy is aimed at protecting non-violent drug offenders from penalties that don't fit the crime.

However, prosecutors may still seek the harshest penalties in drug cases, including life in prison. For example, if a defendant is shown to have played a leadership role in trafficking drugs, or if violence was somehow linked to a drug charge, then the defendant could still be given a maximum sentence of life in prison. A Pittsburgh man was recently given such a sentence, and the 33-year-old openly asked in court if the judge really believed the sentence was appropriate.

According to the prosecution, in 2012, an undercover agent met with the defendant and another man on the pretense of planning to rob a stash house. The defendant was arrested and later convicted on federal conspiracy and cocaine charges.

Before the trial, a federal prosecutor announced the government's plan to pursue a mandatory sentence of life in prison if the defendant was found guilty. The prosecution claimed that such a severe penalty was appropriate because the defendant already had four drug-related convictions.

The sentencing judge also pointed to the defendant's juvenile record, which reportedly includes six adjudications and six criminal cases that were dismissed. The judge also noted that the defendant had two gun charge convictions.

However, the man's defense attorney said those weapons charge convictions were essentially non-violent because the defendant, a felon, was only found to be in illegal possession of a firearm; he reportedly didn't try to harm anyone with a weapon.

The defense indicated that it would ask the Justice Department to review the prosecution's decision to seek a life sentence, as well as the judge's decision to refuse a delay of sentencing. The defense also announced plans to appeal the conviction.

The stakes are high in these cases, and defendants facing the possibility of harsh penalties will need an aggressive criminal defense with experience in protecting defendants' rights in federal drug cases. Despite changes in federal policy, prosecutors are still likely to pursue the maximum possible penalties, even if such penalties don't fit the crime.

Source: Trib Live, "Pittsburgh man gets life for drug dealing, 'hundreds of criminal decisions'," Brian Bowling, Feb. 5, 2014

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