A federal judge in Rochester, New York, has set aside a jury's conviction of a Rochester man on drug charges, infuriating federal prosecutors and igniting controversy in the upstate New York legal community. US District Judge Charles Siragusa threw out a November crack cocaine possession conviction against Tyshawn Ross, saying that the jury did not hear evidence that could have led to Ross's acquittal.
Ross was arrested after driving long-time friend Mark Montgomery to an apartment complex where the latter obtained a quantity of crack cocaine. Ross then drove Montgomery to a fast food restaurant where Montgomery sold the crack to what turned out to be a DEA agent. "What the fuck did you get me into?" Ross said he yelled at Montgomery seconds before the bust went down.
Ross, Montgomery, and five others were indicted by a federal grand jury in June 2002 as part of an ongoing DEA investigation. Ross, a father of seven with no criminal record, continued to maintain his innocence, and was hit with a "superseding indictment" with additional charges in September 2003 after failing to provide any information against the others. He went to trial, was duly convicted, and was awaiting a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 10 years. Case closed, or so prosecutors thought.
Montgomery, meanwhile, had pled guilty. As a condition of his plea, he had to testify truthfully in a hearing before Judge Siragusa about his knowledge of the crack operation. At the December hearing, Montgomery testified that "Ross kept telling me that 'I had nothing to do with this' ... He was hollering and cursing at me," a claim he had made previously to both the DEA and federal prosecutors.
Judge Siragusa then had to determine Montgomery's truthfulness. Under the plea deal, Montgomery was looking at seven years if Siragusa found him to be truthful, 20 years if he did not. The judge decided that Montgomery was telling the truth, which left him with the uncomfortable conclusion that Ross had been convicted in error. He then entertained a motion by Ross's lawyer, Jeffrey Wicks, to vacate the verdict and order a new trial. That's when the fireworks began.
Federal prosecutors vehemently objected. "The circumstances of the case are such that he does not have the legal authority to order a new trial," said Assistant US Attorney Andy Rodriguez, who prosecuted Ross. "A jury heard the evidence and made that decision," added his boss, US Attorney Michael Battle. "That's where justice was done."
"So the government's position is this: Even if this court finds that Mr. Montgomery is truthful and that Mr. Ross was not involved... this court should let Mr. Ross go to prison for a crime that he didn't do," Siragusa said at the hearing. "You know what? I cannot and refuse to believe, despite the government's position, that that's the law."
Siragusa's move was unheard of in local legal circles, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported. No federal judge in the region, including Siragusa, had vacated a verdict in a criminal case in more than 20 years, the paper noted. "I have never granted a motion for a new trial because I believe firmly in the sacredness of a jury's verdict," Siragusa said in court. "But I cannot believe that our system of justice -- which is premised on the fact that we would rather have 10 guilty people go free than let one innocent man go to prison" -- would bar him from overturning the conviction and ordering a new trial.
The federal prosecutors have asked the Justice Department for permission to appeal the ruling. A decision is expected within weeks. Better an innocent man go to prison than prosecutorial prerogatives be challenged. There's nothing like wielding the law as a weapon against... justice.