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VOL. 124 | NO. 74 | Thursday, April 16, 2009

Petties Drug Case Could Linger Into Autumn

By Bill Dries

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It could be the fall before prosecutors in the federal drug, racketeering and murder for hire case against Craig Petties and seven others make a decision on seeking the death penalty.

Petties is accused of leading the largest drug organization ever prosecuted in Memphis federal court. Prosecutors have said they might seek the federal death penalty against him and four of his codefendants. Because of that possibility, the five defendants each have been appointed additional legal counsel.

U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi has not made a decision on which of the defendants he will recommend seeking the death penalty for. He’s offering attorneys for Petties and four others to meet with him and make their case.

Seeking the death penalty also involves a review process that includes a conference before a Justice Department committee in Washington. As part of that review, defense attorneys are allowed to make their case against seeking the death penalty before the Attorney General of the United States makes that decision. Their cases can include factors that are called “mitigation.” They can include a defendant’s background and childhood.

Latest ‘rendition’

The Washington review had been scheduled for June but has been delayed at least until September as prosecutors prepare to release more information to defense attorneys.

U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays ordered the discovery information last month in a sealed court order after defense attorneys for several of the defendants insisted they were entitled to more information.

Meanwhile, Petties’ attorneys are challenging his January 2008 extradition from Mexico to the U.S.

Prosecutors contend Petties was not extradited back to the U.S. after his capture, but that the transfer was a “rendition” – a broader term that can include extradition as well as other types of transfers of prisoners between countries.

Attorneys Ross Sampson of Memphis and Jeffrey B. O’Toole and Danya A. Dayson of Washington, representing Petties, contend there were “irregularities involved in the rendition of Mr. Petties from Mexican authorities to United States authorities that may have a direct bearing on the government’s ability to pursue the death penalty in this matter,” according to the April 8 filing. “Specifically, we are requesting information that would tend to show that the United States government did not follow proper procedure in obtaining Mr. Petties’ transport from Mexico.”

The defense attorneys also want to know if the government’s proof at a trial might include “any evidence of a foreign record of regularly conducted activity.”

Discovery period

Petties fled to Mexico in 2002 after a Memphis federal grand jury indicted him on drug charges involving 600

pounds of marijuana. He remained there for six years before his capture in January 2008.

During those six years, the indictment was changed six times to reflect new charges and co-defendants in a drug organization prosecutors have alleged had ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel and involved tons of illicit drugs and millions of dollars. Petties ran his drug organizations from Mexico, including ordering the murders of rivals and members of his drug organization whom he believed were cooperating with authorities, according to the charges he faces.

Because of that, the defense attorneys wanted Mays to agree to a broader kind of discovery. They cited “the extreme difficulties inherent in investigating a case in which at least some evidence is likely to be found in another country, some parts of which are in a state of upheaval and where both the government and/or citizenry of the country are likely to be hostile to defense counsel and investigators.”

Petties was captured just as rivalries within the Sinaloa cartel and the cartel’s conflict with other Mexican drug organizations all reached a boiling point. The violent rivalries and quest for control of the drug trade collided with a new bid by Mexican President Felipe Calderon to wipe it all out. The result has been violence in Mexico that has killed more people in a year than American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

Confronting his accusers

Petties was allowed to attend an April report date in Memphis federal court after a series of other report dates in which he joined the hearing by a video link from the Memphis Federal Correctional Institute. Petties objected to the video link and said he wanted to attend the hearings in person.

Because of the violence alleged in the case, hearings for the defendants have involved a higher level of security. Petties isn’t the only jailed defendant who appears to be irritated by the conditions.

Clinton Lewis, at the federal prison in Mason, Tenn., with most of the other defendants in the case, was not enjoying his own isolation from other prisoners. He is among those who could face the death penalty.

Wearing orange prison scrubs, Lewis appeared via television screen from Mason last month, shackled at the ankles and wrists with a waist chain. He appeared with co-defendant Clarence Broady seated next to him in a cinderblock room.

Broady, who was dressed and shackled identically, said nothing as his attorneys, Art Quinn and Gene Laurenzi, pushed for a more certain trial timeline. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz told Mays, “They have everything we have now.”

“There may be other discovery,” Laurenzi replied. “Our position is it is not complete.”

Lewis fidgeted a bit before stepping closer to the camera.

Before he spoke, Mays warned him against speaking without the advice of his attorney.

“It may not be in your interest,” he said, explaining that anything Lewis said would be said in public and could be used against him.

“Why am I sitting in this federal prison, your honor?” Lewis asked as he complained of being isolated from other prisoners. “When I got here I was in population.”

Mays said there wasn’t anything he could do in the way of a court order about Lewis’ prison classification, but he said Lewis’ attorneys could explore the situation.

As Lewis continued to complain, Mays interrupted.

“If you understood me, you would not be speaking,” he told Lewis. “It is not in your interest to speak.”

“You don’t understand,” Lewis shot back before taking a step back and walking out of the picture with Broady.

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