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VOL. 124 | NO. 246 | Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Petties Drug Case Reaches Pivotal Juncture

By Bill Dries

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The largest drug case ever presented in Memphis federal court reaches a critical phase today when U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi begins a series of meetings with attorneys for five of the nine defendants.

Craig Petties and the eight others are accused of running a multi-state drug organization that brought tons of marijuana into the region and shipped millions of dollars to drug suppliers in Mexico over a 13-year period.

The indictment also alleges six people were murdered in six years by the organization reputedly headed by Petties. Four were killed because they were suspected of cooperating with federal authorities.

In some cases, they were. Two others were killed for the robbery and shooting of someone in Petties’ organization.

The meetings between Laurenzi and the attorneys are called “mitigation” meetings.

Laurenzi will hear from the defense attorneys on why his office should not seek the federal death penalty.

Actions, consequences

Prosecutors have indicated they might seek the death penalty against Petties and codefendants Demetrious Fields, Clarence Broady, Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis.

All five are charged with murder for hire counts in the federal indictment.

All five also have a second county-appointed counsel chosen specifically for their experience with death penalty cases.

Laurenzi has told the defense attorneys that he will consider their arguments against the death penalty on a case-by-case basis and make his decisions in March, according to updates on the case given at report dates before U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays. His decisions in each case will be a recommendation to the U.S. Justice Department.

There will be a second round of mitigation hearings before Justice Department officials in Washington for the defendents Laurenzi recommends for the death penalty.

In both sets of hearings, defense attorneys are allowed to bring up factors in the lives of their clients they feel mitigate against seeking the death penalty. The factors could range from circumstances in the case to the kind of childhoods they had.

Life of crime

Petties was first indicted in 2002 by a federal grand jury for possession with intent to distribute 600 pounds of marijuana. He fled to Mexico shortly after that.

For the next six years, he allegedly ran the organization from Mexico. During that time, federal authorities also pieced together a narrative of the drug organization in a series of superceding indictments that included a shifting case of eight codefendants.

More than 40 people, including unindicted co-conspirators or those charged in other separate federal court cases, are named in the indictments.

Today’s meeting will be between Laurenzi and attorneys for Fields.

Fields assumed one of several “leadership roles” in the Memphis-based drug operation after Petties fled to Mexico, according to the indictment.

“Demetrious Fields also assisted the enterprise in the murder of those considered to be enemies of the enterprise,” reads the indictment.

Martin Lewis, Clinton Lewis and Clarence Broady are described in the indictment as “contract killers” for the organization. Petties allegedly ordered them to kill from Mexico. Petties was captured in Mexico in January 2008 and returned to the United States.

The legal details of his return to the U.S. and Memphis, where he remains imprisoned, are among the points his attorneys may contest before a trial.

Attorneys for all five of the defendants being considered for the death penalty have also argued for broader discovery in the case, including other codefendants.

“We want to know everything there is to know about this case before we go to Washington,” attorney Art Quinn told Mays at an October report date for his client, Clarence Broady.

Prosecutors have told Mays they are providing what the defense is entitled to. They’ve also cited, in written responses, the unusual nature of the case and the need for some sealed proceedings and motions because of the murders of several cooperating witnesses.

‘Valuable lesson’

Meanwhile, another codefendant, Latonya Ingram, who had been accused of helping the Petties organization launder drug money through car purchases, was sentenced in November to 11 months in prison.

Ingram pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge. The criminal complaint agreed to by Ingram and prosecutors does not mention drug money or any connection to Petties.

Ingram instead pleaded guilty to stealing $19,259 from an Ace Cash Express office, her employer, to help buy a 2003 GMC Yukon Denali.

Ingram was sentenced by Mays to time served since her bond was revoked earlier this year, following an unrelated arrest by the Germantown Police Department.

“I don’t feel that I’m the same person I was when I came in,” Ingram told Mays at her sentencing hearing. “I’ve never had to serve time before. I’ve learned a valuable lesson.”

However, Ingram still faces six identity theft and forgery charges in Lee County, Miss., that could net her more jail time.

Mays could not consider those pending charges in sentencing Ingram.

“I leave that to the court,” he said. “Ms. Ingram has paid a high price for this crime.”

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