VOL. 124 | NO. 144 | Friday, July 24, 2009
Timing Perfect For Holder’s Visit
By Bill Dries
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s stop in Memphis this week came at a critical time for U.S. Department of Justice operations in West Tennessee.
The U.S. Attorney’s office is awaiting the appointment of a new chief prosecutor by President Barack Obama. Local U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, and John Tanner, D-Union City, have been consulted by the administration, which took up residence seven months ago in the White House. Larry Laurenzi has been acting U.S. attorney since the resignation of David Kustoff took effect in May 2008.
Holder, the deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, was one of Obama’s first Cabinet appointments.
In his remarks to those attending Wednesday’s 26th annual meeting of the National Black Prosecutors Association, Holder said he had ended a Bush administration practice of emphasizing conviction rates and the number of cases prosecuted in certain priority crime categories.
“Our success as prosecutors is not measured by how many cases we have won but by how much justice we have done,” Holder told the Downtown luncheon crowd of about 160 people.
Holder also said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division will be more active, citing Memphis’ backdrop as the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at a key juncture in the civil rights movement.
“We can never forget – never forget – Dr. King and all of those who joined in the fight for civil rights were aided by the lawyers and the leaders of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice,” Holder said to applause. “That is a legacy that I not only honor but also one that I am committed to reinvigorate. … I’m very proud to report to you today that the Civil Rights Division is back and it’s open for business.”
The Civil Rights Division has been active in several high-profile cases in federal court in Memphis, including a series of cases against Memphis police officers accused of robbing drug dealers while in uniform. The leader of the robbery ring, former cop Arthur Sease, was convicted by a jury in February of drug and civil rights violations conspiracy and sentenced earlier this month to life plus 255 years in prison.
Holder called on prosecutors to recommend sentences that will close the gap between greater prison sentences for crack cocaine possession and lesser prison terms for powder cocaine possession.
“Although some may seek to impose the ‘soft on crime’ label on anyone who speaks the truth about this issue, we know and every prosecutor knows that this egregious difference in punishment is simply wrong,” Holder said in calling for reform of federal sentencing guidelines.
The different sentencing guidelines have been a long-standing source of debate even among prosecutors.
Prisoners at the Memphis Federal Correctional Institution were among inmates at several federal prisons who rioted in October 1995 when Congress defeated legislation that would have moved toward more similar sentences for federal drug cases involving powder cocaine and crack cocaine.
Four inmates at the Memphis prison were injured. There was $5 million in damage to the facility and a fourth of the inmates were later transferred to other federal prisons.
Holder also told the Memphis gathering that his decision earlier this year to dismiss the political corruption case against Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was “my only recourse” after he concluded federal prosecutors did not turn over relevant information to Stevens’ attorneys during the discovery portion of the legal proceedings.
Stevens was indicted last summer on seven felony counts of concealing more than a quarter of a million dollars in gifts and home renovations from a powerful oil contractor that lobbied him for government aid.