The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave federal judges greater power to impose longer terms behind bars for some convicted drug traffickers, unanimously upholding the prison sentences given to five Illinois men.
Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer said it does not matter that a federal jury did not make clear whether it found the men guilty of conspiring to distribute cocaine in its powder or "crack" form. The sentencing judge was free, Breyer said, to sentence the men as if they had been convicted of dealing in both illegal drugs.Under federal sentencing guidelines, the punishment for crack-related crimes is much tougher than crimes linked to powder cocaine.
Vincent Edwards, Reynolds Wintersmith, Horace Joiner, Karl Fort and Joseph Tidwell were convicted in 1993 for their participation in a drug-selling conspiracy based in Rockford, Ill.
The trial judge told jurors they could convict the men of violating a federal drug-conspiracy law if prosecutors proved they were involved with measurable amounts of powdered cocaine or crack cocaine.
After the jury found the men guilty of participating in an illegal conspiracy, the judge sentenced them based on his finding that the illegal conduct had involved both cocaine and crack.
Fort and Wintersmith were sentenced to life in prison. The other three received prison sentences ranging from 10 to 26 years, and a federal appeals court upheld all five sentences.
All five men appealed, contending that they were entitled to shorter sentences or even a new sentencing proceeding. But Tuesday's ruling rejected those arguments.
"The judge was authorized to determine for sentencing purposes whether crack, as well as cocaine, was involved," Breyer said, adding that the jury's belief about which drugs were involved was beside the point.
The case is Edwards vs. U.S., 96-8732.