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September 22, 2011

Is it wise for notorious defendants to write to their sentencing judges?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent New York Times article headined "In 7-Page Note, Drug Lord Asks a Judge for Leniency."  Here is an excerpt:

“Good day to you, sir,” the letter to the judge began. “I am humbly asking if you could be lenient on me.” Judges receive letters all the time from defendants who are about to be sentenced, but this letter, seven pages long and neatly handprinted, came from no ordinary prisoner.

The writer was Christopher M. Coke, described by United States prosecutors as one of Jamaica’s most brutal drug lords. He led a trafficking ring from an armed stronghold in Kingston, moving guns and drugs between Jamaica and the United States, prosecutors said, and his soldiers patrolled the streets and guarded stash houses. He ordered murders, shootings and beatings, and, when one man stole drugs, the prosecutors said, Mr. Coke killed him with a chain saw.

Last year, Mr. Coke was arrested and sent to Manhattan, where he has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. He could receive a 23-year sentence. And it was in that context that Mr. Coke, 42, took it upon himself to send a polite letter to the judge, Robert P. Patterson Jr. of Federal District Court.

Addressing him as “Justice Patterson,” Mr. Coke said he accepted responsibility for his actions, although he did not apologize in the letter. And he asked that the judge use his “discretion” to sentence him “below the guideline range.”

In doing so, Mr. Coke offered a list of 13 reasons, with some broken into subcategories. For one thing, he said, he had lost his mother recently. “I was told that while she was on her deathbed, she was crying and kept calling my name.” And his 8-year-old son had been traumatized by his arrest, he said. “I was told that he is constantly asking for his daddy,” Mr. Coke explained, adding “He cries all the times since I am gone.”...

Federal prosecutors had no comment on the Sept. 7 letter, which was signed “Sincerely, C. Coke” and mailed from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Mr. Coke is being held. His lawyers said he wrote the letter without their assistance. One, Frank A. Doddato, said the letter “humanized” his client. The other, Stephen H. Rosen, said: “There are two sides to Christopher Coke. Everyone only talks about one side.”

Of course, Judge Patterson will hear about the other side, from prosecutors and victims. At least one victim has already written. Maxine Riley, who described herself as a resident of the western Kingston area, asked the judge to impose a life sentence. She contended that Mr. Coke was personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Jamaicans, including her son, Dexter, who she said was killed by Mr. Coke’s gunmen when he was 16. “I hope that you exercise your judicial discretion to put him away forever,” she wrote. “Mr. Coke is the Hitler of the Caribbean; this is an opportunity for him and his murderous organization to be permanently dismantled.”

September 22, 2011 at 04:21 PM | Permalink

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"In doing so, Mr. Coke offered a list of 13 reasons, with some broken into subcategories. For one thing, he said, he had lost his mother recently. 'I was told that while she was on her deathbed, she was crying and kept calling my name.' And his 8-year-old son had been traumatized by his arrest, he said. 'I was told that he is constantly asking for his daddy,' Mr. Coke explained, adding 'He cries all the times since I am gone.'..."

If the thoroughly honest Doug Berman hadn't put this up, I'd think it was a hoax -- a parody, authored by some law-and-order type, to mock the whining, self-pitying, "I'm-a-victim" baloney that has become the routine, stomach-churning inventory of defense sentencing memos.

But no, apparently it's real. And instead of being embarrassed by it and declining comment, this guy's lawyers chime right in, saying that it "humanized" the poor guy.

Ironically, I have to agree. It does indeed humanize him. In particular, it shows the simply astounding lengths to which some humans -- in this case, a bloodsoaked hoodlum who uses a chainsaw on his prey -- will go to make themselves out as the victim.

This is a classic. I'm going to put it in my files for future use.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 22, 2011 4:46:08 PM

Remember no matter an how henious the crime or the client the ethics rules charge counsel with being advocate for their client. That said, Bill if you were Mr. Coke's advocate what would you propose for the defense in mitigation of sentence? Can you act like an professional English lawyer and step over to the other side and defend when called upon or are you a professional American prosecutor who can never defend --never find any redeeming qualities (or at least articulate them) in persons who choose to commit offenses. Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: ? | Sep 22, 2011 11:17:51 PM

? --

"Can you act like an professional English lawyer and step over to the other side and defend when called upon or are you a professional American prosecutor who can never defend --never find any redeeming qualities (or at least articulate them) in persons who choose to commit offenses."

I am, first and foremost, a free human being and a man with a conscience. Because I am free, I choose any legal course of action I care to, including the clients I take. Because I have a conscience, it won't be this guy.

I would also note that you express no disagreement whatever with my observation that this character must have been sent from central casting to bleat the whining, self-pitying, "I'm-a-victim" sob story that has become the routine inventory of defense sentencing memos.

But if I were to play the defense lawyer role, the LAST thing I would do would be to put something like this in front of a judge. The overwhelming likelihood is that he would be appalled by its self-centeredness. That wouldn't exactly be in the client's interest, now would it?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 23, 2011 12:41:21 AM

Bill,

This is even worse than you indicate.

Sure, it is unquestionable that he is attempting to "humanize" himself and claim "victim" status. What is worse, IMO, is that he is also attempting to blame the government for victimizing his mother and 8 year old son.

Don't get me wrong. They are indeed victims. However, they are victims of HIS crimes just as much as the person he decided to carve like a Thanksgiving turkey with that chainsaw. This manner of thinking is consistently evident on this forum, as well as in general society. I am brought back to our Boy King who stated on the campaign trail that he did not want his daughters "punished" with a baby, implying that SOCIETY would be "punishing" them if they were not given access to contraception/abortion. Without even addressing the issue of whether a baby should be described as "punishment," it shows a method of thinking where society needs to bail out individuals who make poor decisions.

Mr. Coke is playing into that mindset. Rather than treat the torment of his mother and child (I'd bet a weeks pay that he was an absent father and does not give a rat's backside about his son) like a cautionary tale of the many victims of crime, it is implied that they are the victims of government and a bone-grinding criminal justice system.

Pathetic.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Sep 23, 2011 8:57:54 AM

On the other hand, if the alleged chainsaw massacre occurred in Jamaica then I honestly don't care, nor should the US court system. Let Jamaica deal with that how they will, be it execution or public accolades.

I would limit consideration of offender characteristics -- both good and bad -- to those that have an impact on US interests, and the rights of foreign citizens in foreign countries simply does not qualify.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 23, 2011 9:18:14 AM

i'm going to have to go with bill and tarlsqtr on this one!

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 23, 2011 1:59:37 PM

i also agree with your statements soronel. My problem here is He WAS jamaica's problem till we werer dumb enough to bring him HERE!

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 23, 2011 2:01:10 PM

Really, 23 years is the max sentence he is facing? Because I am personally aware of dozens of mid-level packagers/gofers in federal drug conspiracies who never killed/shot anyone and are serving LWOP...

Posted by: Anon | Sep 25, 2011 4:08:20 AM

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