May 10, 2012
"Drug crime sends first-time offender grandmom to prison for life"
The title of this post is the headline of this new article from the Houston Chronicle, which carries the subheadline "Houstonian, who has no secrets to trade, is doing more time than drug lords." Here is more about the crime and punishment of the woman pictured here:
The U.S. government didn't offer a reward for the capture of Houston grandmother Elisa Castillo, nor did it accuse her of touching drugs, ordering killings, or getting rich off crime. But three years after a jury convicted her in a conspiracy to smuggle at least a ton of cocaine on tour buses from Mexico to Houston, the 56-year-old first-time offender is locked up for life -- without parole. "It is ridiculous," said Castillo, who is a generation older than her cell mates, and is known as "grandma" at the prison here. "I am no one."
Convicted of being a manager in the conspiracy, she is serving a longer sentence than some of the hemisphere's most notorious crime bosses -- men who had multimillion-dollar prices on their heads before their capture. The drug capos had something to trade: the secrets of criminal organizations.
The biggest drug lords have pleaded guilty in exchange for more lenient sentences. Castillo said she has nothing to offer in a system rife with inconsistencies and behind-the-scenes scrambling that amounts to a judicial game of Let's Make A Deal.
"Our criminal justice system is broke; it needs to be completely revamped," declared Terry Nelson, who was a federal agent for over 30 years and is on the executive board of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "They have the power, and if you don't play the game, they'll throw the book at you."
Castillo maintains her innocence, saying she was tricked into unknowingly helping transport drugs and money for a big trafficker in Mexico. But she refused to plead guilty and went to trial....
Gulf Cartel lord Osiel Cardenas Guillen ... once led one of Mexico's most powerful syndicates and created the Zetas gang. He pleaded guilty in Houston and is to be released by 2025. He'll be 57.
As the federal prison system has no parole, Castillo has no prospect of ever going home. "Any reasonable person would look at this and say, 'God, are you kidding?' " said attorney David Bires, who represented Castillo on an unsuccessful appeal. "It is not right."...
Castillo is adamant about her innocence. "Put yourself in my shoes. When you are innocent, you are innocent," she said. "I don't say I am perfect. I am not … but I can guarantee you 100 percent that I am innocent of this."
At the urging of her boyfriend, Martin Ovalle, Castillo became partners with a smooth-talking Mexican resident who said he wanted to set up a Houston-based bus company. But the buses were light on passengers and shuttled thousands of pounds of cocaine into the United States and millions of dollars back to Mexico. Her lawyers argued she was naive.
Castillo claims she didn't know about the drug operation, but agents said she should have known something was wrong when quantities of money and drugs were repeatedly found on the coaches. "After hearing all the evidence as presented from both the government and defense in this case, the jury found her guilty … ," said Kenneth Magidson, chief prosecutor here.
Former federal prosecutor Mark W. White III said if Castillo had something to share, she might have benefited from a sentence reduction for cooperating. "Information is a cooperating defendant's stock in trade," White said, "and if you don't have any, … the chances are you won't get a good deal."
May 10, 2012 at 08:53 AM | Permalink
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As we have commented many times, a) prosecutors have far too much power in determining the indictment and sentence and b) judges either have too little, or fail to exercise the sense of proportion that is required to achieve justice. Neither would I rule out her innocence (of the specific charges at least) knowing that the overwhelming incentive is to find "someone" to hold up as guilty and to "pay the price". The phrase "she should have known something was wrong" rather gives it away. Yes, they persuaded a jury she was guilty ... but the evidence is implied as merely circumstantial .... and certainly a long way short of justifying life imprisonment. I'll also risk saying this again ... whilst the ultimate penalty remains the death penalty, there is little pressure on the system to moderate sentencing extremes such as this. Like it or not, there IS a sentencing pyramid, but it is top heavy .. a reversal of anything that would represent a system designed to reflect justice.
Posted by: peter | May 10, 2012 9:25:45 AM
“American punishment is comparatively harsh, comparatively degrading, comparatively slow to show mercy.”see James Q. Whitman, Harsh Justice (Oxford Press 2003) paperback ed. at 19. “Contemporary policies concerning crime and punishment are the harshest in American history and of any Western country.”Michael Tonry, The Handbook of Crime And Punishment (Oxford Press 1998) paperback ed. at page 3; U.S. v. Bannister 786 F.Supp.2d 617 (E.D.N.Y.,2011)(“One of our most thoughtful jurists reminds us, “[o]ur resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Address at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, Ca. (Aug. 9, 2003)); U.S. v. Dossie, (E.D.N.Y. May, 2012) (Gleason, J.)(“the drug-offense Guidelines ranges are excessively severe”)
Posted by: Michael R. Levine | May 10, 2012 9:59:22 AM
Peter, well said....Your much more articulte than I am...Great job..
My problem with the Feds is this... Take the Post on the Judge wanting to only have the DOJ
instruct his troops (AUSAS') to only use the MM if they were Drug kingpins.. Yesterdays post.
The feds will nail everyone on a MM if they make it stick... TAke OWI and career Offender. Potential for serious ophysical harm... HArd to believe that AUSA and Fed Judeges think America was going to sit back and let that one run a muck... Anyway I agree, the feds have way too much power and they
don't exercise any discretion.. Thats because of the policies of the DOJ.
Ashcroft memorandum. Ensure guideline sentences and prosecute to the highest level charge.
Holder, Win, Just Win....( at all costs ) When the guidelines refer to an increase in sentence as an
enhancement your already whipped. Kind of arrogant.. Then they basically take your life history
and add up the points, then go down to your aqssigned level... Presto, theres your sentence.
May as well have a probation officer enter the info into a laptop, and have a program calc it out
for you...A computer would be just as generous on handing out variances and downward departure as
this Judge Linda R Reade from over there in IOWA is....Equally as caring as we've noticed in the Rubaskin case. ( mispelling accidental, quote marks left out intentional)
The guidelines indciates for the PSR to take the higher, whatever creates the longer sentence when
calcing the drug qtys etc.. So its just meant to get the longest that they can..
Except when it comes to good old Judge Jack Camp.. Bless his heart and his $174K annual
retirement...And he doesn't have a felony either...Isn't it amazing...
Well, I've been sarcastice enough... I think most agree that the feds should take a long walk off
a short plank...Maybe congress will even have a budget in abnother 10 yrs..
Posted by: Abe | May 10, 2012 10:10:24 AM
Just as too short a sentence brings the system of justice into disrepute; so also does too long a sentence.
Posted by: Dave from Texas | May 10, 2012 10:10:42 AM
"Former federal prosecutor Mark W. White III said if Castillo had something to share, she might have benefited from a sentence reduction for cooperating. 'Information is a cooperating defendant's stock in trade,' White said, 'and if you don't have any, … the chances are you won't get a good deal.'"
Does anyone else on the law and order side have an issue with this? How much information someone has doesn't seem all that relevant to blameworthiness. And, in many cases, more information is probably more blameworthiness. Obviously, these types of issues are going to pop up in any criminal justice system, but shouldn't prosecutors be cognizant of these types of structural unfairnesses to make sure that they don't go overboard.
This woman probably deserves what she got, though.
Posted by: federalist | May 10, 2012 11:49:23 AM
Federalist, a necessary evil: e.g., Sammy "the Bull" Gravano got a walk on multiple murders to testify against John Gotti. You are right, however, in one sense: a major problem is that inexperienced prosecutors or those not well trained, or those wrongly traineed (ususally the same ones who commit Brady violations over and over again) abuse the power to offer deals and lack judgment and common sense--preferring just braggig rights. Assuming this womoan is guilty as sin, she did not deserve life in prison. That sentence, as indicated by an earlier comment, does indeed tarnish the criminal justice system--and, in some ways, hiniders future convictions.
Posted by: prosecutor | May 10, 2012 12:14:05 PM
Boy I will sleep better tonight knowing that this menace is going to die in prison.
Posted by: Thinkaboutit | May 10, 2012 12:14:42 PM
"Neither would I rule out her innocence..."
When have you ever?
Moral of this story: Stay away from drugs, stay away from anything you full well know is hooked up to drugs, stop thinking that being a "grandmom" gives you an all-purpose excuse, just get a normal job, and lead a normal life and you'll do yourself and the world a lot good.
Neither law nor culture gets fixed as long as we focus on outlier sentences and ignore the unwholesome but easily changeable behavior that is their true antecedent.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 12:19:27 PM
"Boy I will sleep better tonight knowing that this menace is going to die in prison."
You shouldn't let news stories affect your sleep. OJ got away with murder, as did Casey Anthony. Clarence Ray Allen could have been executed for his first murder, but wasn't, resulting in his bringing off three more.
The difference between Allen's quite avoidable three subsequent murder victims and Ms. Castillo is that the latter had a choice and the former didn't. Does this disturb your sleep?
Adults have to accept the failures of life and go forward anyway. If one were to lose sleep about injustice, however, there are far more heart-wrenching stories to do it about than Ms. Castillo.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 12:34:56 PM
You write that "Neither law nor culture gets fixed as long as we focus on outlier sentences and ignore the unwholesome but easily changeable behavior that is their true antecedent."
I generally respect your views, but disagree with your assertion that criminal behavior is "easily changeable." All of history teaches us to the contrary. But, more to the point, I'm not at all sure that this woman received an "outlier" sentence. As a Texas prosecutor, I agree with Professor Tonry's conclusion, quoted above by Mr. Levine, that “Contemporary policies concerning crime and punishment are the harshest in American history and of any Western country.”
Posted by: Texas prosecutor | May 10, 2012 12:41:55 PM
Texas prosecutor --
I am not a criminologist, and I don't know whether all or most criminal behavior is easily changeable. I know that some is, when the right deterrence and deterring incentives are provided. It seems to me that it was far from inevitable that Ms. Castillo would involve herself with drugs. Indeed, apparently (so far as the story shows) she spent most of her life NOT involved with them.
As you are doubtless aware, the real reason people start in on drug dealing is to make fast, easy money. This is not a noble motive, and it's not doing a lot for me that the story's author wants to demand sympathy for greed by trotting out this "grandma" business.
Contemporary sentencing practices are the whipping boy of this particular blog, but in fact have contributed enormously to the vast crime reduction of the past two decades. As you probably know, the overall rate of serious crime is down by half. Criminal sentencing is not the only reason, but it is a significant reason.
Crime victims do not have a choice. Ms. Castillo did. It is not a difficult decision for me to know with whom I have more sympathy.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 1:02:59 PM
Bill Otis says: "I know that some [criminal behavior] is [changeable], when the right deterrence and deterring incentives are provided. It seems to me that it was far from inevitable that Ms. Castillo would involve herself with drugs."
By invoking deterrent incentives as the way to reduce criminal behavior like Castillo's, I think you've invited these questions: Is the problem that the potential sentence of *life imprisonment* was insufficiently harsh to deter Castillo's behavior? If so, what punishment should the law prescribe for this kind of offense? Or are you saying that, since we've cranked the punishment up to the max, we've done all we can to help Castillo have the right incentives to avoid criminality, and the rest is up to her? If so, does it trouble you that the maximum deterrent seems not to be deterring very well?
Posted by: Matt | May 10, 2012 1:45:13 PM
Bill, while I appreciate the unsolicited advice, I was using rhetoric to make a point that I thought the sentence in this case was excessive. I won't really lose sleep over it. But the fact that you would compare this dumb woman to a murderer like Clarence Ray Allen makes my point, not yours. Lastly, I don't know what jury decisions in the OJ and Anthony case have anything to with sentencing policy.
Put simply, I think this sentence is excessive. I am not comparing it to others who have had it worse. I am just saying this sentence is excessive. You are free to disagree, of course. But if you agree this is too much, then there's nothing really to debate.
Posted by: Thinkaboutit | May 10, 2012 2:08:56 PM
"Is the problem that the potential sentence of *life imprisonment* was insufficiently harsh to deter Castillo's behavior?"
No, the problem is that no sentence or range of sentences will perfectly, or even close to perfectly, deter everything. You cannot change this fact and neither can I.
"If so, what punishment should the law prescribe for this kind of offense?"
Mooted by the prior answer.
"Or are you saying that, since we've cranked the punishment up to the max, we've done all we can to help Castillo have the right incentives to avoid criminality, and the rest is up to her? If so, does it trouble you that the maximum deterrent seems not to be deterring very well?"
No, it doesn't trouble me. As noted, all of the hundreds of thousands of inmates currently incarcerated were not deterred by the prospect of getting whatever sentence they got.
Isn't this actually easy? Those in prison were not deterred. This is too obvious for argument. The more important question concerns those who are NOT in prison because the WERE deterred, and the persons who did NOT become crime victims because of deterrence (and incapacitation).
The massive reduction in crime and crime victimization over the last 20 years came about in part because of putting more criminals in prison for longer. One can debate how much of this massive decrease came about because of "incarceration nation," and one can debate whether it was worth the cost, but one cannot debate either (1) that it happened or (2) that, as social systems go, it was among the most successful we have had if not the most successful, vastly outstripping the success (actually the failure) or the much more expensive "war on poverty."
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 3:01:22 PM
"As noted, all of the hundreds of thousands of inmates currently incarcerated were not deterred by the prospect of getting whatever sentence they got."
Well, OBVIOUSLY. But that doesn't make a point because the question is why they were not deterred. I have no doubt that some people where not deterred because nothing was going to deter them. But I also think that for some people they were not deterred because the rewards from committing the crime outweighed the rewards they could get legally. Now again, in some cases that might just be the result of simple greed as in the fraudsters who steal millions.
But I can't find anything in this case history that suggests she was motivated out of sheer rebelliousness or outrageous greed. It seems to me that she caught up in something bigger than she understood and got dinged for that. How that is going to deter anyone in the future I cannot grasp.
If prosecutors and judges deserve the discretion they are given they need to come up with better justifications than "well, that's the law." So it is. So what.
Posted by: Daniel | May 10, 2012 3:15:49 PM
I gave you a sarcastic retort because you made a sarcastic comment. We both usually do better, and I regret my snippiness with you. As you know, I have no little respect for you.
I tend to be agnostic on specific sentencings when they are reported, as this one is, in a truncated, largely one-sided piece that goes out of its way to tell us about "grandma," as if that were relevant to beans. It isn't. It's just a sentimentalized blurb stuck in to fuzz over "granny's" behavior, of which -- unlike the jury that convicted her -- we get to hear very few specifics.
Now why is that?
I am additionally skeptical because this woman, who was in her early 50's at the time she facilitated this huge importation operation, maintains that she was really innocent and got "tricked."
Good grief. Do you ever wonder how people get "tricked" into making so much quick dough in the drug business? I worked for decades in a law office, and, oddly, no one "tricked" me into getting rich. I must have been missing something.
I'll say only this about the specific sentence: She was apparently 53 when she got convicted, meaning that the de facto sentence is going to be roughly 25 years, which would hardly be out of line for smuggling in a TON of cocaine.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 3:18:15 PM
That is what is missing from this story, I agree, Bill. How much money did she make from these empty buses while "having no idea" that something wrong was happening? But I honestly believe that no one deserves a prison sentence (other punishments, sure) of more than 10-15 years unless they killed someone. Yes, a ton of cocaine is a lot but, as they say, conspiracy law is a bitch, and she could have been held accountable for that amount even if she was unaware how much was moving (because she was only tangentially involved).
Posted by: Thinkaboutit | May 10, 2012 4:18:36 PM
This is stupid.
Grandma receives a longer sentence than a rapist, than a carjacker, than child abusers, etc.
Assuming grandma trafficked in some blow, who cares? Who was harmed? Were there any involuntary participants in her transactions?
Let grandma out, and imprison the snitches, DEA agents, and prosecutors who went after grandma. We'd be safer and better off.
Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 10, 2012 5:10:11 PM
"Grandma receives a longer sentence than a rapist, than a carjacker, than child abusers, etc."
May I assume, then, that you will join me in seeking longer sentences for those folks to remedy this injustice?
"Assuming grandma trafficked in some blow..."
CCDC tells us that a ton of cocaine is "some blow" (actually "blow" is pot, not cocaine, but what the heck). Far out! Can I invent my own language too?
You sure don't, but there are those who do. If anyone in this family starts in on cocaine, for example, I will care a lot, and I will put a stop to it, your efforts notwithstanding. It's a dangerous and sometimes lethal drug, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/6981361/Cocaine-not-safe-party-drug-and-causes-alarming-number-of-deaths.html
"Let grandma out, and imprison the snitches, DEA agents, and prosecutors who went after grandma. We'd be safer and better off."
Next time some pimp wants to turn your or someone else's 14 year-old daughter into a whore by hooking her on heroin, make sure to call granny to fix things, the DEA agents all being in your jail.
I'll say this for you, though. At least, unlike many in the criminal defense bar, you don't pretend to be non-judgmental.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 8:01:44 PM
You forgot to add that marijuana was the gate way drug to cocaine ( sarcasm,sarcasm)
Posted by: Anon | May 10, 2012 8:40:00 PM
You forgot to add that the story Doug put up is about cocaine, much as you would like to change the subject. You also forgot to add a rebuttal to the article I linked about cocaine's being a dangerous and sometimes lethal drug. On the other hand, maybe you didn't forget. Maybe, like CCDC, your attitude is, to quote him, "who cares?"
Gads, you guys are sooooooo compassionate -- until the mask slips. Maybe you should just adopt "who cares?" as your anthem.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 9:42:41 PM
Bily is on a roll. Single handly tackling all respondents in the all comers internet site....Impressive.
The lady got the shaft...Bill is full of himself and other things, he is gloating like a ex AUSA....Hiding un his day under cover that we provide Via the feds...
Posted by: Josh2 | May 10, 2012 10:00:38 PM
Now they tell us sugar is toxic. The dangers of alcohol are well known.
Should authoritarians like Bill Otis be able to tell us whether or when we can consume sugar and alcohol? Should they be able to criminalize the consumption of sugar and alcohol?
Of course not. They should mind their own business. But they won't. They think they know better than us. And, by god, they'll put us in jail unless we comply with their belief that consumption of marijuana, mushrooms, opium, etc., is really, really icky.
Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 10, 2012 10:30:28 PM
"Single handly tackling all respondents in the all comers internet site....Impressive."
More impressive than getting stoned, although I'll concede that's damnation by faint praise.
"The lady got the shaft..."
Then she might have taken the trouble to conform her behavior to the law. I know that's a novel thought around here, but it is not a novel thought in the wider world.
"Bill is full of himself and other things, he is gloating like a ex AUSA...."
I know, I know, we're all required to have the same "the government sucks" viewpoint. Forgive me.
"Hiding un his day under cover that we provide Via the feds..."
I'd answer that if it were coherent.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2012 11:41:08 PM
"Should authoritarians like Bill Otis be able to tell us whether or when we can consume sugar and alcohol? Should they be able to criminalize the consumption of sugar and alcohol?"
Absolutely not. Nor do I attempt to. (I also do not attempt to put killers back on the street, Mr. Calif. Capital Defense Counsel). However, Congress has that power, as confirmed by the Supreme Court. Incidentally, the consumption of alcohol IS criminalized in many circumstances, and no sane person I ever heard of wants to repeal drunk driving laws or allow eight year-old's to be plied with booze. If you think differently, have at it.
"Of course not. They should mind their own business. But they won't."
God forbid that an opposing viewpoint show itself. I guess I'd fear your liberal fascism if it weren't such an obvious failure.
"They think they know better than [we]. And, by god, they'll put us in jail unless we comply with their belief that consumption of marijuana, mushrooms, opium, etc., is really, really icky."
You are under absolutely no obligation to comply with my beliefs. You are under an obligation, however, to conform your behavior to the requirements of democratically enacted and judicially approved law. If you want to go live on a desert island, feel free. While you avail yourself of the myriad benefits of civil society and the rule of law, you don't get to choose which laws suit Your Highness and which don't.
It's just astounding that I have to tell this to a person who holds himself out as a lawyer.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 11, 2012 12:01:30 AM
Bill Otis -
How well do you and your crazed brethren in the assinine war on drugs conform your behavior to California's democratically enacted and judicially approved medical marijuana laws?
Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 11, 2012 12:22:28 AM
"I know that's a novel thought around here, but it is not a novel thought in the wider world."
You must live in a narrow "wide" world. I'm thinking maybe a double-wide...
Posted by: Daniel | May 11, 2012 2:35:20 AM
"How well do you and your crazed brethren in the assinine war on drugs conform your behavior to California's democratically enacted and judicially approved medical marijuana laws?"
Glad to see you stand up for conforming one's conduct to law. Did you have an epiphany?
I do not speak for my "crazed brethren," as you put it in your characteristically delightful tone. I can say, however, that not one single time have I violated California's medical pot laws, even if they applied to me, which being a non-resident they do not. No part of said law requires me to purchase dope, and I don't, nor do I acquire it or wish to acquire it in any fashion whatever.
It's bad for my health. I don't smoke pot and I don't smoke anything. Sorry if that offends your really cool sensibilities.
P.S. The idea that California's fake-a-sickness-and-get-zapped laws are "judicially approved" depends, I guess, on reading the dissent in Raich as controlling. Is that the way they taught it at your law school? I'm sure there are lots of state and local rulings in the Golden State saying the medical pot laws are OK, just as there were lots of state and local rulings in the Magnolia State saying the Jim Crow laws were OK.
CCDC, you live in an ideological isolation chamber so hermetically sealed that you no longer hear yourself. But let me just try to get one message through:
YOUR PERSONAL VIEWS ABOUT THE WONDERFULNESS OF POT DO NOT CHANGE FEDERAL STATUTORY LAW, FEDERAL DECISIONAL LAW, OR FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL LAW, THE SUPREMACY CLAUSE IN PARTICULAR. If you can get the CSA changed by democratic persuasion, more power to you. Until then, you do not have the powers of a king, and if you attempt to exercise the powers of a vigilante, you assume the risk.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 11, 2012 6:23:53 AM
Bill: Were you sleeping between 12:01 and 6:23 this morning? At our age, I would think that one needs a little rest to keep up the "Jane, you ignorant slut" routine that you and your retorters provide. Thanks for the continuing entertainment.
Posted by: alan chaset | May 11, 2012 8:30:48 AM
You'd be surprised how little sleep I need these days. You're still young and so am I. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
How are you doing?
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 11, 2012 9:35:12 AM
Who really knows to what degree of knowledge this woman had...She had to have some for sure, the bus sounds like it had drugs and big money in it on several occasions...The fedes went strictly on drug qty alone...Not the way the guidelines are to be dished out...She was a mule for sure.. But got a king pin sentence....we get to pay the $$$ for it...If she is from Mexico give her a yr and depoprt her. If she living in the USA give 3 yrs and train her with a skill.....I know, ridiculously low isn't it... But not as big an outlier as what the feds just did..Lets get the big fish and let this tenderroni go..
Yes I also will sleep good tonight knowing this hardened criminal is behind bars for life... Wew...
Looks like Bill is at it again, I can see his post above in all CAPS.. How your blood pressure these days Bill...
Posted by: Abe | May 11, 2012 1:14:44 PM
Do you know the extent of her involvement better than the jury? How did that happen?
"How['s] your blood pressure these days Bill...[?]"
As of this morning, 111/76.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 11, 2012 2:15:03 PM
I don't doubt her guilt, but to what degree, yes the jury knows a lot more than we do.
I do question her sentence.....Has to be a better way than this...Shes not the one we
want to warehouse for 30 yrs....Thats my point, federal sentences are just too long..
Lets get the ones that count.. How about the other end where the bus is going?
Not much can be done on her picking up the bus in Mexico.. Yes I know there is substantial assistance.
Can she speak English, was her Public defender any good at all? Who knows.
Have a nice weekend Bill...Theres next week, hopefully.
Posted by: Abe | May 11, 2012 3:39:42 PM
Fair enough. My experience with PD's is that they're really good, but of course there are big individual variations.
A happy weekend to you too.
Posted by: Bill Otis | May 11, 2012 3:45:00 PM