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January 29, 2014

Notable New York story about "gentleman heroin dealer" getting out from under LWOP sentence

A helpful reader alerted me to this fascinating little New York Times story of one federal defendant (of too many) sentenced to LWOP for a first-offende drug crime who later became one federal prisoner (of too few) who got a lower prison term at a resentencing after spending nearly a quarter-century in federal prison.  The story demands a full read, but here is a snippet:

Time for a question to Myles Coker about the origins of a life that he had kept secret from the people closest to him.  How had he gotten started in the heroin trade?  Mr. Coker did not blink.  “It was back in the ’80s,” he said, when he worked for an illegal gambling business.

His son Clifton pulled his chair closer.  “I’ve never heard this part of the story,” he said. Neither had others at lunch at the National Arts Club on Friday.  Among them were Mr. Coker’s lawyer, Harlan Protass, who got him out of prison at age 63, well ahead of the life term he was supposed to serve, and Roland Riopelle, the former federal prosecutor who had put Mr. Coker behind bars.

A star wide receiver in college who is still in excellent shape, Mr. Coker did not use drugs himself.  He ran an entirely legitimate limousine business that had among its clients “The Cosby Show.” The parents of children he coached in Little League held parties to thank him for his devotion.  His wife was a teacher, principal and textbook author; their two sons, Clifton and Kelvin, went through private elementary schools in Manhattan, Poly Prep high school in Brooklyn and top colleges, and have enjoyed professional success.

Unknown to all, Mr. Coker was a gentleman heroin dealer.  His work for an illegal gambling operation — he took bets on sporting events over phones in safe houses in the Bronx — brought him to the home of Anthony Damiani, an overseer of the operation, who lived in Morris Park. “Not at the beginning, but after a few years, all this cash was coming in,” Mr. Coker said. “Once they got into heroin, I was seeing the currency machine for counting cash. They had me carrying it in sacks.”

He was invited to set up distribution in Harlem, and after a few years, took up the offer. “Greed just took me,” Mr. Coker said.  He eventually ran about five or six spots, a business that he said brought him about $25,000 in cash profits per month.... Records kept by one particularly diligent member of the organization showed that Mr. Coker had been supplied with 691,430 glassine bags in 26 months.  In time, 50 people, including Mr. Coker, were arrested. He was sentenced, under federal laws that are no longer in effect, to life without parole.

“He was just gone; we didn’t know where he was,” said Clifton Coker, who was then 10. By phone, the boys’ father told them he was away training a boxer. The boys’ mother, Deborah Coker, consulted a psychologist, who said the children should be told by their father of his whereabouts, but he did not disclose the details of his offense or that the federal authorities had written, “It does not appear that he will be discharged from said custodial sentence prior to his demise.”

Not until Kelvin Coker was at Amherst College and able to work the Internet did the brothers realize that their father was not supposed to ever come back....  The sons went on a campaign to find a way out of prison for their father, and hired Mr. Protass.  With hearty letters from prison guards who praised him for his sterling record as a peacekeeper, and with legal filings by Mr. Protass that Judge Loretta A. Preska of United States District Court said were “some of the best papers I’ve seen,” Mr. Coker was resentenced in August to time served — just under 23 years....

When Mr. Riopelle heard that Mr. Coker had been released, he invited him to lunch. “I want to see people like him succeed,” Mr. Riopelle said.

January 29, 2014 at 10:28 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Out of sheer greed, the guy spends years selling poison, and now he's Mr. Wonderful.

Sure he is. Did the Times do any investigating about how many lives this guy helped ruin through addiction, and how many overdose victims he helped along on their way to the morgue?

Does anyone have any curiosity about that?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2014 2:31:52 PM

Bill Otis,

You are out of control, need to be called out as the disgrace that you are, and it's good that Professor Berman is doing so. Do you really think 23 years' for this guy was just not enough? He obviously is intelligent and has a lot to contribute to society, rather than spending more time in prison, on taxpayers' dime. Nobody is saying that he is all good and didn't deserve some significant punishment. But enough is enough. The Times reports a positive story, and you have to throw your garbage at it.

It is quite troubling that the leading Jesuit university in the country is exposing its students to you. You seem to be a very troubled man.

Posted by: Liberty Lawyer | Jan 29, 2014 3:56:46 PM

Liberty Lawyer --

So you don't have any curiosity about how many lives this guy helped ruin through addiction, and how many overdose victims he helped along on their way to the morgue?

Oh, OK.

I'm sure there are others with you on the pro-heroin side who agree that having an interest in more of the story than the NYT recounts is, as you say, "out of control."

Now my own view is that curiosity about hearing a fuller account, and a degree of skepticism about tendentious press reports, is a good thing, especially for people who teach.

I admit, however, to being troubled. I am troubled, specifically, by those gushing over criminals who can't do without $25,000 a month, and couldn't care less how their greed harms ignorant and impetuous people, otherwise known in liberal circles as "the vulnerable."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2014 4:40:58 PM

Bill,

So long as the drug ingestion was not forced upon any deceased, no, I don't particularly care how many people died after partaking in heroin this guy had a hand in moving through the market. And I only care that the use was forced if Mr. Coker knew or was deliberately blind to his customers forcing the drugs on others. (And by force I do mean force and not mere enticement).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 29, 2014 6:37:54 PM

I am Myles Coker's lawyer. If you are genuinely interested in the case, I suggest that you contact me directly to get the actual facts, rather than engaging in guesswork and speculation. Other than that, it seems the debate here is really one of policy -- that is, how much time is enough time for someone who engages in narcotics trafficking. That's a matter of opinion and, by its very nature, an opinion cannot be wrong.

Posted by: Harlan Protass | Jan 29, 2014 6:56:20 PM

Harlan Protass --

With all respect, the attorney for one of the parties cannot be counted upon to give a neutral account of "the actual facts," since his he is paid, and required by the canons of ethics, to give the account favorable to his client. In addition, I hear all the time from defense lawyers that there are no real facts, just different "perceptions."

Nor, for that matter, will defense counsel necessarily know all the facts, because, for one thing, clients have been known to lie to their lawyers. All the time.

Having said that, I'll ask anyway:

1. Did your client ever sell or facilitate the distribution of drugs to anyone he knew, or had reason to believe, was an addict?

2. Did your client ever sell or facilitate the distribution of drugs to anyone he knew, or had reason to believe, was a minor?

3. Did your client care about whether his customers were, or would distribute his wares to, addicts or minors?

4. Did any of your client's customers, or others in his distribution chain, overdose? Were any of them hospitalized as a result of their drug use? Did any of them die? Did any of them have children whose rearing was adversely affected by the parent's drug use?

5. Did your client commit his crimes out of need, or, as the story directly implies, out of greed? Was there a reason he needed to make a drug profit of $25,000 per month?

Thank you for considering these questions.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2014 10:32:36 PM

Liberty Lawyer--whoa there! You have a right to your opinion, and Bill Otis has a right to his. The fact that you have resorted to making a personal attack instead of engaging on the merits speaks volumes. It is also something that you need to keep off of this blog. You should try learning from Prof. Berman---it has been my experience that he has a deep deal of respect for Bill Otis, even though the two often disagree. I would go so far as to say this blog would not be what it is without the participation of Bill Otis; he makes the blog interesting by providing an opposing view.

And, believe me I have seen students at all sorts of institutions exposed to far worse things than Bill Otis. Let me guess, you are one of those people who also preaches "tolerance." As in, "I tolerate those who agree with me and everybody who disagrees with me is fascist, racist, stupid, and demon-possessed."

Posted by: Whoa | Jan 30, 2014 10:19:31 AM

Sounds to me, Bill, that you're not going to believe whatever I might say because (among other things) I "cannot be counted upon to give a neutral account of 'the actual facts,' since [I am] paid, and required by the canons of ethics, to give the account favorable to [my] client." Initially, that's an unnecessary personal attack, particularly since you don't know me. In any event, I don't even think the original prosecutors, the original agents, the trial judge or anyone else involved in the case back in the early 1990s could answer all of your questions -- Some of them just call for speculation.

So, for arguments sake, let's just assume that the answers to all of your questions are basically "yes." What do you think an appropriate sentence is? For me, 25 years doesn't sound unreasonable. And that's essentially what he served.

You also need to understand the basis for the sentence reduction. It was no flight of fancy by anyone. In particular, the motion was brought pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(2), which allows for resentencing when the U.S. Sentencing Commissions reduces the guidelines and makes that reduction retroactive. At the time that Mr. Coker was sentenced, his guidelines offense level was 44 (life) -- 42 base plus 2 for a weapon recovered in a search of his apartment. At the time, level 42 was the maximum base offense level for narcotics offenses. Shortly after he was sentenced, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced that top base offense level from 42 to 38 because they thought it was too harsh. A year later the U.S. Sentencing Commission made that change retroactive. Thus, Mr. Coker was eligible for resentencing under 18 USC 3582(c)(2). None of his prior lawyers picked up on the change. I don't know why. But, when he appeared for resentencing on my motion, his revised guidelines offense level was 40 (292-365 months), not 44 (life). The judge resentenced him to 292 months. And, because he'd already served more than 292 months (once good time was accounted for), he was eligible for immediate release and was, in fact, released the day after his resentencing hearing.

Posted by: Harlan Protass | Jan 30, 2014 1:51:19 PM

Harlan,

Many congratulations on your great work! Your quesiton to Bill Otis essentially answers itself. In what sane world is 25 years not enough for this guy? Whoa, I understand your point about civility, and it is a fair one. But Bill Otis really is extreme in his views, and it is disappointing that he does not use his great knowledge to help with our societies horrible problem with overincarceration. Chopping down our rate of incarceration is, of course, not inconsistent with some of Bill's points about going overboard in the other direction.

Posted by: Liberty Lawyer | Jan 30, 2014 4:23:34 PM

Prof. Protass --

1. I made no personal attack whatever. I said that the account given by the attorney for Litigant X is going to be given in the light most favorable to that litigant. That is neither personal to you nor at all remarkable. Indeed it's routinely understood throughout the profession to be the approach advocates take.

I also said that I hear all the time from defense lawyers that there are no real facts, just different "perceptions." You understandably don't disagree with that either; I imagine you've often heard the same thing. Perhaps you've said it, or some variant thereof. I wouldn't know; as you observe, I don't know you.

But having a certain degree of hesitation uncritically to accept the account of his client's behavior by his lawyer cannot in any realistic sense be considered a personal attack, and I am at a loss to see why you view it in that way.

(If you want to see what a personal attack looks like, I would refer you to the second comment on this thread).

2. "I don't even think the original prosecutors, the original agents, the trial judge or anyone else involved in the case back in the early 1990s could answer all of your questions -- Some of them just call for speculation....So, for arguments sake, let's just assume that the answers to all of your questions are basically 'yes.'"

Of course I understood when I asked that you might not know all the answers, or in some instances might feel that you don't have reliable answers (since, as I pointed out, criminal clients lie to their lawyers all the time).

But it's likely that you know SOME of the answers, and have informed estimates as to some others, and those would be of interest. I have found that it's best to avoid assuming when at least some specific information is at hand, as it is quite likely to be.

3. Showing that you are in fact a faithful advocate for your client, you examined the law more carefully than his prior lawyers had, and found an argument they missed.

4. At no point did I state or imply that the result of the resentencing was illegal or in any other way illicit. The point of my comment (the first one on this thread) was to point out how one-sided this NYT story is, and how curiously uncurious the reporter seems to be about any of the details of what landed your client in prison to begin with.

As you point out, how much time is "enough" for a narcotics trafficker is a matter of opinion. But opinions can be more informed or less.

In attempting to reach a more informed opinion, it is, in my view, important to know numerous specifics about your client's conduct that the article simply passes over. These specifics are exactly the ones I asked about: Sales to minors and addicts, the results on purchasers lives of the client's role in supplying them with an extremely dangerous drug, your client's "need," such as it may have been, to make such an enormous amount of money even though he was not in poverty, and so forth.

Again, if you know or have informed views of the correct answers to those questions, I remain interested.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 30, 2014 10:56:47 PM

Bill, I'd be interested to know how you square the idea that (1) people are free and solely responsible for all of their choices with the idea that (2) drug dealers are responsible for the harms that flow from the drugs they provide to customers, who choose to buy and consume them. This isn't snark. I'm genuinely interested.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Jan 31, 2014 2:22:13 PM

Michael Drake --

"Bill, I'd be interested to know how you square the idea that (1) people are free and solely responsible for all of their choices with the idea that (2) drug dealers are responsible for the harms that flow from the drugs they provide to customers, who choose to buy and consume them."

OK, let's run that by one more time with what I actually believe, rather than your concocted version of it: "Bill, I'd be interested to know how you square the idea that (1) mature and informed people are free and principally responsible for their choices, with the idea that (2) drug dealers are responsible in part for the harms that flow from the drugs they provide to customers, who are often addicted and thus not truly free in choosing to buy and consume them."

Put to reflect the beliefs I actually have, rather than your burlesque of them, the question answers itself.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 1, 2014 12:21:14 AM

Whoa --

Thank you for your post.

There are some here who welcome dissenting voices, and some who so resent the fact that there ARE dissenting voices that their comments are little more than emotive.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 1, 2014 4:28:40 AM

"Put to reflect the beliefs I actually have, rather than your burlesque of them., the question answers itself."

Your beliefs approach burlesque well enough without my help. But anyway, even your much more reasonable-than-usual formulation doesn't resolve the tension very much: If "mature and informed people are free and principally responsible for their choices," it's hard to see why it's the drug dealer, who is at most only "responsible in part" for the harms caused by his buyers' choices, should be the one who is principally punished.

You might want to aggregate the harms caused by the seller, I suppose. But that kind of analysis would obviously prove too much. Compare the social harms caused by cigarettes and alcohol.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Feb 1, 2014 1:52:38 PM

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