The government declared justice had been served. The family of a man caught up in New Haven’s biggest-ever drug sweep said justice had been delayed.
Those were the reactions inside Judge Robert Chatigny’s federal courtroom in Hartford Monday evening after a 12-person jury found Michael Smith guilty of one count of selling crack and one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and crack.
Smith, who is African American, is the third defendant tried as a result of 2012’s “Operation Bloodline,” the largest drug-gang sweep the state’s history, in which 105 people were arrested.
Smith, who’s 43, faces at least 10 years in prison at his sentencing, which is scheduled for April 7 at 10 a.m. before Judge Chatigny.
The prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. Attorneys S. Dave Vatti and Marc Silverman, portrayed Smith as a drug “kingpin” who was caught supplying at crack and cocaine to at least seven smaller dealers, who resold it on city streets. In the case, investigators tapped three of Smith’s phones and intercepted 3,100 coded conversations they believed to be referring to drug deals.
Vatti (pictured) called the verdict “just.”
“This isn’t over,” Elishia Conyers, Smith’s sister, said after the verdict was read.
Defense Attorney Diane “Cookie” Polan said she was “very disappointed” in the jury. She predicted there will be an appeal.
“It doesn’t seem like they deliberated long enough to really consider the evidence,” Polan said.
Less than an hour after the trial’s closing arguments, the jury sent a note to Judge Chatigny asking for clarification as to whether powder cocaine that was cooked into crack should be “included in the total amount of cocaine distributed.”
The judge called the jury back to the courtroom and answered, “We understand you to be asking what you should do if you have decided that a certain quantity of cocaine base [crack] was made. Should you attribute that amount to Mr. Smith as both cocaine base and cocaine powder? The answer to that is ‘no.’ There shouldn’t be any double counting.”
“Clearly the note shows they were already counting at that point,” said Polan. Polan argued in her closing remarks, that no mathematic acrobatics would result in the numbers the government had come up with.
Polan (pictured) maintained that the trial was a case of over-charging and over-reaching, in which there was not enough evidence to rule out reasonable doubt of her client’s guilt.
In closing remarks, Silverman declined to give a full ledger adding up all of the drugs the government believed Smith distributed.
“This is not a war of addition. I don’t need to add it all up for you,” said Silverman.
The jury found Smith guilty of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 280 grams of crack and between 500 grams and 5 kilograms of cocaine between January 2011 and May 2012.
The dealing of 280 grams of crack triggers a mandatory minimum sentencing of 10 years in prison.
The case was based on wiretapped phone calls and text messages, surveillance, testimony from one eyewitness, as well as one instance in which Smith sold 6.6 grams of crack to a cooperating government witness on Oct. 27, 2011.
In final statements, prosecutors asked the jury to interpret the transcripts and coded language as proof of “regularized transactions” and “mutual trust,” two hallmarks of conspiracy.
Vatti referred to one coded phrase—a “half onion”—which appears in several wiretapped conversations between Smith and a co-defendant.
“Does your common sense tell you that there is a grocery store anywhere in the state of Connecticut where you can go get half an onion?” asked Vatti. Expert witness FBI Agent Michael Zuk had testified the phrase often refers to a half-ounce of drugs.
Other texts and calls were peppered with requests for “Curtis,” “snow white,” and other cryptic phrases. Vatti said Zuk’s testimony had provided “a dictionary” jurors could use to interpret that coded language.
In response, Polan pointed to the ambiguity of the language. And she pointed to another gap in the government’s case: In months of surveillance, the government only once saw Smith deal drugs, which was to a cooperating witness. A police raid on his alleged “stash house” yielded drug paraphernalia but no drugs.
“There is insufficient evidence to prove that Mr. Smith was part of a drug conspiracy,” she said. “That’s a huge leap. You’re certainly allowed to make reasonable inferences, but that’s a quantum leap.”
At any given time during Monday’s proceedings, between eight and 10 friends and family members of the defendant sat watching the trial, including a brother who came up from Georgia. (He preferred not to speak on the record.) Smith, who grew up in New Haven, was the third of eight siblings, according to his mom.
“I’m shocked. I don’t know what to say. What do people say at a time like this?” said one supporter. The woman, who identified Smith as the father of her son, declined to give her name.
Asked to comment after the verdict was read, Silverman turned to his supervisor, Vatti. “Just say something about justice,” Silverman suggested.
“We thank the jurors for their service, and we feel a just result has been reached,” Vatti said.
Of the 105 people swept up in Operation Bloodline, 90 have pleaded guilty and now three have been found guilty by trial. Five more are scheduled to stand trial in the near future.
Past Independent stories on Operation Bloodline:
• On The Stand, Freeman Is No “White Boy Chris”
• 6 Rental Cars + 1 Stash House = Big Drug Dealer?
• TXT From B.O. To Big Dog: “14s 36h”
• Bloodline Jurors Learn The Drug-Dealing ABCs
• YouTube, Facebook Helped Bust The Bloods
• Biggs’ Jailhouse Plea: Don’t Believe The Rap
• Wiley Don Raps Feds From Prison
• “Bloodline” Cop Wiretapped Sister’s Boyfriends
• Guilty Verdict In “Bloodline” Trial
• Bloodline Defense Lawyers: That’s All You’ve Got?
• Drug Trade’s “Great White Hope” Grilled
• “Bloodline” Trail Leads To White Boy Chris
• Judge To Feds: Fix Your “2nd Class” Mess
• “Top” Blood, Rapper’s Pal, Pleads Not Guilty
• Feds Indict 105 In Tre Bloods Probe
• “Operation Bloodline” Nets Alleged 61 Tre Bloods