Bloodline Defense Lawyers: That’s All You’ve Got?
by Thomas MacMillan | Dec 6, 2013 9:26 am
Posted to: Legal Writes
As the government seeks guilty verdicts in the first trial of Connecticut’s largest-ever federal case, prosecutors presented recordings of people talking about selling drugs, asking to sell more drugs, and threatening each other over debts. The defense’s response: So their clients might have sold drugs? Big deal.
The defense argued that even if Tylon “Bucky” Vaughn and Michael Thompson, the two men on trial, were selling crack, that doesn’t mean they were members of a vast drug conspiracy headed by two kingpins known as “White Boy Chris” and “Big Baby.”
Defense attorneys Jon Einhorn and Sebastian DeSantis (pictured) offered that closing argument to a 12-member jury in Judge Ellen Bree Burns’ second-floor courtroom in New Haven’s U.S. District Court Thursday.
The lawyers are defending the first of two men to face a jury as part of Operation Bloodline, Connecticut’s largest-ever federal drug-gang sweep, which occurred in May 2012. The 18-month Drug Enforcement Administration investigation included 22 wiretapped phones and 105 arrests. Cops claimed to have successfully dismantled an extensive drug ring centered on the Dwight-Kensington neighborhood’s violent Tre Bloods gang.
Vaughn and Thompson are charged with conspiracy. Vaughn faces an additional two counts of possession of drugs with intent to distribute. Click here and here to read about how the trial has unfolded this week.
Jury members heard extensive testimony from the government’s star witness, Chris “White Boy Chris” Morley, who was also arrested in Operation Bloodline. Morley, an admitted drug-ring leader, has pleaded guilty and said he is hoping for leniency from the judge.
Morley testified that Vaughn and Thompson sold crack and other drugs for him. The government played recordings of wiretapped phone calls that prosecutors argue corroborate Morley’s testimony.
Lawyers for the defense hammered at Morley’s credibility, seeking to crack a central pillar of the government’s case against Vaughn and Thompson.
DeSantis, Vaughn’s lawyer, has taken the additional step of acknowledging that his client sold drugs. He made the admission in his opening statement on Monday, and again in his closing statement on Thursday. Vaughn may have been a drug dealer, DeSantis argued, but that doesn’t matter in this case. Vaughn is charged with conspiracy. He was not a conspirator, DeSantis told the jury.
Einhorn, Thompson’s attorney, didn’t go as far as to say his client was a drug dealer. He sought instead to a plant seeds of “reasonable doubt” in jury member’s minds by attacking Morley’s character. He even questioned the reliability of a police field test of a substance cops found hidden in his client’s butt.
As in the rest of the week, Thursday’s proceedings spoke to a consistent conundrum in big drug cases: Must the government choose between seeking the biggest sentences with an operation’s kingpin, and offering that kingpin leniency in return for cooperation in order to mop up the minor players with longer sentences? And if so, which is the better choice?
The defense argued that Morley—the guy who ran the operation and admitted to a laundry list of other crimes he is not being punished for—is angling for a short sentence while alleged small-time dealers take the fall. Prosecutors, meanwhile, said a successful drug-ring bust has to pull up the “roots” as well as go after the top, and cooperating with Morley allowed them to do that.
The prosecution, which bears the burden of proving Vaughn’s and Thompson’s guilty, was the first to deliver closing statements Thursday.
To start, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Silverman offered a single sentence to the jury: “This is a case about two street-level dealers involved in a larger drug trafficking conspiracy.”
Silverman laid out the following case against Vaughn:
Twice during the Bloodline investigation, cops arranged “controlled purchases” of crack from Vaughn.
In one recorded call, Vaughn tells a buyer, “I got the hard [crack] on me. ... That’s what I really sell, the hard.” Vaughn can be heard on other calls talking about “dimes,” “20s,” “dubs,” and “eight-balls”—small quantities of crack or cocaine.
“It’s not large quantities, but it adds up,” Silverman said.
Morley testified that Vaughn sold about an eight-ball—3.5 grams—per day. Morley said he sold Vaughn a total of about 100 grams over the course of the conspiracy.
Silverman referred to phone calls that he argued show that Vaughn had a conspiratorial relationship with Morley and “Big Baby,” the other kingpin. On one call Vaughn asks Morley to “put me in a position off this block.” Vaughn was asking Morley for larger quantities of drugs, so that Vaughn could stop selling small bags on the corner, according to Morley.
When Vaughn was finally arrested in the massive Bloodline sweep of May 22, 2012, police found some baggies and a trace amount of cocaine in his house.
Silverman laid out the following case against Thompson:
Twice during the Bloodline investigation, Thompson was arrested for selling crack. Police found a small amount of cocaine in his house. Later they found $2,000 cash and two scales.
Morley testified that Thompson owed him about $64,000 for drugs Morley had fronted to him. Morley said he transferred about two kilograms of cocaine to Thompson, all together.
In one phone call Morley and Thompson appear to talk about cooking crack from cocaine, and that some of the drugs burned off in the process, a sign of impurity. On the call the two men talk about “500” and Thompson says “450, 460 came back.” That is, 450 or 460 grams of crack resulted from cooking 500 grams of cocaine, according to Morley.
In another call, Thompson tells Morley that he “appreciate[s] everything” after Thompson gets out on bond following an arrest. “I only call you when I’m in a jam,” he tells Morley.
That’s evidence of conspiracy, Silverman argued.
White Boy Chris’ “Reward”
“This case rises and falls on the testimony of one person,” began Einhorn, Thompson’s attorney. He focused his closing statement on Morley, relentlessly attacking the kingpin’s “character.”
Einhorn put a quote from Morley’s testimony on an overhead projector. “I do what suits me,” Morley had said. Einhorn said Morley “lived a life of lawlessness” and should not be trusted, ever.
The only evidence on what quantities of drugs Thompson allegedly sold comes from Morley’s testimony, Einhorn said. “None of these drugs come from Michael Thompson,” Einhorn said, holding up the bags of drugs the government had presented as evidence in the case.
The government has no physical evidence on Thompson, only Morley’s word that he sold Thompson two kilograms of cocaine. “Are you going to believe him?” Einhorn asked the jury.
As for the drugs cops found on Thompson when he was twice arrested, Einhorn sought to discredit the field-test procedure that showed the seized material was crack. Of those two arrests, one was nolled; charges were never brought in the other.
Even if Thompson were selling drugs, Einhorn said, that doesn’t necessarily mean he was part of the “White Boy Chris conspiracy.” He may have been doing so on his own.
Einhorn argued that Morley is being “essentially paid” to testify against Thompson. “Do you want to reward this guy? That’s what you’ll be doing” if you choose to convict Thompson, Einhorn argued.
Yup, He’s A Dealer
“Mr. Vaughn is a street-level dealer,” DeSantis said in his closing statement. “However, he’s not a member of this conspiracy.”
Recorded calls show that Vaughn was selling, DeSantis said. “But he was doing it on his own.”
The government recorded thousands of calls, but chose to present only a handful that include Vaughn, DeSantis said. If this is a “giant conspiracy,” then “is that all the phone calls they have?”
The phone calls refer only to very small amounts of drugs, DeSantis said. If Vaughn were moving as much crack as Morley claims he was, wouldn’t Vaughn have had to call in for re-supply? DeSantis asked. “Where are the phone calls?”
Vaughn was getting his drugs elsewhere, DeSantis said. Selling crack on his own is “not a good thing, but it’s not what he’s charged with,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis encouraged the jury to read phone call transcripts in their entirety, to give context to the government’s claims. In a call in which Big Baby threatens to beat Vaughn up because Vaughn owes him money, for instance, they could be talking about anything, not just a crack debt, DeSantis said.
The call in which Vaughn asks Morley to sell him larger quantities of drugs isn’t proof Vaughn was part of the conspiracy, DeSantis said. It’s just the opposite: Vaughn was on the outside and wanted in. Morley wouldn’t let him into the drug ring.
DeSantis held up an evidence bag with a small piece of cardboard and a razor inside, both with trace amounts of cocaine on them. That’s the only physical evidence the government connected directly to Vaughn, DeSantis said. DeSantis compared it to the crate of bags and three large boxes of weed that the government connected to Morley.
Not That Kind Of Crack
In rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Vatti (pictured), summed up the defense’s arguments for the jury. He said the defense tried three different lines: I didn’t deal drugs, or at least, not as much as Morley and Big Baby. If I did deal drugs, I didn’t do it with Morley. Morley can’t be trusted because he’s trying to get off lightly.
Morley is a guy who has done nothing but cheat, steal, lie, and defraud since the age of 12, Vatti acknowledged. But there are two people in the courtroom who can be heard on “all those phone calls” talking to “that really bad guy,” he said.
Morley clearly saw Thompson as part of his drug ring, since Morley bonded him out when he was arrested, Vatti said. And the “tone” of a recorded argument between Big Baby and Vaughn is clearly “hierarchical,” as in a drug ring, Vatti said.
Vatti sought to dismiss Einhorn’s attack on the reliability of the test done on the substance cops found hidden on Morley when police arrested him. “If that wasn’t crack, why was it in Mike Thompson’s butt?”
Finally, Vatti justified Morley’s role in the prosecution. “Why would the government cooperate with an individual like that?” Vatti asked, rhetorically. It’s because Morley, a week after he was arrested, offered to give up everything, and revealed the entire structure of the drug conspiracy.
When the government is taking down a drug ring, “we need to take the entire thing out by the roots,” Vatti said. A kingpins can’t exist without the small-time dealers, and vice versa. “We need to take out the Christopher Morleys and the Tylon Vaughns and the Mike Thompsons.”
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