Throughout my career, there are times when I become cynical and lose sight of why I wanted to become a criminal defense attorney in the first place. Recently I came across a box of old papers that I had packed up when I moved from New York to Colorado in 2002, and in it was the pleadings I drafted to help Danny Cruz, a 23 year old defendant who was sentenced to 240 years under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for cocaine distribution.
As a new lawyer after graduating from law school, my first job was to work for a federal criminal defense attorney in Buffalo, New York. The firm was assigned the case of Luis “Danny” Cruz, who was sentenced in U.S. District Court to a federal prison term of 2,880 months (240 years). Danny was convicted of six narcotics offenses in federal court, including Conspiracy with Intent to Distribute 5 grams or more of cocaine base, Possession with Intent to Distribute Cocaine Base within 1000 feet of a School, and Use of a Person under Eighteen Years of Age to Assist in Distribution of Cocaine. Danny was never given an offer to plead guilty to reduce the potential sentence, and went to trial on all counts. The jury convicted him in minutes. At his original sentencing, hearing, Danny’s court appointed attorney never raised any downward departure motions, and his sentence was increased based on the testimony of a confidential informant who received a substantial departure in his own sentence based on his plea of guilty to distributing more than 50 grams of cocaine base.
On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated two of the convictions, and remanded the case back to the Western District of New York for a re-sentencing hearing. I was responsible for researching and compiling the pleadings for Danny, who at this point had already served less than one percent of his sentence. I worked tirelessly on his brief, realizing for the first time the cruelness of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for small-time offenders.
Danny’s hearing on re-sentencing was the first time I appeared in federal court. The court was packed with his family who all hoped the judge would grant leniency and resentence him to a term that was something far less than a life sentence. Through our efforts, Danny was resentenced in 2002 to a term of 30 years, which was 210 years less than the original sentence imposed.
Later that year I moved to Colorado and was being interviewed by District Attorney’s Offices. I remember being asked by then District Attorney Bob Grant during an interview about what my greatest accomplishment in life was, and I told the story of Danny Cruz and how he will someday see his children because of our efforts. I left the interview thinking I would never get a job with a prosecutor’s office after telling them how I helped reduce a drug dealer’s sentence, but the next day I received the call and was hired.
The Danny Cruz case seems like ages ago, and to think he still sits in federal prison saddens me and keeps me motivated to protect people from the government and its draconian sentencing structures for certain crimes. When people ask me why I defend people accused of such morally repulsive crimes as drug dealing and driving under the influence, I remember the Christmas card I received from Danny and think about how someday he will be able to hug his children again.