Judge tosses out drug sentence on tainted evidence

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the immediate release of a St. Louis man who has served 12 years of a 20-year prison sentence in a drug case, ruling that he was wrongfully convicted based largely on testimony from a corrupt investigator.

U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson threw out Stephen Jones’ 1998 drug-possession conviction with the support of federal prosecutors, who earlier Wednesday filed a motion supporting Jones’ bid to have the case tossed out in light of former St. Louis narcotics detective Vincent Carr’s misconduct.

Jackson ordered Jones, 36, to be released by the federal Bureau of Prisons from its low-security lockup in Yazoo City, Miss., as soon as it got her order. Jones’ attorney, Richard Dowd, said he hoped his client would be freed later that day.

Federal prosecutors have no plans to retry Jones, according to Jackson’s ruling.

“This is a great day for his family and really for the entire community to see the justice system right its wrongs,” Dowd told The Associated Press before he had had the chance to speak with Jones about Jackson’s ruling. “I think it’s a great thing.”

Richard Callahan, the U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, suggested the federal government had little choice in siding with Jones’ push for freedom, though he cautioned he “would characterize the matter as a case of reasonable doubt rather than a case of actual innocence.”

A federal jury convicted Jones in 1998 of possessing nearly 80 grams of crack cocaine with plans to distribute it, and his 20-year sentence was partly based on his long criminal record. Jones’ appellate efforts to get his conviction overturned proved fruitless.

But Jones’ supposed guilt turned murky with revelations years later about the veracity of key testimony against him by Carr, who in early 2009 pleaded guilty to five felony counts — obstruction of justice and two counts each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and making false statements — related to a police drug raid the previous year.

Carr, who was among several St. Louis police officers ensnared in a corruption scandal, later was sentenced to a year in federal prison. Carr, 48, was released last month, according to the Bureau of Prisons’ website.

In her order Wednesday, Jackson wrote that Carr’s misconduct didn’t come to light until long after Jones’ conviction, meaning Jones’ defense attorneys could not exploit that wrongdoing in calling Carr’s integrity into question at trial.

“Had this information been available earlier, it is likely that the government would not have used Carr as a witness, and thus would have been unable to present any eyewitness testimony that Jones had the cocaine base in his possession,” Jackson wrote.

Callahan, the U.S. attorney, said that while a defendant generally bears the burden of proving a conviction was based on questionable testimony, the U.S. government waived that procedural option and joined in Jones’ bid to have the conviction vacated.

Callahan called that justified, noting that there was no independent, credible evidence to corroborate Carr’s version of events leading to Jones’ October 1997 arrest after Carr served a search warrant at Jones’ home, and there were no separate criminal charges justifying Jones’ imprisonment.

“No one reasonably believes that Officer Carr planted $15,000 worth of illegal drugs in the residence. It is more of a question of whose drugs” they were, Callahan said.

Dowd — whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all did police work — recoiled about the breadth of the alleged misconduct by Carr and the other accused officers, pressing that “it’s a terrifying thing for anybody to see what a police officer can do to you.”

“If you look at the history of these cases these officers were involved in, it was rampant what they were doing,” Dowd said.

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