A middle-aged heroin dealer received a mandatory life sentence last week in a federal drug-trafficking case, an outcome his lawyer said was particularly unfair because U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had announced changes in the use of the stiff penalties just two weeks before.
The example of Roy Clay, the dealer, points to the complexities of rolling out the new policy and applying it to cases that already ended in a conviction. But statistics compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission based on data from fiscal year 2010 suggest that his case may not be typical.
In Clay's case, federal prosecutors filed court documents laying out his criminal history, which led to him getting what is known as an enhanced mandatory sentence. Data show that is rarely done in Maryland and, in a recent opinion, a federal judge in Iowa wrote that he could find no logic to when the filings were made.
"I have never been able to discern a pattern or policy of when or why a defendant receives [an] enhancement in my nearly 20 years as a U.S. district court judge," wrote Judge Mark Bennett. That leads, he added, to "bizarre and incomprehensibly unfair results."
Bennett added that he hopes the Justice Department's renewed interest in mandatory sentences could straighten things out. And in a memo to U.S. attorneys issued Aug. 12, Holder urged them to hold off seeking the tougher sentences except in especially serious cases.
The route to those lengthy, enhanced sentences winds a tortuous path through federal sentencing laws.
The U.S. attorney's office in Maryland handles a particularly high volume of cases involving mandatory minimums: Defendants in about 42 percent of the 460 or so concluded cases were eligible for such a sentence, compared with 27 percent of cases nationally.
For drug crimes alone, Maryland stands out less: 29 percent of cases could have ended in a mandatory sentence, versus 22 percent nationally.
The sentencing commission also found that based on a sample of cases from three years, Maryland prosecutors go after enhanced penalties in less than 7 percent of the cases where they could, compared to 26 percent nationally.
But for Clay, the U.S. attorney's office said the move was justified, because he was a major trafficker with ties to a big drug organization. Federal officials are not yet saying people like Clay should get out from under mandatory minimums.