A Philadelphia law firm representing Americans imprisoned on narcotics charges overseas is lobbying to change a rule that prevents convicted smugglers like Baltimore's Janet Leigh Dettler from serving out their sentences in the United States.
Dettler, a 30-year-old Middle River woman arrested at the Bangkok airport in 1992 with about 7.4 kilograms of heroin (slightly more than 16 pounds), was given a life sentence by a Thai court on Monday.
Richard D. Atkins, a partner in the International Legal Defense TC Counsel law firm of Philadelphia, represents several families with relatives serving drug sentences in Thailand. He said that the prisoner transfer treaty between the United States and Thailand, designed during the Reagan administration to punish drug lords, has been a failure.
He is now lobbying U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to drop the so-called "1-kilo" rule, which blocks the prisoners from serving their time in the United States.
"Virtually no high-level traffickers have been caught," he said yesterday. "All of the people caught -- and the majority of them seem to be vulnerable, foolish women or young men -- are people who were conned into carrying a package. They are approached by friendly, sophisticated [smugglers] from Nigeria or Ghana who befriend them and offer free exotic trips and money. Many become lovers or confidantes. The men involved stay out of the picture, and the women are caught."
According to Janet Dettler's family -- who have not retained Mr. Atkins -- their daughter was the dupe of a Nigerian man, who promised her a lavish lifestyle if she agreed to marry him so he could stay in the United States. Although the marriage apparently never took place, part of the deal included a solo vacation for Dettler in Thailand, where a friend of the Nigerian gave her two suitcases to carry through customs.
"She didn't know the suitcases were loaded with dope," Dettler's stepfather, William Swann, said last night.
Short of a pardon from the king of Thailand, the only hope for
Dettler and 28 other Americans serving life sentences for smuggling in Bangkok is a change in the U.S. regulation governing the treaty with the Southeast Asian nation.
In a Justice Department ruling regarding the treaty ratified by the Senate in 1984, no one convicted of trafficking more than 1 kilo of heroin can be sent home to serve out their sentence in an American prison.
"We made a commitment to Congress in 1984 that we wouldn't transfer anyone convicted of more than a kilo. Now we're trying to get that cleared up before Congress," said John Russell, a State Department spokesman.
Under the treaty, Mr. Atkins said, those who receive a life sentence after being convicted of smuggling 1 kilo or less can be returned to an American prison after serving eight years in Thailand. Those convicted of smuggling more than 1 kilo, which represent the majority of those caught, can expect to serve the life sentence under the rule. There is no such regulation for any other U.S. prisoner treaty, officials said.
Mr. Atkins said that the U.S. Embassy in Thailand -- which visits and tries to look out for American prisoners -- has asked the State Department to reconsider the treaty ruling.
"Many of them don't survive eight years because of the poor conditions. They shouldn't die because of what they did," he said, "Why shouldn't they be able to serve a substantial amount of time in the U.S. where they could see their loved ones?"
In an effort to get the 1-kilo ruling changed, Dettler's family has written to Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both Ms. Mikulski and Mr. Sarbanes have written several letters to State Department and embassy officials trying to help the family, but have been stymied by the 1-kilo ruling.
"It's a very difficult case to intervene in," said a spokesman for Mr. Sarbanes. "And we haven't seen anything from [the Clinton administration] yet about changing the language of the treaty."