The potential payoff for her: From $1 million up to $10 million in bribes, according to her defense attorney, but with the downside that she might spend more time in prison herself if she was convicted.2. In other news, Rumpole covers Judge Altman's announcement that it is his policy to remand defendants at sentencing. Rumpole rightfully says that the better practice is to allow self-surrender.
The strange snitching twist came to light in a massive narcotics distribution case that has already seen nine of the 10 defendants plead guilty. Bravo and Belalcazar are cooperating with the feds after both pleaded guilty to conspiring to transport hundreds of kilos of cocaine into the United States — loads that were confiscated at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. They now face up to life in prison — though the scheme described in open court and court documents suggests they were angling for far more lenient punishment.
The payoff plan could now backfire on them: the sole defendant, Yina Maria Castaneda Benavidez, who was supposed to face trial alone on Friday, was clueless about their plot to bribe her, according to her lawyer, Erick Cruz. And her intention was to go to trial anyway to fight the trafficking-conspiracy charge, Cruz said.
“She had no idea that this was going on,” he told the Miami Herald after the federal court hearing. “It caught her and everybody else by by surprise.”
Cruz and his client, whose trial has now been postponed until September, said they learned about the alleged bribery plot from federal prosecutors. They recently found out about it from a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who got a tip from a paralegal, who somehow picked up on the scheme at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. That is where the two Colombian cooperating witnesses, Bravo and Belalcazar, are in custody — along with Castaneda.
The FDC, a towering concrete building that mainly holds defendants who are awaiting trial or have pleaded guilty with cooperation deals, is notorious for inmates swapping dirt on one another to gain some ground against a long sentence.
In a court filing, Cruz said the two Colombian witnesses in the drug-trafficking case discussed their planned testimony about his client with other FDC inmates, and that they agreed to deposit money in her commissary account for the rest of her incarceration if she went to trial, was convicted and they received a sentence reduction.
Cruz has asked U.S. District Judge Robert Scola to disallow their appearances as government witnesses because “their desperation” to obtain a sentence reduction by testifying against Castaneda “impairs” her due process rights.
“The court should sanction [Bravo] and [Belalcazar] by not permitting them to testify at [Castaneda’s] trial,” Cruz wrote in the court filing. “Their conspiracy to devise a scheme in which they would bribe [Castaneda] to go to trial so that they could testify against her and receive a sentence reduction is novel, even by South Florida standards.”
Initially, prosecutors Joseph Schuster and Brian Shack said they still wanted to use the two Colombians as cooperating witnesses against her, but Judge Scola warned them that it may not be possible under the circumstances.
“I don’t know how you can come to that conclusion,” the judge said, raising the obvious problem of the two witnesses’ credibility and integrity.
One thing Rumpole didn't touch on was the enormous cost to the system and the defendant by requiring surrender at sentencing instead of to the prison where the sentence will be served. A remand means that the defendant will go to FDC (if he's lucky; since Altman is in Broward, his defendants may go to the county jail before being moved to FDC) and then will wait there for 4-6 weeks until he is moved to another holding facility. After spending time there, the defendant will then be moved to the ultimate prison at thousands of dollars of cost to the system for no reason. And that doesn't account for the terrible conditions to the defendant during the transfer. Talk to most defendants and they will tell you that the worst time they did was the movement from FDC to the holding prison to the final prison. It's much worse than diesel therapy. It's countless nights in the Special Housing Unit or sleeping on the floor of a county jail, all the while being cut off from being able to speak to your family. Many times defendants are transported to Oklahoma or Atlanta even if their designated prison is somewhere in Florida. It's just absurd.
Most judges give defendants time after sentencing to self-surrender to their designated prison. This way, the defendant bears the cost of the travel. Marshals are able to focus on their jobs instead of transporting defendants. And defendants can humanely go to the prison instead of being treated in ways which we wouldn't wish on our enemies.
So I hope Judge Altman reconsiders a policy that greatly burdens the system, taxpayers, and defendants with no countervailing benefit.