Court to Rule On Dispute Over Sentencing
Case involves rewards for helpful witnesses


The San Francisco Chronicle
November 7, 1995


The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would decide how much discretion a federal judge has to lower the sentence of a drug trafficker who is subject to a stiff ``mandatory minimum'' prison sentence but who cooperated with prosecutors.

The question, arising from a New Jersey cocaine case, points up an ongoing struggle between federal judges and prosecutors and goes to the heart of a growing controversy over national sentencing policies.

An appeals court ruled that although the defendant in this case had substantially assisted the prosecution, thereby winning him a break on some prison time, federal law barred the judge from going below a 10-year statutory minimum sentence without a request from the prosecutor.

"As a result, the prosecutor, rather than the judge, has the real discretion of deciding the scope of sentencing,'' said Patrick A. Mullin, lawyer for the defendant, Juan Melendez, who had pleaded guilty in 1993 to conspiring to distribute cocaine after he tried to buy a large quantity of the drug from government informants.

The case of Melendez vs. United States, No. 95-5661, is the second important sentencing case the court has agreed to decide since it opened its 1995-96 term. The court also will hear a sentencing appeal from two police officers convicted in the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles four years ago in the case of Koon vs. United States.

After former Sergeant Stacey Koon and officer Laurence Powell were convicted by a federal jury of civil rights violations, they were sentenced to 30 months in prison. An appeals court, however, ruled that the sentencing judge improperly departed from federal guidelines and that the sentences should have been at least 70 months.

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