FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota man originally sentenced to life in prison for his role in a major crack cocaine conspiracy now must serve 25 years, a judge ruled Wednesday.
An appeals court in August overturned Marcus Royston’s sentence because of a change in federal law that increased the quantities of crack cocaine needed to trigger statutory minimum sentences. The switch was made retroactive to the original August 2010 sentencing date.
Royston, of Bismarck, was among eight people accused of obtaining cocaine in Illinois, South Dakota and Minnesota and bringing it to North Dakota for distribution. A jury found him guilty in May 2010 on two counts, including conspiracy.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson said Royston’s criminal history and his role in the conspiracy make 25 years an appropriate sentence.
“This was perhaps the largest cocaine conspiracy in North Dakota,” Erickson said. “It certainly had the largest quantities of crack cocaine in any case that I have presided over.”
Witnesses testified during the case that members of the conspiracy spent up to $900 per ounce of crack and $1,000 per ounce for powder cocaine and would sell it for twice that. The crack cocaine was stored and distributed at various locations, mostly in Fargo, witnesses said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers recommended Wednesday that Royston be re-sentenced to 30 years in prison. Royston’s lawyer asked for 20 years.
Royston told the judge he deserved fewer than 13 years.
“Mr. Myers blows it up like I’m some big-time drug dealer,” Royston said. “I played a very minimal role, if I played a role at all.”
Myers and defense attorney Joseph Quinn argued about drug quantities. Myers said the government, in the original trial, needed to show that Royston was involved with 50 grams or more of cocaine, but could meet the new 280-gram threshold for a life sentence if there was a new trial.
A presentence investigation backed Myers’ claim, but Quinn said the evidence shows that Royston dealt in no more than 196 grams, compared to 700 grams by Ferris Lee, the alleged ringleader of the conspiracy.
“Frankly, I’m at a loss at how this number was calculated, given the testimony at trial,” Quinn said of the presentence report.
Royston received the original life prison sentence even though Lee got 45 years because of a quirk in sentencing laws that required prosecutors to choose between competing charges. Steven Mottinger, Royston’s original lawyer, argued that the discrepancy in the two sentences was unfair.
Royston has since filed a legal malpractice suit against Mottinger. James Hill, Mottinger’s attorney, called the suit frivolous.
“Mottinger exercised that degree of skill, care, diligence and knowledge commonly possessed and exercised by reasonable, careful and prudent attorneys in the practice of law in the state of North Dakota,” Hill said in court documents.
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