The former dean at a Bronx high school, an alleged drug kingpin, can now withdraw his guilty plea. A federal judge has decided that the defendant, who federal prosecutors believe led a double life as a druglord, may proceed to trial.
There are a lot of holes in this story that need filling, but it emits the unpleasant odor of "be careful what you wish for."— Scott Greenfield (@ScottGreenfield) January 3, 2023
Israel Garcia will get his federal drug conspiracy trial. There is a strong probability that he will regret it.https://t.co/b4DImJEtrg
According to Judge Jed Rakoff’s order, Israel Garcia may have pleaded guilty under duress from his defense lawyer because he was told he would receive a life sentence if he fought the case.
With the help of his loved ones and former students, Garcia has been fighting to withdraw his guilty plea in a “decadelong narcotics conspiracy” case brought against him by federal prosecutors. He is described as a devoted father figure by his family, who asserts that he has improved his life. His former students speak highly of him as an empowering role model who showed them that disadvantaged backgrounds need not prevent them from succeeding.
His girlfriend, Hilary Hernandez, said he was so taken aback by Rakoff’s decision that he had to immediately return to his cell after hearing the news. She explained that he needed space to think about it because he was unsure of the outcome.
According to the prosecution, Garcia was the leader of the GMG YGz gang. His family confirmed last month that he has never denied his gang involvement and told the Daily Beast that he had made amends for his past mistakes and now worked as a dean at his alma mater. In addition, he used his experiences to motivate the students he taught at New Visions Charter School.
The federal government accused him of being the ringleader of a drug trafficking organization. It’s argued his day job was just a front for his true identity as a drug dealer who drove a Maserati and arranged deals on his old block.
In March 2022, Garcia attempted to retract his guilty plea to narcotics conspiracy charges. Shortly afterward, his previous lawyer, Raoul Zaltzberg, submitted a lengthy memo vehemently refuting Garcia’s assertions, arguing that his client was adequately educated when he entered the plea.
Rakoff ultimately agreed to Garcia’s request to change attorneys, despite initially rejecting his request to change his plea. In addition, a recording of a conversation between Zaltzberg, Garcia and Hernandez surfaced in September, showing that Zaltzberg had said Garcia would never see his daughter again if he went to trial.
According to Rakoff, who previously criticized Garcia at a hearing on the plea switch, Garcia’s claims of innocence are not taken at face value. Still, the recording and Garcia’s “bare-bones” plea under oath sufficiently convinced him.
“There is, therefore, a material risk that Mr. Garcia pled guilty, not because he wished to plead guilty, but rather because he feared the consequences of a conviction as represented by his lawyer,” Rakoff wrote.
The judge shared Hernandez’s frustration with the demands made on defendants to enter pleas, noting mounting evidence that innocent people are frequently under pressure due to the severe penalties they would face if they were found guilty after a trial.
The new attorney for Garcia intends to ask for a trial date on Tuesday.
“It’s the start to another fight,” Hernandez said.