A federal judge in Memphis, Tennessee has raised concerns about potential anti-Black bias in the city's federal prosecutor's office.
Judge John Fowlkes, a Black former public defender and federal prosecutor appointed to federal judgeship by President Obama, said he feels federal prosecutors in Memphis seek harsher prison sentences for Black defendants than they do for white defendants accused of the same crime. The Commercial Appeal reports the judge has brought up these concerns in court and with prosecutors. Prosecutors have pushed back against the idea that bias may be affecting their judgement.
In a statement to the Appeal, the federal prosecutor's office wrote, "It is ultimately up to the court to determine the appropriate sentence for each individual defendant. Any suggestion that race plays a role in these decisions – either overtly or implicitly – is wrong.”
However, Fowlkes claims three recent cases put that assertion in doubt. One of these cases features two men accused of committing a crime together, one white, one Black. According to The Crime Report, federal prosecutors hope for a sentence of 15 years for the Black man, but are seeking only one year in prison for the white man.
While presiding over the case, Fowlkes said in open court, "This is another situation where a white defendant appears to have been treated differently than African Americans, and I'm concerned about how we're proceeding in this case."
Prosecutor J. William Crow responded, "I apologize to the court if you've ever thought that I or anyone in our office is taking race into account in what we charge because that's just not the truth."
The prosecution argued the Black man, Mario Silas, needed more years in prison because of his criminal record. The white man, Jared Weatherly, also has a criminal history, albeit one more limited than Silas'.
The two men were arrested in a drug sting; they are accused of conspiring to sell 100 tablets of ecstasy.
They drove together to sell the pills. Officers say Weatherly exited their vehicle with the drugs and entered his buyer's car. Silas stayed back in their car as a lookout; he had a gun, ready to extract his comrade should things go south.
The buyer was an undercover officer; both men were arrested.
Prosecutors claim they had no choice but to seek at least five years for Silas, pointing to federal gun sentencing rules. He also faced a separate gun charge, and had prior felonies. Weatherly wasn't carrying a gun during the sting, and had only minor offenses on his record.
Fowlkes asserted, however, that prosecutors could have sought gun charges against Weatherly given his accomplice was armed. Crow told him the prosecution didn't feel confident it could prove Weatherly was linked to the gun Silas was carrying beyond a reasonable doubt.
With his reservations expressed, Fowlkes eventually ruled Weatherly will have to serve 18 months in prison, roughly the maximum he was allowed to mete out. Silas will have to serve 15 years, but has appealed the decision.
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