A Spokane drug dealer who rejected a plea bargain for only a few years in prison was sent away Tuesday to spend the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary, without the possibility of parole.
Raul S. Zavala got the harsh sentence because under federal drug laws he was deemed a “career offender” whose two previous drug-dealing convictions were factors in his mandatory sentence.
“He took a gamble and lost,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aine Ahmed said after the sentencing before U.S. District Court Judge Lonnie Suko.
Zavala was arrested in Spokane on April 29, 2005, by Drug Enforcement Administration task force agents who found two pounds of methamphetamine – worth an estimated $16,000 – in his car.
As part of a proposed plea bargain, Zavala would have been required to disclose where he was getting an extremely pure grade of Mexican-made meth he was distributing in Spokane.
He was put on legal notice that prosecutors considered him a “career offender” and intended to use his two prior drug convictions to seek a mandatory sentence if he didn’t cooperate with investigators, Ahmed said.
After meeting four times with investigators last year, Zavala failed to provide useful information and the plea negotiations between his attorney and the U.S. attorney’s office ended, Ahmed said.
While contemplating the deal, the 32-year-old drug dealer was interviewed by Spokane police detectives investigating two unsolved homicides, the judge was told at Tuesday’s sentencing.
Zavala was not suspected of direct involvement in the homicides and did not provide any useful information, authorities said.
Ultimately, three other co-defendants were arrested in Spokane and a fourth in Los Angeles as part of the drug-distribution investigation, Ahmed said.
With the plea bargain off the table, Zavala took his case to trial and was convicted in January by a 12-member jury of possession with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of methamphetamine and use of communication facilities for drug dealing.
One of the prosecution witnesses who testified against Zavala was a cocaine dealer, who said he and Zavala frequently traded coke for meth or drugs for money.
Standing before the federal judge for sentencing on Tuesday, Zavala claimed his civil rights were violated and he was coerced during his meetings with federal investigators before trial.
“I was threatened,” Zavala told the judge. “The evidence is manipulated.”
He and his court-appointed defense attorney, Frank Cikutovich, also objected to details contained in a confidential pre-sentence report, outlining the case against Zavala and his background. The judge said there was no basis for those objections.
Cikutovich told the court that when prosecutors decide to seek mandatory prison sanctions against criminal defendants who don’t cooperate, it strips judges of any discretion.
“Had he killed somebody or raped somebody he would get less,” Cikutovich told the court.
The prosecutor said he filed the mandatory sentencing notices to make it clear to Zavala the risk he faced if he took the case to trial and was convicted.
“He was never threatened,” and was only questioned in the presence of his attorney, Ahmed told the court.
The judge said there were “multiple witnesses” who testified about Zavala possessing the drugs. In enacting federal laws, Congress has spoken “very loudly” about appropriate mandatory sentences, and he was faced with no other option than life in prison, Suko told the defendant.
The judge told Zavala he was a “capable individual” who’d made bad choices. “The result is tragic on many different levels,” Suko said before imposing the life sentence.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.