Ten years ago, a Spokane meth dealer gambled on going to trial rather than ratting out suspected Mexican drug cartel members. He lost.
On Tuesday, his life sentence was mitigated by President Barack Obama.
Instead of a few years in prison, which he was offered in exchange for information about the sources of his methamphetamine, Raul Zavala went to trial accused of drug trafficking and being a “career offender.”
Drug Enforcement Administration agents had arrested him in April 2005 with 2 pounds of meth in his car. In exchange for information about the source of what agents said was pure Mexican-made meth, he was offered a plea bargain with a lighter sentence, the Spokesman-Review reported at the time.
But if he didn’t cooperate, he could get life in prison because of two previous drug convictions.
He met with investigators four times but didn’t provide any useful information, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aine Amed told a judge. He also met with Spokane police detectives investigating two homicides but didn’t provide useful information on those cases.
Eventually, federal prosecutors revoked the plea deal. Zavala went to trial and a jury convicted him. At his sentencing, his attorney Frank Cikutovich argued that charging him as a career offender because he wouldn’t cooperate was coercive and stripped the judge of any discretion. If Zavala had killed somebody, he’d get less prison time, Cikutovich said.
U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko said multiple witnesses testified Zavala had the drugs, and Congress had spoken about mandatory sentences in such drug cases. He had no choice but to impose a life sentence.
Zavala was a capable individual who’d made bad choices, Suko said: “The result is tragic on many different levels.”
On Tuesday, Zavala was among 111 federal inmates whose sentences were commuted by Obama, who has said strict sentences on drug crimes lead to excessive punishment and high incarceration rates.
The Associated Press reported that White House counsel Neil Eggleston said the inmates on the list have taken steps toward rehabilitation and earned a second chance.
“They are individuals who received unduly harsh sentences under outdated laws for committing largely nonviolent drug crimes,” he said.
But while some will be released by the end of the year, Zavala won’t. His sentence was commuted to 20 years, which means he would get out in 2025 unless released early for good behavior.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.