Grand Bay man’s lawyers face skeptical judges in appeal of sentence in gun case
Adam Joseph Owens, a reputed member of a drug trafficking organization known as the “Crossley Hill Boys,” accepted a plea bargain and admitted to a federal gun charge.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office recommended five years in prison. Instead, the judge sentenced him to 10 years.
That’s the basis of an appeal heard this week in Montgomery. The defendant’s lawyers argued before a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer unreasonably doubled the sentence based on allegations – not charged as part of the indictment – that Owens was responsible for an overdose death.
But attorney Scott Hunter faced a fair amount of skepticism from the judges. For instance, at one point he suggested that Moorer came to that conclusion based on testimony from a former Mobile police narcotics investigator who had left several years before the 2017 overdose death of an informant referred to in court papers as BB.
“So he was telling a story from a job he used to have that happened five years ago,” Hunter said.
Replied U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes: “Which the district court could credit, having heard his testimony.”
Owens, 33, of Grand Bay, was one of 42 people named in the indictment alleging a massive conspiracy to sell large amounts of methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl along the Gulf Coast. The Crossley Hill Boys name comes from the name of the street in western Mobile County where some of the conspirators operated out of a house.
The 11th Circuit previously rejected the appeals of two other defendants in the case, William Grant “Whip” Owens and Annetta Owens.
Under federal law, a judge can hold a defendant responsible for conduct they were not convicted of – or in some cases, even charged with. That conduct can come from testimony at the sentencing hearing or from a presentence investigation report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office examining a defendant’s background.
The burden of proof for such “relevant conduct” is a “preponderance of the evidence,” a standard much lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold required for conviction – essentially, that it is more likely that not that the defendant engaged in the conduct.
But Hunter argued that the information presented at the sentencing hearing “falls well, well short of the standard required for preponderance of the evidence.”
Hunter referenced his own background as a civil lawyer and argued that a litigant would not be able to win a civil judgment with evidence as weak as what prosecutors presented.
“If there’s not enough evidence in that record for one of these guys to get a money judgment for their client … there’s surely not enough in this record to send a man for five extra years in prison,” he said.
The judges asked Hunter about information provided by the warden of the Conecuh County Jail, where Owens was being held while awaiting sentencing. The warden reported that he saw Owens on surveillance video with drugs. Hunter criticized that, pointing that that prosecutors failed to present any physical evidence to back the claim.
That drew a sharp question from Carnes, who wanted to know if the warden testified about what he saw. Hunter conceded that he had.
“You do not need physical evidence when a witness says, ‘I was there. I saw this. This is what I saw,’” Carnes said. “You know that.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marjorie Vincent-Tripp asked the judges to uphold the sentence. She argued that the the sergeant who testified was a credible witness because he had reviewed the autopsy, the toxicology report and text messages between informant and Owens indicating that BB had purchased the drugs from him. That was five or six hours before he died, Vincent-Tripp said.
“With all those facts being considered, the district court reasonably could infer that the drug BB purchased from Owens resulted in his death,” she said.
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