WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear the appeal of a Maryland man who was acquitted of murder but whose drug sentence was increased after the judge determined he was responsible for a killing in the process of a drug conspiracy.
Bobby James Brown, who is serving life in prison for drug trafficking, argued to the high court that the increase in his sentence violated his constitutional right to a jury trial on the murder charge.
Brown was convicted by a federal jury in June 2001 of drug conspiracy charges after a month-long trial.
Included in that trial were government undercover tapes from the drug trafficking investigation that included what Brown’s court filing called a “barely audible” recording incriminating him and a co-conspirator in the January 1999 shooting death of another man. Brown had been acquitted in state court of that killing, however, and was not charged with murder in the federal case.
But at sentencing, the district court judge pointed to the tape and its mention of the 1999 killing. The judge cited guidelines that said if a victim was killed in a drug conspiracy “under circumstances that would constitute murder,” a harsher sentence must be applied.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Brown’s sentence in July, citing its own opinion in another case that said that “in sentencing drug offenders, the court must enhance the sentence when a killing occurs in the course of a drug trafficking conspiracy” under circumstances that would otherwise constitute murder.
Brown appealed to the Supreme Court in October, arguing that the sentence violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights, because the jury never found beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of murder.
“The fundamental meaning of the jury-trial guarantees of the Fifth and Sixth Amendment is that all facts essential to imposition of the level of punishment . . . must be found by a jury beyond reasonable doubt,” Brown’s attorney said in court papers.
“Ordinary people would not understand how the state of the law could have regressed to the point that the petitioner was in effect tried and sentenced for first-degree murder . . . without even the benefit of a jury and without the reasonable doubt standard,” his appeal said.
The Supreme Court, without comment, declined to take the case Monday.
Brown’s attorney, Gary Ticknor, declined to comment on the case. Officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, who prosecuted the case, could not be reached for comment.