SACRAMENTO — Calling it a "shocking tale" of deception and government misconduct, a federal judge threw out a major indictment Tuesday against an accused drug dealer whose eccentric Los Angeles drug lawyer turned against him and pressured him into becoming an informant.
In a detailed opinion seven months in the making, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel in San Francisco concluded that "overzealous" federal prosecutors and agents willingly used lawyer Ronald Minkin to "catch a big fish"--Minkin's client, Stephen Marshank.
Patel found that the lawyer stood to profit if Marshank were convicted and his assets seized. The judge concluded that Minkin both supplied information used to indict his client in July, 1990, and persuaded other clients to turn against Marshank.
By using his lawyer to ensnare Marshank, Patel said, the prosecutors showed an "utter disregard for the government's ethical obligations." In throwing out the charges, Patel held that the government violated Marshank's 5th Amendment right to due process and his Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer.
Patel also invoked her "supervisory power" over federal prosecutors and held that the case had to be thrown out to "preserve judicial integrity and to deter future government misconduct."
"Judicial integrity is severly threatened when professional ethical and court rules such as those involved here are flouted by the government," Patel wrote.
Marshank, who faced a possible life sentence, was charged in San Francisco with masterminding a "continuing criminal enterprise" that distributed large amounts of hashish and marijuana nationwide dating at least to 1984.
It was not known Tuesday whether prosecutors will appeal. But for now, Marshank, who had been free on bail, appears to have won the battle.
"Sometimes defendants get released because of prior government actions that didn't comport with what the rules require," U.S. Atty. William McGivern of San Francisco said. "In this case, we believe he would have been convicted. We are disappointed in that sense that a criminal was let go."
Marshank's current lawyer, Marcus Topel, vowed to sue the Justice Department for violating Marshank's civil rights and renewed his call for investigations by the State Bar of California and the U.S. Justice Department.
Topel, who exposed Minkin's role during a hearing in April, described the attorney as "a bent guy who couldn't make it as a lawyer. He started cutting corners and the government was right there to grease the path."
Topel said the case reflected the "anti-drug hysteria of the 1990s," and "the moral bankruptcy of the saying that the ends justify the means."
The strange story of the drug lawyer who turned against his client has been the focus of several press reports this year and has attracted interest among Hollywood producers and agents.
Minkin maintained on Tuesday that he did nothing wrong by helping federal authorities and maintained that his former vocation of representing drug dealers is no better than dealing drugs.
"I'm at peace with myself," Minkin said by phone.
Minkin, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor, started a private practice in downtown Los Angeles in 1970. By representing drug dealers, he made millions over the years. An early client was Marshank, who according to Minkin brought many other clients into the lawyer's fold.
Along the way, Minkin admits, he freely used his clients' drugs. By 1986, deteriorating physically and emotionally and complaining that he was short of money, Minkin cut a deal for two clients that gave them complete immunity from prosecution. In exchange, they paid him more than $750,000.
Minkin attended the meetings when his clients told federal agents about a major drug organization. He also engineered deals for two other clients who had been part of the large but loosely knit organization, members of which he had represented since the early 1970s.
By 1987, Minkin set his sights on his old friend Marshank, a quarry that he contended could have brought down dozens of other dealers across the nation. Using information supplied by Minkin and his clients, a grand jury indicted Marshank in October, 1987.
Federal prosecutors dropped the 1987 indictment when it became apparent that Marshank would not cooperate but continued an investigation that resulted in the broader indictment last year.
"This is ironic: the drug dealers complaining about their rights being violated," Minkin said Tuesday. He also said that with Patel's ruling, all of his past and present clients, Marshank among them, have avoided prison time. Some were allowed to keep all their money. They all, according to Minkin, are "home free."