For drug crime defendants, sentencing can be a crapshoot

One man who secretly controlled nine pot dispensaries was sentenced to more than 21 years

Noah Kleinman faced his moment of reckoning: Should he tell a federal judge his marijuana dispensaries were just a front to distribute bulk marijuana and make hundreds of thousands of dollars? Or stick to his claim of innocence?

Kleinman, a 39-year-old salesman from Studio City, had been convicted of six felony counts related to marijuana distribution in June.

Now at his sentencing at the downtown federal courthouse, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright said he was inclined to go with the prosecutors' recommendation of 17 1/2 years in federal prison — devastating news for a father of two young children.

He fretted over his kids playing too many video games; now he'd be all but taken from their lives.

But Wright was known to change his mind, and reduce sentences, in cases where defendants seemed sincere and working in earnest to right their wrongs.

Kleinman's attorney, J. Raza Lawrence, couldn't help him now. The only question was whether Kleinman could help himself.

As 23 states have passed laws allowing medical marijuana and public opinion nationwide has swung in favor of legalization, federal agents have largely eased off the war on weed. In Colorado, where recreational cannabis is legal, businesses have sold many tons of it openly with no federal crackdown. But agents still come down hard on marijuana distributors they deem are working outside the system.

The punishments can be stiff. A San Clemente man who secretly controlled nine dispensaries was sentenced last year to 21 years and 10 months in federal prison.

Kleinman could have taken a deal prosecutors had offered him: plead guilty in exchange for a recommendation of 10 years in prison. His first attorney, Harland Braun, told him that was his only choice, given mandatory minimum sentences. But Kleinman hired new attorneys, Lawrence and Allison Margolin, and took the extremely risky move of going to trial in federal court despite having openly sold marijuana in his stores.

Even after his conviction, he had arrived on a Monday morning this month expecting he'd qualify for a loophole in the mandatory-sentencing law because he had no criminal record, and he contended he was not a ringleader in the operation, which was centered at his Noho Caregivers shop in North Hollywood. His attorneys were arguing for 15 months in prison. They hoped he might just get probation.

But the judge — a former U.S. Marine and sheriff's deputy from Alabama — quickly dashed that hope, saying evidence and testimony showed that he was a mastermind of the business.

Kleinman's prospects were looking dim.

Wright dismantled Lawrence's claim that the marijuana operation was nonprofit. The judge said emails between Kleinman and his business partner showed they were planning to net $194,000 each a month. He shot down the claim that Kleinman thought he wasn't breaking the law. "Are you trying to defend those shipments to New York and Philadelphia in hollowed-out computers?"

Wright dismissed the argument that since federal prosecutors were allowing people in states that legalized marijuana to sell mass quantities of the drug, even though it violated federal law, it would be unfair to give a huge sentence to someone committing similar federal violations in California.

And he shut down the suggestion that since public opinion was quickly changing, his sentencing should reflect that. "I can't make rulings against a political backdrop," Wright said. "That won't happen here."

Wright wanted to hear from Kleinman directly.

"I've already read the arguments," the judge said. "Those are predictable.... From my point of view, the most important point of view is the defendant's."

Wright could still change his mind and sentence him to the mandatory minimum of 10 years.

Kleinman had already filed a written statement, begging for forgiveness and saying his children needed him. He skirted the issue of his guilt, saying, "What started out as a way to help people became something I am not proud of."

Lawrence told the judge his client would just rely on the written statement.

"Mr. Kleinman, I understand what they're going to say," the judge said. "I'm offering you this opportunity. If you don't want to use it, I'll go with what I got."

It was his only hope for leniency.

Kleinman conferred with Lawrence and then stood up to the microphone, overweight in a gray suit and rimless glasses. His voice caught. His brow shone with sweat. "Speak from your heart, Noah," called out his longtime girlfriend — the mother of their two children.

"I'd like to thank you for hosting me in your courtroom," he started. He said how much he loved his children, how he worked as a salesman for a business that fixes people's tax problems, how he was No. 1 in sales this month. He said he just wanted to be a good citizen now.

Regarding the case, he said there were things that didn't come up during the trial and that "I did not have full responsibility."

Wright's expression remained impassive. Kleinman said nothing more than he had written.

Kleinman's girlfriend, Voula Lambropoulos, asked to speak. Wright motioned her to the lectern, where her words poured out in unrestrained desperation. "Our children, they adore their father.... He has low self-esteem. He is not a leader. He is a follower who chose to follow the wrong people, who led him here today."

She told how he was bullied and terrorized by a neighbor as a teenager and how he had never gotten over it.

"Even if I have to serve time, so he can be with his children, I would do it. I would do it. Our 7-year-old doesn't even know about this, because I was so ashamed.... I plead to you, aside from what everyone says here. I do not live a lavish life. Family is what matters. Please, please, please, I beg of you, please be as lenient as possible. I just want to keep this family together. I came from a broken family. I missed out on a father. I don't want that."

Wright's face tightened at her obvious pain. He thanked her as she took her seat. People in the gallery wiped tears.

The judge took a deep breath and sentenced Kleinman to 17 years and 7 months in federal prison. At the earliest, he could be released in 15 years with good behavior.

Wright said the sentence was too big to risk releasing him on bail pending his appeal. "You are remanded to the custody of the U.S. marshal and Bureau of Prisons."

Kleinman took off his tie and belt, and his hands were cuffed behind his back.

Lambropoulos' mouth hung open in disbelief.

She tried to kiss and hug him as marshals led him away. "Voula, I love you and the kids."

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Twitter: @joemozingo

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