An appeals court has overturned the life sentence of onetime Los Angeles cocaine lord Ricky Ross, saying that a judge erred when she sentenced Ross under a federal three-strikes law.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff to resentence Ross, whose links to a former leader of the Nicaraguan Contras, Oscar Danilo Blandon, spawned a public furor.
A 1996 series of article in the San Jose Mercury News alleged that the CIA, through Blandon and Ross, had helped start the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Other news organizations challenged the series' accuracy.
Ross was convicted in March 1996 of buying 220 pounds of cocaine for $169,000 from Blandon, a convicted drug trafficker who was working as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The court ordered Huff to resentence Ross. A probation report earlier recommended a term of about 22 years.
Attorneys for Ross argued that his conviction should be overturned because the alleged link between Blandon, the CIA and the Contras constituted outrageous government misconduct. In Wednesday's ruling, the three-judge appeals panel rejected that argument, and upheld Ross' conviction.
The allegations of a CIA link were unproven, the judges said, "and even if true would not necessarily rise to the level of outrageous conduct."
The judges did rule, however, that Ross' life sentence was inappropriate. The court said Huff erred when she counted Ross' previous convictions in Ohio and Texas as separate crimes rather than a single conspiracy.
After the Mercury News series on crack came under fire for making inaccurate generalizations about the history of the crack trade, the newspaper acknowledged that the series contained serious flaws. Earlier this year, the CIA said an internal investigation found no evidence that the Contras received significant support from drug traffickers.
For David Ross, Ricky's brother, the victory on the sentencing felt hollow.
"That's what not what were fighting for," David Ross said. "We're fighting for a dismissal, period."
In an interview from the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Ross expressed confidence that more than his sentence would eventually be overturned.
"This is just the start of it," he said. "The whole case was fabricated. . . . The citizens should really be outraged."