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Ecstasy Case Ends in Jury Deadlock

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge in Los Angeles declared a mistrial Thursday in the case of a man accused of helping smuggle millions of Ecstasy pills into the United States.

Jurors in the case of Aaron Cain McKnight deliberated five days before telling U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper that they were unable to reach a unanimous decision on his innocence or guilt.

Some of the jurors became angry during deliberations, insisting that McKnight, 26, was guilty of conspiracy to import huge amounts of the drug, a stimulant and a mild hallucinogen, as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise, according to interviews and jury transcripts.

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But in the end, three jurors held out for acquittal after the monthlong trial, saying the case--built mostly on government informants’ statements--wasn’t strong enough to convince them of McKnight’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said prosecutors intend to retry McKnight.

The defendant’s lawyer, Ronald Richards, said the case was flawed because it relied too heavily on prosecution witnesses who were accomplices, got plea agreements and may have been influenced by the government.

“I think that even though there was overwhelming evidence presented by the government, it’s become a trend in drug cases for juries not to convict defendants on circumstantial evidence,” Richards said. “Because the sentences are so long, jurors are very conscious about not convicting someone unless the evidence is solid.”

The criminal penalties for distributing Ecstasy, known scientifically as MDMA, were raised significantly in May in response to a dramatic increase in the use of the drug.

Although Ecstasy was once ingested primarily by young people at nightclubs and dance parties known as raves, federal authorities say it is now sold and used wherever teenagers gather. Its popularity among older users has skyrocketed as well, statistics indicate.

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Prosecutors believe that McKnight, who was arrested in April 2000 in Texas, used strippers and cocktail waitresses to smuggle as many as 2 million of the pills into the country from March to December 1999 as part of a larger drug trafficking organization.

Ecstasy induces a high lasting up to six hours. The drug gives users a sense of euphoria and an increased desire to interact socially, but can affect short-term memory if abused, experts say.

It has become popular among drug dealers because of the enormous profit margin.

Each tablet costs about 50 cents to manufacture in underground labs in Europe, where the drug’s precursor chemicals are easy to buy. In the United States, a pill can cost as much as $25 on the street, authorities say.

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