Scoring may raise movers' sentences
Three Israelis convicted of defrauding household-moving customers, by slamming them with high prices after luring them with low estimates, could face stiffer punishment as a result...
Times consumer-affairs reporter
Three Israelis convicted of defrauding household-moving customers, by slamming them with high prices after luring them with low estimates, could face stiffer punishment as a result of a first-of-its-kind jury verdict in Western Washington.
Yesterday's verdict apparently packs more weight in light of today's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. On a 5-4 vote, the court said that its ruling last June that juries - not judges - should consider factors that can add years to defendants' prison sentences applies as well to the 17-year-old federal guideline system.
The Israelis were associated with a now-defunct, Woodinville-based moving company, Nationwide Moving Systems. They were accused of holding household goods hostage until customers paid inflated prices.
Jurors convicted three men - but acquitted a fourth defendant - before Christmas on federal conspiracy, fraud and extortion charges. They reconvened in Tacoma Monday to hear lawyers argue over whether sentencing "enhancements" requested by the government should count.
Yesterday, after about seven hours' deliberation, jurors answered 17 specific questions as part of the sentencing procedure that relies on a scoring system. They responded to questions on subjects such as the defendants' respective roles, the amount of loss and the vulnerability of victims. They didn't answer every question to the complete satisfaction of prosecutors, but the government came out on top.
For example, jurors found that Erik Deri, who ran the company, was an organizer or leader of the criminal conduct involving five or more participants. That could add "points" to Deri's official "sentencing score."
The special sentencing procedure was designed in the wake of the so-called Blakely case decided by the high court last year. That ruling, which grew out of another Washington case, established the principle that jurors, not judges, must decide the facts determining a criminal sentence.
Yesterday's special verdict affects Deri, 33, who was convicted of 27 counts of extortion and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and extortion; Yosef Nahum, 56, convicted of conspiracy and four counts of extortion; and Yuval Derei, 30, convicted of conspiracy. Yuval Derei is Erik Deri's brother. A fourth defendant, Tanya Deri, 29, Erik Deri's American-born wife, was acquitted of conspiracy and extortion.
Commenting on the verdict in light of today's Supreme Court decision, Nahum's lawyer, Gil Levy, said he was still absorbing the ruling. But if early media reports about the ruling are correct, he said, "Then it sounds like what Judge (Franklin) Burgess did (in holding the special-verdict hearing) was correct, and that sentencing in this case will be governed to some extent by the jury's findings yesterday."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Warma said she, too, was reading the new decision to gauge its impact. But she agreed the special verdict process could be "useful in terms of giving the judge some guidance."
Jurors heard from several victims, including Elizabeth Addario, of Revere, Mass., who described her initial dealings with Nationwide as "very pleasant."
But Addario said her confidence was shattered when, after her goods had been loaded onto the truck, Nationwide demanded $16,000, more than four times the company's initial estimate of $3,600.
"I felt like I was being held up monetarily," she told jurors. "I felt violated."
The government also alleged that the defendants never obtained the necessary paperwork to operate legitimately - and continued to do business even after they were told to stop.
The defense countered that customers who became upset brought trouble on themselves by underestimating how much stuff they had. Also, the contracts customers signed gave the company the right to hold onto the goods if they didn't pay what was owed, the defense said.
The business's efforts to get proper licensing collapsed, as did revenues, after The Seattle Times published a story in March 2003 that focused on consumer anger over Nationwide's business practices, the defense said.
The defendants are to be formally sentenced by U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess on April 8. Defense attorneys have said that their clients face deportation after their prison terms.
Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org