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State v. Cole

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

February 6, 2019



          Paula C. Marx Louisiana Appellate Project COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Russell Wade Cole

          Hon. Asa A. Skinner Thirtieth Judical District Attorney COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: State of Louisiana

          Court composed of Sylvia R. Cooks, Shannon J. Gremillion, and Phyllis M. Keaty, Judges.


         Defendant, Russell Wade Cole, pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering, a violation of La.R.S. 15:1353. This plea was accompanied by a recommendation from the State that Defendant be sentenced to fifteen years; in exchange, Defendant agreed to testify truthfully against his co-defendants and otherwise cooperate with the State. The State agreed to not proceed against Defendant civilly and to seek no asset forfeiture. The State also agreed that Defendant would not be indicted for any other crimes, other than murder, he admitted to while testifying. The trial court sentenced Defendant to twenty years at hard labor with credit for time served. Defendant filed a motion to reconsider his sentence, which was denied without hearing. Defendant now appeals his sentence, asserting two alleged errors: that his sentence of twenty years of imprisonment at hard labor is harsh and excessive, considering his cooperation in bringing down the largest methamphetamine distribution ring in the history of Vernon Parish and considering the State's sentencing recommendation of fifteen years. In his second assignment of error, Defendant contends that the trial court failed to comply with La.Code Crim.P. art. 894.1, failed to individualize this sentence to this offender and offense, and failed to adequately consider mitigating factors in this case. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's sentence is affirmed.


         Defendant was indicted on June 2, 2016, under the Louisiana Racketeering Act for racketeering activity that revolved around his participation in a methamphetamine distribution enterprise between February 1, 2015, and March 9, 2016, under the auspices of the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel. This corresponded with a surge in methamphetamine availability in Vernon Parish that witnessed street prices plummet from $120.00 per gram to $60.00 per gram. The participants in the racketeering enterprise were Defendant, Christopher Granado, Nathan Wayne Robertson, Carey Lynn White, Felisha Hernandez-Quezada, and twenty-two unindicted co-conspirators. Granado was the head of the organization and the main source and supplier of the Sinaloa methamphetamine. The racketeering offense was predicated on the laundering of proceeds collected and channeled through Granado and the illegal distribution of methamphetamine, violations of La.R.S. 14:230 and La.R.S. 40:967. Defendant became involved as a lower-level dealer, and, for the first few months of the enterprise, received methamphetamine from Robertson, who had been receiving methamphetamine directly from Granado. In November of 2015, Robertson was arrested for domestic abuse battery and incarcerated, and Defendant began receiving methamphetamine directly from Granado, taking over the distribution of the methamphetamine in Vernon Parish.

         Following his arrest, as outlined above, Defendant entered into a plea agreement to actively cooperate with law enforcement authorities in exchange for testifying truthfully against Granado and Hernandez-Quezada. Defendant's cooperation was acknowledged by the State in a memorandum asking that Defendant be sentenced to fifteen years. Sheriff John S. "Sam" Craft of Vernon Parish wrote a letter on Defendant's behalf in which he indicated that Defendant had been employed at the sheriff's department's automotive shop during his incarceration and behaved "in a very courteous manner." The warden of the detention facility also wrote on Defendant's behalf, along with several other Vernon and Beauregard Parish residents.[1]

         The trial court noted that Defendant's participation in methamphetamine distribution "carried a catastrophic effect on the substance abuse problem in Vernon Parish." Defendant's participation was initially low-level until Robertson's arrest, which Defendant capitalized on to move higher in the distribution chain. Defendant, the trial court noted, "organized meth selling operations in Vernon and Beauregard Parishes with plans to expand his operations in Calcasieu Parish in the future." Only "the combined efforts of the Vernon Parish Narcotics Task Force, the Louisiana State Police, the DEA, and other state and federal law enforcement agencies" brought Defendant to heel. The trial court also noted:

The Court in this matter, in addition to what has been indicated earlier, will acknowledge that I have read the entire criminal file in this matter because I wasn't initially involved in this matter from the beginning. And I've reviewed the many statements that were taken during the investigation by co-defendants and other persons with personal knowledge of the inner workings of this organization. Those statements included statements by Nathan Robertson, Carey White, Jimmy Morgan, Robert Keen, Jr., David Dowden, Amanda Stewart, Shelly Clutter, Wilmer Stewart, Justin Williams, and Russel Cole. Of all the statements in the record, Mr. Cole was the most evasive and least forthcoming about the organization and his involvement. In fact, he attempted to portray his involvement in terms of receiving only ounces of drugs instead of the pounds of meth as described by the others mentioned giving statements. The record also reflects that it was only until Mr. Cole realized that there was no other light at the end of the tunnel and that he had to do something to help himself that his cooperation became significant and fruitful.

         The trial court simply did not accept that Defendant genuinely acknowledged the seriousness of his crimes and felt that an extended period of probation would present "an undue risk" of recidivism. Defendant was sentenced to serve twenty years at hard labor.

         Defendant filed a motion to reconsider his sentence in which he argued that his sentence was a deviation from the cooperation agreement, was inconsistent with the sentence given to others similarly situated, was excessive, and was based, at least partially, on evidence in dispute and about which the defense had no knowledge. This motion was denied without a hearing. This appeal ensued.

         Defendant asserts that the trial court committed two errors that render his sentence illegal. First, he contends that the sentence of twenty years at hard labor is excessive in light of his cooperation with the State, along with the fact that the State recommended a sentence of fifteen years and in comparison to the sentences imposed on his co-defendants. Second, Defendant urges that the trial court failed to comply with La.Code Crim.P. art. 894.1, in that the sentence was not tailored to Defendant's case. Specifically, the trial court noted that methamphetamine consumption represents a serious problem in Vernon Parish and that most crime in Vernon Parish stems from ...

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