Long legal road ends in conviction for ABQ black man swept up in federal sting

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Illustration of Yusef Casanova, by Anson Stevens-Bollen

Three deputy U.S. Marshals helped Yusef Casanova change out of his dark-colored suit, striped tie and white dress shirt and fitted him with a set of handcuffs after his long legal fight ended Thursday afternoon in an Albuquerque courtroom.

Hours earlier, a jury of nine women and three men had convicted the 46-year-old after a four-day trial. The jurors deliberated for less than two hours before finding Casanova guilty of distributing more than five grams of methamphetamine, illegal possession of a firearm by a felon and failure to register a sawed-off shotgun in a national database.

Casanova will face 10 years or more in federal prison when Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker sentences him in about three months. Casanova plans to appeal the conviction.

A four-month sting operation by  the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrested more than 100 other people, but 28, including Casanova, were black — a highly disproportionate number of African American defendants when compared to the city’s black population; blacks make up about 3 percent of the population in New Mexico’s largest city.

Federal officials initially claimed the 2016 ATF operation took the “worst of the worst” off Albuquerque’s crime-ridden streets. However, Casanova, like many other defendants, was homeless, drug-addicted and acted as a middleman in the relatively small by federal standards drug and firearms sales that later led to their prison sentences.

Casanova had hoped to mount a defense against the charges based on the grounds that he had been illegally profiled by the ATF, but Parker did not allow that.

That means jurors did not hear how federal agents had not aggressively sought a white supplier who had given Casanova drugs seconds before the transaction with an undercover ATF agent that led to criminal charges filed against Casanova.

Instead, Casanova’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Brian Pori, was forced to argue  that ATF agents illegally entrapped his client by preying on his drug addiction and inducing him into setting up the meth and gun sale by offering him “finder’s fees” of cash and drugs.

Casanova took the stand in his own defense Wednesday, detailing years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that exacerbated his addiction and how the prospect of finder’s fees made it difficult for him to say no to the ATF’s persistent requests to set up drug deals.

On Thursday Pori implored the jury to embrace its role as the “conscience of the community” and consider the ATF’s tactics during the four-month operation, dubbed “the surge.”

“They were waging war in the War Zone,” he said, his raspy voice rising. “Surges are for Fallujah, not for Albuquerque.”

Pori also argued that it was unjust to “take a drug addict off our streets and put him in prison where he can get drugs but no drug treatment.”

Pori’s closing argument wasn’t enough to overcome video evidence of Casanova selling meth and a sawed-off shotgun to an undercover ATF agent, however.

“The prosecution did exactly what it set out to do: Prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Hurtado, the lead prosecutor, told the jury.

Hurtado called Pori’s entrapment defense “complete garbage” and Casanova “an experienced, professional drug dealer,” not a hapless addict hustling for another fix.

After Casanova was convicted, Hurtado argued that he should be immediately locked up.

Pori argued that Casanova should be allowed to stay at Four Winds Recovery Center in Rio Rancho, where he has been since January, for another five weeks to finish treatment for hepatitis C before being locked up pending sentencing.

Hurtado didn’t back down from his request for immediate imprisonment, saying “For the past three years, Yusef Casanova has worked the system by filing countless motions on selective enforcement, outrageous government conduct; he’s accused agents of lying … This is over. He is a guilty man, and it’s time for him to be” locked up.

Parker sided with Hurtado, ordering Casanova to the Cibola County Detention Center after Four Winds employees agreed to send the remainder of his hep C treatment drugs to the prison so that Casanova can complete his course of medication.

Hurtado declined to comment after Thursday’s proceedings.

“This is a very disappointing result given the evidence,” Pori told New Mexico In Depth outside the courtroom. “It’s been a long road for Yusef and a very sad ending. This makes me think we live in a carceral state — and we do.”