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A wasn't-me defense fails as drug plotters convicted

by Dale Ellis | April 22, 2021 at 3:24 a.m.

After three days of testimony and evidence and just over three hours of deliberations, a jury of four women and eight men found James Richards and Isaac May guilty on all counts of a 2018 drug-conspiracy indictment.

Richards, 52, was convicted of one count each of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine and cocaine distribution, and five counts of use of a telephone in furtherance of a drug crime. May, 42, was convicted of one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine and three counts of use of a phone in furtherance of a drug crime.

The two men were indicted as part of a drug ring run by John Steven Garner that was responsible for distributing pound quantities of cocaine in Central Arkansas.

After assistant U.S. attorneys Chris Givens and Julie Peters wrapped up the government's case against the two men Wednesday morning, Richards, through his attorney, Arkie Byrd, elected not to testify and did not call any witnesses. May did choose to testify.

U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. denied motions to dismiss the case against Richards and May. Both defense attorneys maintained that the government had failed to meet its burden of proof.

In putting on his client's defense, Theodis Thompson argued that May was not only innocent of the conspiracy but that he had met Garner fewer than a half-dozen times. May testified that he didn't touch drugs and had never before been accused of having anything to do with drugs, having been traumatized by the death of an aunt by a drug overdose when he was 15.

He said although he had met Garner on a few occasions, he did not know him and had never bought drugs from him.

"I seen him a few times over at my friend's house," May said. "It's like I see him and then I don't see him, hey and hi, it's up and down."

The friend, May said, was Richards, at whose home he said he often visited on weekends to watch sports or for cookouts and other gatherings. He said that other than at Richards' home, he never encountered Garner and he maintained that the only interactions he had with him were superficial and brief.

"We never had a conversation," May said. "It was just hi and bye."

Peters began her cross-examination by playing a recorded conversation from March 11, 2018, captured from a wiretap on Garner's phone.

"Yeah," Garner could be heard as he answered the phone.

"What up, Unc?" asked the caller, in a low-pitched, gravelly voice that sounded much like May.

"What up, brother?" Garner responded.

"What you got coming?" asked the caller.

"Say that again," Garner said.

"What do you got coming?" the caller asked again, more clearly.

"That's you on the phone isn't it?" asked Peters.

"No," May said.

"So you've been sitting here talking all this time and you want the jury to believe that's not you on the phone?"

"That's not me," May replied.

Referring to testimony May had given earlier regarding one of his brothers who was hospitalized about that time, and later died in the hospital, Peters played another call from three days later. The caller can be heard complaining about a drug purchase he planned for the previous night but had not been able to reach Garner.

"Yeah, yeah, man, my aunt had to go to the hospital, dog," Garner said.

"My brother's there right now," the caller said.

"Is that right?" Garner replied.

"So, this speaker has a brother in the hospital, too," Peters said, skeptically.

"Yeah, I got five brothers," May said.

"Is that your brother in the hospital?" she asked.

"Yeah, I got five brothers," May repeated.

"OK, well, the person on that call also has a brother in the hospital," Peters said.

"A lot of people have brothers," May replied.

"But you're saying that's not you and that's not you talking about your brother in the hospital," Peters said.

"No," May said.

Peters then shifted gears and brought the conversation around to May's car, a black Cadillac that had been seen by federal agents sitting in Richards' driveway on March 15, 2018, when Richards was caught on surveillance video taking a delivery of drugs from Garner.

May, beginning to sound impatient, acknowledged that the Cadillac belonged to him and that he was the person who drove it. At that point, Peters referred to a recorded call played the previous day that captured a conversation between Richards and Garner.

"Wasn't that you they were talking about as the fat mother * * * * *r in the black car?" Peters asked.

"I don't know," May said.

Referring to suspicions that May might be an informant that Richards and Garner had been heard voicing on that recording played in court the previous day, Peters asked, "Why would Mr. Garner or Mr. Richards be worried about the police being on you?"

"Police being on who?" May asked.

"On you," Peters said.

"Police was not on me," May said, and repeatedly denied any involvement with Garner or drug trafficking.

Byrd, in closing arguments, questioned the honesty of the co-defendants who testified for the prosecution.

"Each one of them has a very strong and very potent reason to testify," she said, "to get a reduced sentence... The only truth they are willing to put out there is what benefits them."

Thompson acknowledged that in several recordings the caller sounded like May but he questioned whether sounding like May constituted actual proof that the caller was indeed May.

"The government indicates that because he has a raspy, distinct voice that it must be him," Thompson said. "But they failed to provide any type of forensic analysis of the voice recordings. People sound alike... The only way to be certain that you know the person on the other end is Isaac May is that you take other steps... You want to be sure that's that person you're listening to and the government didn't provide that to you."

But Givens argued that the totality of the evidence did prove both Richards and May were guilty.

After the verdict, May, who has been in pretrial detention since shortly after his arrest in 2018 was taken back into custody and Moody ordered Richards, who has been free on bond, to be remanded into custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

As Richards' hands were being cuffed behind his back, his mother tried to approach him but was stopped. Richards smiled at her and offered reassurances.

"It's OK," he said. "I'll call you tomorrow."

May, who spent the trial seated in a wheelchair, smiled and waved at family members in the courtroom, mouthing assurances as marshals prepared to wheel him out.

Thompson said up until the verdict was announced that he had been hopeful that May would be acquitted.

"We're definitely disappointed in the decision reached by the jury," he said. "We'll explore all options but right now my heart goes out to Mr. May and his family. We thought the decision would go in his favor."

Givens, noting that the trial was the first criminal trial to be held in the federal courthouse this year, said he was happy that jury trials were being resumed. He praised the jury for its work.

"We're not rooting for any particular verdict," he said. "We believed all along that justice would be served with a guilty verdict but we would respect the jury's verdict whichever way it came. In this case, with the evidence that was presented at trial, we believe the jury reached the right verdict."

Byrd did not comment on the verdict.

The two men will be sentenced at a later date.

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