A Little Rock man accused in 2019 of federal drug and firearms crimes while he was on parole from the Arkansas Department of Corrections for a 2002 murder conviction was sentenced to seven years in federal prison this week on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Justin Thabit, 42, of Little Rock, had succeeded in getting the physical evidence against him tossed after a federal judge determined it was obtained illegally, but incriminating statements he reportedly gave to police the day of the search were left on the table for prosecutors to use against him. Following that decision, Thabit pleaded guilty to the weapon possession charge in February just before he was scheduled to go on trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron McCree asked Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. to sentence Thabit to eight years in prison, the top of the recommended guideline range for his offense.
"We think a sentence at the high end of the range, 96 months, is appropriate," McCree began. "Our greatest concern is his past prior conduct, a murder conviction. We acknowledge that was some time ago but we also point out there was a substantial amount of misconduct while he was in prison. ... We also note that his behavior has not appreciably changed since his release."
"What about since he has been in custody on these charges?" Marshall asked. "What about his behavior then?"
McCree said that Thabit had only been released from the Arkansas Department of Corrections for a short time before his arrest by federal authorities.
"All of that conduct is still relevant," McCree said.
Thabit's attorney, Michael Kaiser of Little Rock, asked Marshall to sentence his client to the low end of the guideline range of 77 months, saying that Thabit had displayed "uncommon intelligence" in assisting Kaiser with his case. Kaiser said that Thabit had shown a strong grasp of legal issues surrounding his case and an affinity for legal research.
"This is someone who I think has found, perhaps, his calling," Kaiser said, "perhaps not in the best way but you would hope that someone in his position would make lemonade and I think he has. He's really quite good at federal law."
At the time of his arrest, Thabit was on parole for the October 2001 beating death of James Medley, 21, in the parking lot of the Chateau Apartments on Asher Avenue in Little Rock.
Sentenced to 26 years in prison by a Pulaski County circuit court judge, Thabit was first paroled in 2016, then returned to prison in 2018 on a parole violation and released again in March 2019.
He was arrested June 18, 2019, after law enforcement officers from Pulaski County, Little Rock and the U.S. Marshals Service -- under authority of a search waiver -- searched a home belonging to Thabit's girlfriend where they reported seizing drugs and guns, including a shotgun with a barrel shorter than 18 inches and no serial number.
Authorities said they had begun searching for Thabit after he missed two visits with his parole officer in 2019 and was considered to be an absconder.
According to court records, parole officers visited Thabit's mother's home -- the address he had listed on the search waiver -- on March 14, 2019, and were told that although he had a room there, he had not spent the night for several weeks. The absconder warrant was issued the following day.
Three months later Thabit was found at his girlfriend's home after a tip from a confidential informant, according to court documents. During the search, Thabit reportedly told officers they would find drugs and guns inside the home. After successfully getting the evidence from that search suppressed, Thabit pleaded to the weapon possession count.
"There's nothing I can do to excuse my behavior," Thabit said to Marshall. "I did 15 years previously, I got out and had my second chance and I blew it."
Thabit said during his time in prison he had fantasized about being out but said when he was released, "things didn't go as planned ... life moves at a different pace outside." After his release, he said, he continued using drugs, which he said, "just made things worse."
Thabit said that since his arrest and incarceration four years ago, he has remained drug-free.
"I think that will make a difference," he said, "because I was using all the way up until I got out of prison before."
After Thabit's statement, Marshall sentenced him to an 84-month prison term and recommended that he participate in drug rehabilitation as well as vocational and educational training. Marshall also ordered Thabit to serve three years on supervised release after he leaves prison and he encouraged him to take advantage of the programs offered while he is incarcerated.
"You know Yogi Berra, the old baseball player, you heard of him?" Marshall asked. "He used to say 'wherever you go there you are.' It's what you make of it."
Marshall said he was impressed with the progress that Thabit had made and his aptitude for legal research.
"What you've done with that, staying off drugs the past several years and turning into a de facto legal assistant," he said, "I see someone with great promise, if you stay on that path."