(Borderlandbeat) Rhode Island coin dealer Stephen Saccoccia is serving 660 years for laundering millions of dollars for a Colombian drug cartel in the 1990s. Now, at age 62, after serving 28 years behind bars, he is again trying to cut that sentence short.
He is seeking clemency from President Donald Trump.
And even more recently, he is arguing that he should be released on time served due to the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic and his disproportionately long sentence for committing a “non-violent” financial crimes.
Saccoccia is asking U.S. District Judge William E. Smith to free him based on the “emergency conditions” created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now claimed the lives of 55 federal inmates. Saccoccia cites his hypertension and high cholesterol as making him at high risk for complications should he contract the virus.
“For this reason, Saccoccia’s medical risk from COVID-19, ‘taken alone, arguably constitutes extraordinary and compelling circumstances justifying his release,’” his lawyer, Lisa Holley, wrote. She emphasized, too, Saccoccia’s low risk of reoffending and the unwavering support of his family and friends.
But federal prosecutors say not so fast. They argue that he has failed to show the existence of any medical condition that would place him at a heightened risk. They also cite a prison disciplinary record that includes bribing an officer $50 for tobacco, possessing wine in his cell, and abusing phone privileges.
“The fact is that, for roughly five years, defendant played a critical role in ensuring the financial success of a major Colombia drug cartel well known for its violent activities, laundering tens of million of dollars in drug proceeds and thereby fueling the attendant misery such trafficking entails … Viewed from any angle, defendant is vastly more culpable than the typical dealers this court has sentenced. He has not demonstrated that he is a changed man, such as to justify granting his motion for compassionate release,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Terrence P. Donnelly wrote.
Saccoccia is seeking relief under the First Step Act, a sweeping sentencing reform law enacted late last year. Its provisions include changes to the compassionate release process that lowered the eligibility age to 65 and give prisoners the ability to appeal to federal court. The act empowers judges to reduce sentences in “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances.
A jury in 1993 convicted Saccoccia, a onetime Cranston High School West math whiz, of running what prosecutors described as one of the biggest money-laundering operations in the nation on behalf of the Cali Cartel. He received the maximum sentence under mandatory sentencing framework — 660 years.
His wife, Donna Saccoccia, was convicted and sentenced to serve 14 years in prison. She was released in 2004. A judge ordered the Saccoccias to forfeit more than $136 million in assets as punishment for laundering that sum in a drug lord’s cocaine profits and imposed a $16-million fine.
In seeking clemency from President Trump, Saccoccia contrasts his sentence with the current average sentences for money laundering: 67 to 70 months. He notes, through New York lawyer Aubrey E. Levesque, that Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, “El Chapo,” was sentenced to a life term plus a consecutive 30 years for running the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico.
“Mr. Saccoccia has exhausted his appeals, sought relief under every sentencing reform law under which he could make a colorable claim, and even sought a presidential pardon from President Barack Obama … It is my hope that you, who bravely championed for the First Step Act and made it your mission to utilize the pardons and commutations powers granted to your office to write the wrongs of injustices overlooked by your predecessors…,” Levesque wrote April 5.
Also weighing for Saccoccia, on Providence Police Department letterhead, is his cousin and former Rhode Island Parole Board member, Providence Police Cmdr. Thomas Verdi.
“In a modern and civilized society there should exist a fundamental fairness to punishment; a moral link, a moral justification, between the offense(s) and the sentence imposed. Shouldn’t punishment be proportional to the crime committed?” Verdi wrote.
“…No one will ever convince me that Stephen, at age 32, was beyond hope; was beyond reform and rehabilitation; that he could not change his criminal behavior … Stephen, and people like him, do not deserve to suffer in prison for 50+ years only to die in a jail cell. Is not the Christian faith about grace and forgiveness?” U.S. Attorney Aaron Weisman’s office declined to comment.