A lot of people assume that in drug cases, the big fish get the stiffest sentences, while the least culpable receive the most lenient sentences. In a perfectly fair and just world, that would be the case, but that is not the reality of the American justice system. In actuality, the first to squeal usually gets the best deal.
The classic illegal drug distribution chain is set up like a pyramid, with fewer and fewer people as you reach the top, while there are lots of small time dealers at the bottom of the pyramid. Obviously, the guys at the top of the pyramid are moving the most weight and making the most money, while those at the lowest rung of the pyramid usually make no money at all; they simply make enough to subsidize their own drug use. One would think that the guys at the top of the pyramid would get whacked the hardest, yet this not necessarily so.
Although the guys at the top of the drug distribution pyramid face the greatest sentencing exposure, they also have the best chance to help themselves out, by cooperating with the authorities. They have the most information about the organization, while the little guys at the bottom have little or no information to offer. Also, the top dogs in the drug pyramid tend to be more sophisticated and have more financial resources than the guys at the bottom. When they discover that charges are going to be filed, they “lawyer up” right away. Their defense attorney will then contact law enforcement to size up the government’s case. If the case is strong against the accused, then the best thing to do is cooperate.
Cooperation can take the form of confessing to what the police and prosecutors already know the suspect did, while also implicating others. The suspect then agrees to testify against other members of the organization, in exchange for leniency. The general rule is that the first to cooperate gets the best deal, as do those with the most valuable information. The irony is that this often leads to a situation where the guy at the top of the pyramid actually ends up with a more lenient outcome than the guys at the bottom of the pyramid. Such an outcome might not seem fair, but it is simply how our justice system works.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, with extensive experience in defending drug cases.