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It should have been easy. Sorenson Oruche had been arrested for selling drugs to a federal informant, and investigators had the Nigerian immigrant on tape talking about how he dealt heroin. That alone could have kept Oruche locked up for more than five years. But prosecutors wanted something bigger. They added charges that could keep Oruche behind bars for 30 years, and they even got a conviction three years ago from a federal jury in the District. Then things started to fall apart. The lead prosecutor was removed from the case after allegations arose that he failed to turn over key evidence to the defense, and a veteran D.C. police detective is accused of giving evasive testimony to a federal judge. That’s just the latest. From the beginning, the Oruche case has been filled with accusations of incompetent lawyering by defense counsel and improper conduct by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Meanwhile, the 40-year-old Oruche, who has yet to be sentenced, has remained locked up since his July 2001 arrest. The Oruche prosecution seems to serve as a prime example of how a seemingly simple case can crumble and reputations be stained when sloppy police work combines with aggressive prosecutorial tactics. Oruche is likely to get a new trial from Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. And given the accusations of police and prosecutory misconduct, Sullivan is considering whether to throw out the case entirely. “It’s frustrating,” Sullivan said at a May 5 hearing. “Every time a hearing is scheduled, we find out something new.” BUST AT UNION STATION Oruche was arrested on July 16, 2001, at Washington’s Union Station. He was carrying $2,430 in marked bills after conducting a heroin deal with a government informant. Over the previous month, Oruche had been watched and recorded as he dealt more than $20,000 worth of heroin to the informant and an undercover agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Oruche was originally charged with possession and distribution of heroin. The government’s evidence was so strong that Oruche and his court-appointed attorney agreed to an “off the record” debriefing with Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Whitted and two DEA agents. Stanley Foshee, who represented Oruche at the time, says his client was facing five to 15 years in prison. “We were negotiating for five years,” says Foshee, referring to the talks with prosecutors over the amount of prison time his client would agree to serve. Before the debriefing, Oruche signed an agreement granting him limited immunity for providing information about other drug crimes and dealers. Foshee says he believed the agreement prevented the government from using the interview to build a larger case against his client. During the interview, Oruche talked about a woman named “T.C.,” whom he met at the Macombo Lounge, a strip club on Georgia Avenue, N.W., in the District. Oruche, a Houston resident, also spoke about trying to deal heroin in Texas in the late 1990s, according to court documents. Plea negotiations quickly fell apart, and in August 2001, prosecutors indicted Oruche for conspiracy to distribute 1,000 grams or more of heroin. But prosecutors weren’t finished. Two months later, they handed up a superseding indictment that hinged on the testimony of T.C., also known as Tequila Williams, the woman Oruche had told investigators about in his debriefing. Now Oruche faced upward of 30 years, if convicted. The government said Williams planned to testify that Oruche had sold her heroin on several occasions and had paid her to deal the drug. She also planned to recount a road trip to New York with Oruche, where he allegedly purchased a large quantity of heroin to sell in the District. Foshee moved to have the Williams evidence thrown out, arguing that prosecutors had violated their agreement with his client. He also requested a hearing that would require the government to prove it had obtained the Williams information from sources other than Oruche’s statements. Judge Sullivan enlisted Judge Reggie Walton to preside over the debriefing dispute. At a subsequent hearing, Oruche testified that he took the agreement to mean that he would not be charged as long as he testified against other defendants. Walton said Oruche’s statement raised questions about the advice defense lawyer Foshee had given Oruche. AUSA Whitted argued that the agreement Oruche had signed stated that the government could pursue leads based on Oruche’s statements, even if their investigation led to finding more evidence against him. Regardless, Whitted said the information from Williams was in the government’s possession before Oruche’s arrest. Walton postponed the hearing and kicked Foshee off the case, finding that Oruche and Foshee were now at odds over legal advice. The next day, Preston Burton, now a partner at Caplin & Drysdale in the District, was appointed to represent Oruche. Burton continued to push the debriefing challenge, arguing that Foshee had given his client “horrendous” advice. But Burton, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the District, also stated that Whitted failed to make sure Oruche was aware of the potential consequences before beginning the interview, noting that it was common practice at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to warn defendants of their exposure. Walton, however, denied Burton’s request, finding that it was Foshee who gave Oruche incorrect advice. DAMAGING TESTIMONY The Oruche case went to trial in July 2002. One of the government’s chief witnesses, the informant who said he bought drugs from Oruche, was arrested after leaving the witness stand. Burton revealed that the informant had been wanted in Minnesota since 1995 for failing to appear for sentencing in a drug case. Under cross-examination by Burton, a DEA agent testified that he never ran a criminal background check on the informant. Tequila Williams was the other witness the government needed to make its conspiracy case. Williams, herself the focus of a narcotics investigation, had been arrested by police in December 2000 after allegedly selling heroin to an undercover cop. Police also had her on tape talking about her supplier. At Oruche’s trial, she testified about her heroin deals with Oruche. Williams claimed that the heroin she had dealt to police came from Oruche. Burton tried to impeach Williams by pointing out that her testimony conflicted with what she said about her supplier on a wiretap. But the tactic failed. After a five-day trial, the jury deliberated for two days before convicting Oruche of several of the counts, including conspiracy. Under federal sentencing guidelines, which were mandatory at the time, Oruche faced 15 to 20 years behind bars. After his client’s conviction, Burton asked Walton to reconsider his earlier decision on the debriefing issue. In April 2003, Walton changed his mind, finding that the government’s language in the immunity agreement with Oruche was confusing. He ordered a hearing to determine whether the information used against Oruche had indeed come from other sources, and not from Oruche himself. According to court papers, the judge also filed a complaint with the D.C. bar counsel against Foshee over his advice to Oruche about the immunity letter. Foshee, who was suspended by the Virginia State Bar for an unrelated matter, says the D.C. bar counsel cleared him of any wrongdoing. D.C. Bar Counsel Wallace “Gene” Shipp Jr. declines comment. TEQUILA AND HEROIN Two days before the August 2003 hearing, Burton says Whitted gave him some notes regarding Williams’ interview with D.C. police in December 2000. One page of notes contained such names as “Tungy,” “O,” and “Ochero,” as well as such words as “coke” and “heroin.” There were also phone numbers next to some of the names. Whitted claimed that Detective Barbara Lyles, a 20-year veteran of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, prepared the document during her December 2000 interview of Williams. A second page, given to Burton, contained Lyles’ “rewritten” version of the interview. At the hearing, Lyles � who, besides her initial interview with Williams, was not involved in putting together the case against Oruche � was called to the stand. In both her direct testimony and during cross-examination, Lyles testified that the “heroin” referred to the persons named “Tungy” and “O” � suggesting that both were heroin suppliers for Williams. The “O,” she said, stood for Oruche. She also said that some of the names and phone numbers on the document were written by Williams. Lyles testified she gave her notes to an assistant U.S. attorney. Whitted also testified at that 2003 hearing, claiming that he had never heard of Williams until a colleague brought her to his attention one month after Oruche’s arrest. Whitted again told Judge Walton that he did not use information from Oruche’s debriefing to build the conspiracy case. After the hearing, Burton filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that Whitted should have turned these notes over to him before trial. Burton claimed it was a key piece of exculpatory information because it showed that Oruche was not the only person dealing heroin to Williams. Such information, Burton argued, would have cast doubt on Williams’ testimony that the drugs came from Oruche. More cracks in the government’s case began to form in February 2004 when Whitted requested that Lyles be allowed to change her earlier testimony. He gave the court an affidavit from Lyles in which the detective said she made a mistake when she testified that Tungy dealt in heroin. Lyles, who again was called to testify, said she reviewed her notes and spoke with Williams again and was certain that Tungy was a cocaine dealer, not a heroin dealer. Shortly thereafter, Whitted was removed from the case and replaced by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Quinn. Whitted declines comment, saying Justice Department policy prevents him from speaking about an ongoing case. Over the next several months, the government turned over more police notes regarding Williams’ involvement in other cases to Burton. In January 2005, Quinn turned over grand jury testimony Williams had given in a homicide case after she had been interviewed by Lyles. In that testimony, Williams admitted she had earlier lied to government investigators about the homicide investigation. At that point, Burton filed a motion requesting that Oruche’s indictment be thrown out for prosecutorial misconduct. Burton detailed numerous instances of information about government witnesses that was in the prosecutor’s possession before trial, but was never turned over. At a hearing earlier this month, Burton, who declines comment, said there was a pattern of deception on the part of the government that severely prejudiced his client. “This shouldn’t have happened,” Burton said. “You win cases, you lose cases, but you play by the rules. They didn’t play by the rules in this case.” Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips declines comment, citing the ongoing litigation. In court papers, prosecutors contend Whitted turned over nearly everything before trial that he was required to, and that Whitted had no obligation to give Lyles’ notes or Williams’ grand jury testimony to the defense. The government did say it should have turned over any of Williams’ own writings that were part of Lyles’ notes, but that information � two names and a couple of phone numbers � would have had little impact on securing Oruche’s conviction. ON THE STAND, ON THE SPOT The Oruche case reached critical mass at a May 5 hearing before Judge Sullivan. Lyles was called to the stand for a third time to explain her notes and her communications with Whitted, who was a witness at the 2003 hearing. Sullivan said he was concerned about the appearance of a witness talking another witness into changing sworn testimony. For more than an hour, Lyles explained how she made her error, claiming she couldn’t remember who had told her that her testimony was wrong. But under continued questioning from Burton and Sullivan, Lyles said it was someone at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, possibly Whitted or then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Black. “Which one was it?” Sullivan asked. “I’m thinking Whitted,” Lyles said. “Whitted called Williams in, and we looked at the notes. We looked at them together.” At that point, Sullivan asked Lyles to leave the courtroom. He then turned to AUSA Quinn and asked, “Does she have a potential Fifth Amendment problem?” Quinn replied: “No. Absolutely not.” “I haven’t seen a witness this evasive in a long time,” Sullivan said. “She’s like a ball of yarn. Every time she opens her mouth, something new comes out.” Immediately after Lyles finished testifying, Burton questioned whether Lyles had actually written some of the notes in question. Sullivan then said he was contemplating whether to have the notes sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a handwriting analysis. “It’s getting very, very serious, if it’s not already getting serious,” the judge added. Lyles did not return calls seeking comment. Quinn argued that even if some of the material concerning Williams should have been turned over before trial, the information was not crucial enough to change the outcome. “This is a case about heroin, not about mistakes by the government,” Quinn said at the May 5 hearing. “This case when presented to the jury was a strong one.” Sullivan, however, said he was inclined, at the very least, to grant Oruche a new trial. The judge, who is expected to issue a ruling May 17, said he was troubled that Whitted had not responded to the misconduct allegations. “It’s absolutely astounding and incredible that we haven’t heard from the U.S. attorney,” Sullivan said. “How am I supposed to connect the dots when we haven’t heard from him?” Tom Schoenberg can be contacted at [email protected].

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