The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave federal judges more authority to set sentences in cocaine trafficking cases.
In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that when a jury convicts a defendant of conspiring to violate federal drug laws, the judge can decide whether to base the sentence on powder or crack cocaine if both forms of the drug were used in the crime. This can make a big difference in a defendant's sentence because crack crimes get stiffer punishments.
Sentences are based largely on the weight of the drugs involved, and under current law, crack dealers get the same prison time as people who sell 100 times the amount of cocaine powder.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1995 proposed making the sentences equal, but Congress rejected the plan. The Clinton administration has favored narrowing the difference (to a 10-to-1 ratio) but has opposed equalization.
The issue invokes concerns about race and class because crack is associated with urban minority dealers while powder is more prevalent among whites.
Tuesday's ruling focused on the appeal of five Rockford, Ill., men who were found guilty of conspiring to sell drugs and received sentences ranging from 10 years to life.
The trial judge had told the jury that it could find the men guilty of an illegal conspiracy if it believed they were involved with either powdered cocaine or crack. Then, when the judge sentenced the men, he based the term on both cocaine and crack.
But the defendants argued that when a jury issues a verdict in a multi-drug conspiracy, the judge must sentence a defendant for the drug carrying the lesser punishment or hold a new hearing on specific drug charges.
Nursing home fire
kills 7 in Washington
SEATTLE _ A smoky, late-night fire that spread through a nursing home killed seven people and left one critically injured, officials said Tuesday.
Another 21 people were treated at area hospitals for smoke inhalation or other minor injuries after fire struck the Arlington Manor assisted living facility, about 40 miles north of Seattle.
Flames were shooting out the windows of the 90-year-old frame structure when firefighters arrived shortly after 11 p.m. Monday, said Arlington Deputy Fire Chief Michael Koontz.
Survivors were helped or carried from the building, which housed 32 mostly elderly residents and two staff members.
Koontz said the fire apparently started in a first-floor bedroom, where three of the bodies were found. Another three bodies were found on the second floor directly above where the fire had started.
The building, originally a hospital, was licensed as a care facility in 1959 and had no sprinklers.
Elsewhere . . .
SAN DIEGO _ A 10-ounce girl, the tiniest of quadruplets born prematurely to a 55-year-old woman this month, has died after being removed from life support, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The other infants, two girls and a boy, all weighing less than 2 pounds, continue to fight for survival.
PHOENIX _ The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down as unconstitutional a voter-approved law requiring official state and local business be conducted only in English.
DENVER _ Timothy McVeigh's attorneys told a federal appeals court he deserves a new trial in the Oklahoma City bombing because of juror misconduct and the publication of a purported confession from him just before the case began. They also said the trial judge unfairly restricted questioning of prospective jurors.