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August 5, 2010

Dealer dealt life

Jury gives convicted crack seller the maximum sentence

PALO PINTO — After convicting him Wednesday of engaging in organized criminal activity, a Palo Pinto County jury Thursday morning sentenced Joe Luther Willis to life in prison.

Willis, 56, was found guilty of conspiring to distribute more than 400 grams of crack cocaine in Mineral Wells.

Willis, one of several people who openly sold crack on S.E. 8th Street during 2005 to 2007, according to testimony presented during the trial, faced 15 years to 99 years or life in prison for the first-degree felony offense.

The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated about 20 minutes after additional testimony was presented during the sentencing phase of the trial Thursday morning.

“Once we found him guilty, we wanted to send a message to Mr. Willis and the community that we are all citizens of Palo Pinto County and we want it to stop,” Larry Anderson, the jury foreman, said about their reasons for the sentence. “For lack of a better word, it was a slam dunk.”

In addition to life in prison, the jury also gave him the maximum fine – $250,000.  

The jury heard additional evidence Thursday morning from law enforcement and confidential informant John Joseph Polk, also known as “Heavy,” that Willis sold a loaded 9mm pistol to Polk, who he allegedly knew was a convicted felon, near the end of the investigation.

The pistol was reported stolen out of Stephenville, according to Special Agent Melanie Finney with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  

“It is your opportunity to set the community standards,” Assistant District Attorney Kriste Burnett told the jury during closing remarks.  

Willis' court-appointed defense attorney, Cora Moore, asked the jury for a sentence at the lesser end of the spectrum because it wasn't violent and didn't involve children.

“There's only one sentence appropriate in this case and that's life in prison,” District Attorney Mike Burns told the jury. “Those who are out there still doing it look to you.”

Speaking for Willis after his sentence was pronounced, Moore told those in the courtroom he met Christ at a younger age and often ignored his conscience since then.  

Willis told her he was afflicted by the law enforcement officers and prosecution and is a new man in God's love.  

“This man has been turned around,” Moore said.  

Burns said he was pleased the jury, representative of citizens in the county, understood the gravity of the crime and supported the efforts of law enforcement who spent two years trying to eradicate the drug problem in the neighborhood.  

Moore, who will be retained for the next month as Willis' attorney, said she was unsure whether there would be an appeal.  

Of the five named in the indictment, Willis' case was the final case to be disposed.  

Ciarra Lashonda Clark pleaded guilty in 2009 and received 15 years in prison.  

Linda Marie Turner pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of engaging in organized criminal activity by conspiring to distribute between 200 and 400 grams of crack cocaine and received 10 years in prison.  

Anthony Lavelle Tate pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of engaging in organized criminal activity for conspiring to distribute between 4 and 200 grams of crack cocaine and received eight years deferred adjudication.

The case against Emily Gonzalez was dismissed for technical reasons, according to Burns.

Willis' was the third case for engaging in organized criminal activity to go to a jury trial since the current district attorney's office began prosecuting many drug distribution cases with the more serious charge, and netted the longest sentence yet.

In recent months, many have agreed to plead guilty and take high sentences, such as 35 years, Burns said.  

Only seven of the 80 total defendants indicted for engaging in organized criminal activity cases in recent years are currently requesting a jury trial, according to Burns.

Index staff writer Christin Coyne can be reached at (940) 325-4465, ext. 3428, or ccoyne@mineralwellsindex.com.

 

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