By Zach Margulis-Ohnuma
She sat in front of me, bald, shellshocked, speechless, drug addled.
The government had charged her with moving massive quantities of GBL and meth, gal Friday to a big-time drug dealer working the nightclubs.
She was looking at a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence, no bail. The plan was to send her to the men’s section of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the worst run jail in America. Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself there a couple of months later. The jail was shut down shortly thereafter, just before COVID hit.
The prosecutor was totally uninterested in my pitch for bail. Three days later, after we offered ankle monitoring, a stable place to live, and a significant financial bail package, the judge followed the prosecutor’s suggestion: remand. No condition or combination of conditions could be set that would ensure the safety of the community and guard against the risk of flight she supposedly posed.
Today, three-and-a-half years later, Kenyatta Taiste walked into Judge Victor Marrero’s courtroom in an immaculate white dress. She held her head high. She had spent the last three years at liberty in the community, working, volunteering, drug-free, building and strengthening her relationships with her many friends and her long-term boyfriend
She had pled guilty after six months detained at the MCC. The inevitable happened there, the unimaginable to most of us. Judge Marrero put a stop to it over the government’s objection when he finally ordered her released on bail on March 15, 2019. It was our third application. The government fought them all.
At the next meeting at our office, Kenyatta told her lawyers: “drugs are bad.” In the fall, I ran in the Shatterproof 10K Race Against Addiction she helped organize. A couple of weeks ago, she was on a Zoom panel hosted by the New Pride Agenda called “Let’s Talk About It: Addiction.”
Days, she works as a brand Ambassador for Parfum de Marly at Nordstrom’s. She is studying to get her real estate license.
Kenyatta’s sentencing Guidelines, as calculated by the Department of Probation and endorsed by the government, were 97-121 months. Probation was recommending a sentence of two years. The government agreed the Guidelines were too high, but they did not specify what would be the right sentence.
We wanted time served: what Kenyatta went through in MCC for six months was far more punishment than anyone should have to endure for a non-violent drug offense.
I wrote in the sentencing memo:
Thirty-eight year old Kenyatta Taiste has made a remarkable journey from a happy rural childhood to rejection by an abusive stepfather to sexual exploitation, homelessness, drug addiction, criminal distribution of dangerous narcotics, federal jail and finally to sobriety, community engagement, creative productivity, and self reliance. By any measure, Ms. Taiste is a success who has survived almost impossible odds. She is drug-free and maintains healthy relationships with a galaxy of responsible, caring friends. Despite the unspeakable cruelties that have been visited upon her, she uses her many good qualities to improve the lives of others. As a person she presents as funny, bright, engaging, and beautiful—’a big sweet ray of light’ (as one of her friends wrote).
The night before sentencing, the judge’s chambers sent out an email: did the government think it would be necessary to have marshals present to take her into custody? No, the government would agree to let her self-surrender if prison time were imposed.
A passel of stylish young New Yorkers waited in the courtroom. Most of them were familiar faces, the folks who had gotten her through the past three years.
Ronaldy brought pink roses to court. Others had supplied bail signatures, housing, food, and letters telling the judge what kind of person Kenyatta was. All offered emotional, spiritual and moral support.
Kenyatta’s entry was joyous, but when the judge took the bench, the room hushed. As I spoke in Kenyatta’s defense, my throat got tight. I could feel the tension behind me and to my immediate right. I told the judge I never had a client like Kenyatta. I will never have another one like her again. I could not imagine he would lock her up again, not after what they did to her at the MCC, not after the amazing way she reinvented herself.
We argued over the Guidelines. Supposedly Kenyatta was on probation when she committed the federal crime. But South Carolina did not have any records and no one could find any paperwork (our colleague Victoria Medley checked the courthouses when she was down there on vacation). The government could not come up with proof to support its claim so Judge Marrero lowered her “criminal history” to Category I. That brought the Guidelines to 87-108 months. It also made the two-year recommendation from Probation too high, the judge reasoned, because it was based on insufficient evidence to support the Criminal History Category.
Kenyatta spoke. It took a minute for her to gather herself. When she was done, she was spent. She said the kindest thing a defendant can ever say to a system that has tried to crush her soul: this was good for me. Kenyatta because a new person because of the prosecution. Thanks to COVID, she had three years to prove she would never go back.
Judge Marrero heard her.
The sentence was be time-served.