A federal judge in Memphis suspects race played a role in the vastly different outcomes for two men accused of committing the exact same crime.

The case that drew complaints from U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. involves two drug dealers, one Black and one white, who tried selling $800 worth of ecstasy pills to an undercover cop in 2017, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. Mario Silas, the Black defendant, waited inside a car with a woman while Jared Weatherly, the white defendant, got into the “buyer’s” vehicle to sell him the drugs.

Memphis prosecutors sought a 15-year sentence for the Black defendant but only a one-year sentence for the white defendant, even though both men were involved in the same drug crime. ((Photo: Shelby County Sheriff’s Office)) It wasn’t long before the covert cop gave the signal and all three were arrested and charged for their crimes. Silas and Weatherly faced highly disparate consequences, however.

The Black man was handed a lengthy 15-year sentence while the white man is only serving one year behind bars.

That case and several others like it have prompted Fowlkes to challenge the issue of racial bias in the prosecutor’s office. The magistrate said he had no choice but to throw the book as Silas due to the vastly different charges prosecutors sought against the two men.

According to the Commercial Appeal, Silas faced drug charges and several other counts, in addition to a gun charge that carries a mandatory 5-year sentence. Police said Silas had a weapon on him at the time of the drug deal. That, combined with prior felony convictions and a separate federal gun case, allowed prosecutors to seek a lengthy prison term.

Meanwhile, Weatherly only faced a drug case, leading prosecutors to only seek a one-year sentence.

Fowlkes argued prosecutors could’ve charged the white man with a gun crime too since he was also implicated in the drug deal involving a gun.

“This is another situation where a white defendant appears to have been treated differently than African-Americans, and I’m concerned about how we’re proceeding in this case,” the judge said according to a transcript of the Nov. 19 hearing.

The federal prosecutor’s office in Memphis vehemently denies racial bias was a factor in the sentence recommendation. In a statement released from U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant, obtained by Memphis Commercial Appeal stated,

“Every case this office brings is unique. We make charging decisions based on the rule of law, the facts of the case and department policy.

“We make sentencing recommendations to the court based upon the federal sentencing guidelines, which take into account, among other things, each defendant’s past history.

“It is ultimately up to the court to determine the appropriate sentence for each individual defendant. Any suggestion that race plays a role in these decisions – either overtly or implicitly – is wrong.”

This isn’t the first time Fowlkes, who is one of few Black federal judges, has called out racial bias in the prosecutor’s office.

The prosecutor’s office denied any discrimination, attorney J. William Crow saying, “I apologize to the court if you have ever thought that I or anyone in our office is taking race into account in what we charge because that’s just not the truth.”

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