Today the five students arrested in Operation Ivy League had yet another court appearance, during which each was offered plea agreements by the prosecution, which all declined. Peter Sterne reports from the courtroom.
The hearing began a few minutes past the scheduled start time, when the defendants and their attorneys walked to the front of the room, and faced the judge. It wasn’t a jury trial, but the two sides did make arguments before the Honorable Judge Sonberg, who occasionally intervened to ask questions.
As we previously reported, attorneys for Coles and Wymbs are seeking a “diversion to treatment,” arguing that their clients only sold drugs to fund their own drug addictions, rather than to make a profit. Lawyers for Klein and Perez have since followed suit. This morning, Assistant District Attorney Novak argued that, in fact, the defendants did sell drugs primarily to make money. The high-profile defense attorneys, on the other hand, contend that their clients were good kids (frequently citing the fact they got into Columbia) who got mixed up in drugs and tricked by undercover agents, before finally entering treatment and turning their lives around. Matthew Myers, Harrison David’s attorney, forcefully declared, “My client didn’t attend Columbia University to become a cocaine dealer!”
The State, citing the defendants’ lack of criminal records and non-violent personalities, recommended plea deals for all of the defendants: If Coles, Klein, Wymbs, and Perez would plead guilty to a class-D felony they would be sentenced to 5 years probation, but no jail time. David would plead guilty to a B-2 felony and get 1 year of jail time.
The defense rejected these pleas, out of concern that a felony conviction could make it almost impossible for them to get admitted to another university and eventually find good jobs. The next hearing is scheduled for July 19.
Coles’ case was heard first. Novak reported that he initially sold a pound of marijuana for $5,000 to an undercover officer and another half-pound for $2,500 later, all of which was recorded by hidden cameras. Bwog was surprised at the extent to which the prosecution cited text messages from Coles’ (and the other defendants’) phones as evidence of “business-like transaction[s]” that suggested they were selling for profit rather to fund their own addictions. Coles was also haunted by comments he made back in December about why he was selling marijuana. Novak noted that Coles, “by his own admission,” was selling marijuana not to finance his habit, but to pay for Columbia. The defense argued that Coles only sold a little bit of marijuana to pay for his habit, until he was encouraged by the undercover to sell enough to get him in real trouble. Coles’ attorney, Marc Agnifilo, painted a picture of a young man from a “good family” who was an “extraordinary student” until he started smoking marijuana to deal with “social and academic anxiety.” In the end, he “smoked too much marijuana, and now he’s sitting before Your Honor.” After the hearing, Agnifilo told Bwog that Coles recently completed a treatment program in Washington state and has also volunteered as a tutor at the Fortune Society, a rehabilitation program for ex-offenders.
Next up was Klein, who was allegedly found with 3 vials of LSD (enough for 300 doses) and over $4000 “in individually wrapped 50′s and 100′s.” Coles’ attorney, Alan Abramson, argued that Klein is also an gifted student who has “made great strides” in his treatment program and should not be punished with a felony conviction.
Then came Michael Wymbs, who Novak reported was found with a half-vial of LSD, 38 capsules of MDMA (ecstasy), 2 bags of MDMA powder, and those infamous LSD-laced candies. Text message evidence, Novak argued, shows “hallmarks of a sales-oriented profit-making enterprise,” so Wymbs should not be diverted to treatment. Novak then cited a text message conversation in which one of Wymbs’ alleged customers complained the drugs were having no effect, and Wymbs advised him to “come back in an hour.” Finally, Novak argued that he couldn’t be selling to support an addiction, and therefore be eligible for a diversion, because “hallucinogens aren’t addictive.”
The last defendant not facing a jail sentence was Perez. Intriguingly, Novak alleged that Perez originally sold marijuana “and only stopped once he thought he was being investigated by the university.” Bwog has never heard that the university investigated Perez or any of the other defendants prior to their arrest by the NYPD. After ceasing marijuana sales, Novak argued, Perez began selling Adderall he obtained from his own prescription. The prosecution offered him the same plea they extended to the other defendants. The defense had apparently asked for a misdemeanor before, but now argued that he should be diverted to treatment like the others. The fact he was selling from his own prescription apparently makes his “a unique case.”
The final case to be heard today was David’s. David allegedly sold an ounce of cocaine for $880 to an undercover officer, and referred an undercover officer to the off-campus suppliers who have already pled guilty. He was offered a plea deal of 1 year in prison and 2 years of supervision. His attorney, Matthew Myers, argued it was the undercover officers (one of whom, Myers reminded the judge, was recently arrested by the NYPD) who approached David and asked him to get some coke. The prosecution admitted that David never allegedly sold coke except to the undercover officer, which seems to strengthen the defense’s case. Myers expanded on this point after the trial, telling Bwog that when undercovers first came to David’s apartment, he (allegedly) told them he had no coke and is not alleged to have made the coke sales until a significant amount of time had passed. “What coke dealer,” he asked rhetorically, “has no coke?”
Like Coles, David told the press after his arrest that he was only selling drugs to afford Columbia, since his father stopped paying his tuition. Apparently to excuse these “inappropriate comments,” Myers argued that David “became a cult figure” at Columbia when “all the kids became excited he got arrested, and they’re all blogging and Facebooking” about it. He explained that David has started to turn his life around, working in the family business (a store that sells window blinds) down in Florida and trying to find another “less competitive” school to attend. The problem with a felony conviction, he argued, is that no good university will admit him if he has that on his record, and it will be very difficult for him to find a job after Columbia. This prompted the judge to jump in with an excellent point: “realistically, won’t other universities google and facebook these guys?” Even if they’re not actually convicted of felonies, their names are inextricably linked to the drug bust.
After the hearing, Bwog compared notes with other reporters covering the hearing (including, apparently, the AP and DNAinfo) and spoke to some of the defense attorneys. We asked about the effect Palase’s recent arrest might have on the case, and the consensus was that while his arrest for illegal gambling does not make it impossible for the prosecution to go to trial and call him to the stand, it probably makes the DA more willing to bargain. And based on the hearing today, it seems that the DA is very willing to bargain and the judge is seriously considering granting the diversion to treatment for Coles, Perez, Wymbs, and Klein. It seems unlikely David will be found guilty of anything less than a felony and will recieve some amount of jail time. There is a chance, however, that he will only serve 6 months in jail in exchange for 5 years of supervision (called a “6-5 split”) rather than 1 year of prison and 2 years of supervision.