By Joe Beck
Sycarra Lawonn Chin left a federal courtroom Wednesday facing four years in prison and the knowledge that her sentence would have been much longer if she hadn't helped authorities in the prosecution of five co-defendants in a Winchester drug ring.
Judge Michael F. Urbanski told Chin, 24, that her willingness to testify under great stress at a recent jury trial while her co-defendants sat only 20 feet away was a big reason why he was giving her "a substantial break" in the sentencing.
Urbanski also cited Chin's light criminal history and a healthy attitude expressed in a "thoughtful" statement she read as evidence that she did not deserve a harsher sentence. He also sentenced Chinn to five years probation.
"First and foremost, I want to tell the court I accept full responsibility for my crime," Chinn said in her statement.
Urbanski said Chinn was "not blameless" for participating in the crack ring, but she appeared to be less caught up in criminal actions than the other defendants. Chinn pleaded guilty months ago to conspiring to distribute hundreds of grams of crack and to another count of simple distribution of crack.
"You got involved with these folks, and you put yourself in this situation where you committed these crimes, but I do believe that is who you are," Urbanski told her.
The four-year prison sentence was considerably less than the 10-year minimum in federal guidelines. A few days earlier, Assistant U.S. Attorney Grayson Hoffman recommended that Chinn receive less than the guideline minimum.
Hoffman told Urbanski that Chinn "placed herself in jeopardy" by testifying against Nikki Williams, Alphonso Britton, Antonio Williams, Demario Coffie and Santonio Minus during a recent nine-day jury trial. The five were convicted on most of the 27 counts against them. The others have yet to be sentenced.
"I think it was evident from Ms. Chin's demeanor and body language when she testified that it was a scary experience for her," Hoffman said.
Urbanski was even more explicit in describing Chinn on the witness stand.
"I sat here six feet away from her as she testified, and she was a terrified young woman," he said.
A total of eight defendants have been charged in the case. Prosecutors at the trial accused the defendants of selling more than 2,700 grams of crack in Winchester from May 2009 to February 2012. He said the ring sold crack to as many as 100 customers a day while it was operating.
Chinn's attorney, Kent Bowers of Harrisonburg, said Chinn's involvement with the ring began as little more than "a school girl flirtation" with one of the ring members while they were "plying their trade on the street in front of her house."
Bowers said Chinn was a rare defendant in a drug case who was neither an addict nor a dealer. Her main involvement stemmed from conducting drug transactions on behalf of Minus while Minus was out of town, Bowers said.
"She did these foolish things because she was asked to do them, not because she derived any benefit from them," Bowers said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org