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February 06, 2014

Barre Drug Witness Gets Extra Six Months for Refusing to Testify

Dondre Chisom turned state's witness last year and testified for Vermont prosecutors against a friend from New York City with whom he had sold heroin and cocaine in Barre.

As part of the arrangement, Chisom saw his potential 60-month prison sentence cut in half. But that assistance, Chisom later told officials, came with a price: He and his family were threatened back in New York City after word got around that he had cut a deal with prosecutors and testified against Kevin Harris during a trial last year.

So when it came time last week for Chisom, 20, to testify once again during Harris' sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Chisom defied Judge William Sessions III and refused to take the stand. His refusal did not seem to affect the sentencing; Harris was sent away for more than 12 years. But a few days later, Sessions grappled with what to do with Chisom.

It was a bit of a legal conundrum.

Chisom's agreement with prosecutors was finalized, and he was already serving prison time for his charges; prosecutors couldn't undo the deal. And the most common way to deal with uncooperative witnesses — filing a charge of civil contempt — was off the table because the Harris case had been resolved.

Moreover, Chisom was adamant that he had gone back on his agreement reluctantly. 

"I would like to apologize to the court for what I did," Chisom said during the hearing on Tuesday. "It was very hard for me to testify again because I'm getting threats against me and my family. I had a choice to make. I knew it was very disrespectful but I wanted to make that choice because my family is in jeopardy. I accept a fair punishment for what I did. I know it was wrong."

Although a civil contempt charge was no longer an option, federal law allows a judge to impose a sentence of up to six months for criminal contempt of court without holding a trial.

Assistant United States Attorney Craig Nolan asked Sessions to impose the entire six months, saying prosecutors may have erred in signing off on the deal with Chisom before the Harris case had ended. Had they waited, Nolan said, they would have scrapped the entire arrangement when he refused to testify at Harris' sentencing, or filed new drug or gun charges against Chisom.

"Perhaps the government made a mistake in moving on the offer and not waiting until sentencing, so shame on the government for trusting Mr. Chisom," Nolan said. "What he did was essentially obstruct justice. Six months is a very small consequence."

According to court records, Chisom, Harris and another man brought crack cocaine and heroin from New York City to Barre and began selling it out of a local woman's apartment in August and September of 2011. The Vermont Drug Task Force rolled up the operation when undercover agents bought drugs from the men. Police seized 11 grams of heroin, 28 grams of crack cocaine, a revolver and several thousands of dollars in cash from the apartment.

Chisom's attorney asked Sessions to add only an additional two months.

"We feel like six months would be an excessive punishment for his actions," said defense attorney Robert Sussman. "He was between a rock and a hard place: 'Either, I testify again and possibly incur the wrath of those people, or I risk incurring the wrath of the court.'"

Harris, moreover, had threatened another witness in the case, telling him, "I will let everyone know you are a rat for what you are doing," Harris had said, according to Sussman.

At the end of the hearing on Tuesday, Sessions said he agreed with Nolan, and tacked on another six months to Chisom's current prison sentence. 

"Even though he felt it make have been for legitimate reasons, there has to be consequences for that," Sessions said. "When a federal judge orders somsone to testify, and they have no 5th Amendment right not to testify, and that individual refuses, that really strikes at the heart of the judicial system ... that conduct goes to the heart of my authority and the authority of judges across the country." 


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