A man serving 90 years in prison after being convicted by a divided jury for selling synthetic marijuana out of a Houma convenience store could get a new trial after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that split verdicts are unconstitutional.
The high court overturned the conviction of Kassim Nagi, 39, who was sentenced to 30 years each for racketeering and money laundering and 15 years each for distribution of and possession with intent to distribute synthetic marijuana.
The trial judge ruled that his sentences were to run consecutively.
Nagi was convicted by a 10-2 jury verdict on Aug. 19, 2016, following an investigation that began in January 2013 when agents conducted multiple undercover buys of synthetic marijuana packed and labeled as “Kush” or “SuperNova” from an Exxon station at 6957 W. Park Ave., then owned by Kee Food Inc. and managed by Nagi.
Three convenience store employees testified that Nagi instructed to use coded phrases to sell the drug products. The employees claimed the synthetic marijuana was kept out of public view.
Thibodaux attorney Mark Plaisance, who represents Nagi, filed a series of appeals over the years arguing that his client was convicted without sufficient evidence and that the 90-year sentence is excessive because Nagi has no criminal history.
In a landmark decision on April 20, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted of the second-degree murder of a prostitute in New Orleans on a 10-2 vote. The ruling meant that juries must be unanimous to convict defendants in criminal trials.
The high court then granted Nagi’s writ of certiorari on April 27 and sent his case back to the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal. A writ of certiorari petition asks the Supreme Court to review a case. Justice Clarence Thomas cast the lone dissenting vote against Nagi’s application.
“Mr. Nagi’s conviction was based on a 10-2 verdict,” Plaisance said Friday. “The Ramos decision said that less than unanimous verdicts in Louisiana were unconstitutional. Since Nagi’s appeal was still ongoing, he was entitled to the benefit of that ruling. The Terrebonne district attorney may disagree, but in my opinion based on the Supreme Court ruling and the Ramos decision, he is entitled to a new trial.”
Assistant District Attorney Ellen Doskey, who handles appeals for Terrebonne, said Nagi’s case remains in limbo until the 1st Circuit renders a decision.
“He doesn’t actually get out of prison at this stage,” Doskey said. “Once it’s remanded to the 1st Circuit, they can do one of two things. They can ask us to submit arguments as to whether he should be granted a new trial or they can just automatically grant him a new trial.”
Plaisance said there is no exact timetable for the 1st Circuit to rule on the matter. Nagi is still being held in the Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport.
–Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 448-7639 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanVCopp.