Western Pa. drug kingpin rearrested after getting break on life sentence

Brian Bowling
| Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A man sentenced in 2003 to life in prison for his role in running one of the largest drug rings in Western Pennsylvania history was freed in less than seven years and rearrested this month for carrying a gun, according to state and federal court records.

Pittsburgh police arrested Donald Lyles, 38, on Oct. 11 during a traffic stop in the North Side and charged him with possessing a stolen gun and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Lyles was taken into custody by U.S. marshals for violating his federal probation and is now being held without bail. A hearing on a request by federal probation officers to put Lyles back in prison is set for Thursday before U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose.

Ambrose twice knocked down Lyles' life sentence at the request of prosecutors because of his cooperation with government investigators, reducing the sentence to time served in 2009, court records show. Ambrose couldn't be reached for comment.

“That's something that law enforcement is used to, and they live with,” attorney Jeff Killeen, a retired FBI special agent, said of Lyles' early release.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment on what Lyles told prosecutors to get his life sentence converted to about six years and nine months in prison before his release.

Lyles was the first person in Western Pennsylvania sentenced under the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Act. He pleaded guilty to charges he served as the top lieutenant in a drug ring that distributed more than 60 pounds of heroin and 300 pounds of cocaine over four years. Prosecutors at the time blamed the ring's heroin for at least 11 fatal overdoses in Pittsburgh, McCandless, McKees Rocks, Wilmerding and Oil City.

David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies criminal law, said Lyles' situation represents one of the biggest complaints critics make against the federal courts.

“The whole federal sentencing system is set up so that the biggest breaks go to the worst offenders,” he said.

The people at the top of the criminal enterprise know the most, so they have the most to trade when the government is looking for cooperation, he said.

As legislators pass mandatory sentences to put the worst offenders in prison, they allow prosecutors to make deals because investigators need informants, Harris said.

“You cannot really eliminate all discretion from the system,” he said.

Then-U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in 2003 said Lyles fit the criteria of the big-time drug dealer the new federal law intended to permanently remove from the streets.

Two years later, however, her office filed a motion under seal asking Ambrose to reduce the sentence, according to the Oct. 12 petition from probation officers. Ambrose reduced Lyles' sentence to 20 years in prison and five years of probation.

Court records show that prosecutors filed another motion under seal in 2009 and that Ambrose further reduced his sentence to time served plus the five years of probation.

“Without having the documents in front of me, I can't tell you what the reasons would have been,” Buchanan said on Monday when asked why her office sought reductions. The 2009 filing came during the last month of Buchanan's time as the region's top prosecutor.

Buchanan said her office told judges how much assistance the criminal provided and left it to them to decide what the cooperation was worth.

The assistant U.S. attorneys who handled the case no longer work for the office. Constance Bowden, who retired, said she couldn't say why Lyles received such a large reduction in his sentence. Tina Miller, now a private attorney, couldn't be reached.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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