By Adrian Sainz
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Two Tennessee men were contract killers who kidnapped and murdered those who threatened a drug ring that imported cocaine from Mexico to be sold on the streets of U.S. cities, a federal prosecutor said Monday.
Opening statements in the trial of Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis began Monday.
Defense attorneys countered that their clients are innocent. They said the government’s case will be based on questionable testimony from men who have admitted being gang members and received reduced charges and sentences in return for their cooperation.
The Lewises, who are cousins, are charged with being members of an organization led by Craig Petties that began as a neighborhood gang in 1995 and grew into an empire that imported drugs from Mexico to sell in Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.
The trial in Memphis is the culmination of a 13-year investigation into the ring led by Petties, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering and four murders for hire. He is awaiting sentencing.
The Lewises face life in prison without parole if convicted on charges including racketeering-murder, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering.
They have pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton has described the trial as one of the largest of its kind in West Tennessee. Along with Petties, several other men have already pleaded guilty to being members of the drug ring.
Petties fled to Mexico after his 2002 indictment and was placed on the U.S. Marshals’ 15 most wanted list. He was captured in January 2008 and extradited to Memphis, where he entered his guilty plea in December 2009.
Prosecutor Greg Gilluly said Monday that the Lewises each killed one person who was a threat to Petties’ organization. Gilluly said the gang started with a few young men selling drugs in the Riverside neighborhood of Memphis and ended up working with the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico and being responsible for the deaths of at least six people.
Clinton Lewis, also known as “Goldie,” is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Marcus Turner in September 2006, under orders from Petties. Turner’s body was found in Olive Branch, Miss.
Martin Lewis, also known as “M,” is charged with killing Mario McNeal while McNeal was eating at a Memphis restaurant in March 2007.
Anne Tipton, attorney for Clinton Lewis, said Lewis is innocent and the jury must judge the credibility of admitted gang members who will appear as prosecution witnesses.
One of the potential witnesses, Clarence Broady, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder for hire for the killings of Mario Stewart and Latrell Small. Others on the witness list were associates of the Petties gang in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.
Tipton said her client was being unfairly “lumped in with the rest of the group.”
Marty McAfee, attorney for Martin Lewis, said the jury will hear testimony and see evidence not related to the charges. He also questioned whether potential witnesses will be able to properly identify his client as McNeal’s killer because the shooter was dressed with a hooded shirt, dark glasses and a skull cap.
McAfee also noted that some of the government’s potential witnesses have had charges and sentences reduced after pleading guilty.
“After you look at the quality of the government’s case, you will see it is not built upon bedrock, it is built upon sand,” McAfee said.
Security is tight for the trial, which is expected to last about a month.
The jury is being brought to the courthouse from a secret location every day.
Also, only the four defense attorneys and the two federal prosecutors are being permitted to know the jurors’ identities.
Petties is on a defense list of anticipated government witnesses, but it is not known if he will be called to testify.