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No Way Out

Everyone agrees that Rudy Martinez should be set free. So why is he still in prison?

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

After he was convicted,

Martinez gave an eloquent statement at sentencing. He discussed his background and took responsibility for distributing cocaine, but he balked at the assumption that he was the chief culprit and that others, including the Pluffs, were under his control. His attorney noted that several defendants, including Cindy Pluff and her brother, Buddy—who by their own admission were equally guilty—were getting less than 10 years, while his client was about to get mandatory life. He said that was unfair and violated the principle of proportional sentencing.

Federal Judge Milton Shadur was clearly troubled. Before passing sentence, he said: “Fairness has departed from the system. It is no longer the operative standard for federal judges. As a result, it is sort of an insult to the process to talk of fairness within the context of standards that do not involve considerations of fairness.”

He addressed Martinez directly when he pronounced sentence, explaining that he and many other judges were disturbed by guidelines limiting their ability to do justice. He said that Congress “evinces more trust in prosecutors than in federal judges.” Then he pronounced a sentence that doomed Martinez, 26 at the time, to die in prison.

Shadur later repeated those sentiments on PBS NewsHour. A segment of the CBS show 60 Minutes devoted to guideline sentencing featured Martinez’s statement in court and quoted Shadur’s misgivings.

“Fairness has departed from the system. It is no longer the operative standard for federal judges. As a result, it is sort of an insult to the process to talk of fairness within the context of standards that do not involve considerations of fairness.”
–Federal Judge Milton Shadur


After all these years, Shadur is still troubled. In a letter to me dated Dec. 5, 2010, he wrote that Martinez’s case struck him as “a prime example of the way in which the guidelines could operate in an inappropriately disparate manner.” He called Cindy Pluff “the principal offender in a conspiracy in which the jury found Mr. Martinez to have been a participant.” He contrasted her minimal sentence with the draconian one Martinez received, and wrote, “That made it particularly troubling that Rudy Martinez, then in his middle twenties, should have a life sentence imposed under the mandate of the guidelines.” He notes that the mandatory nature of the guidelines was rejected by the Supreme Court a few years ago, but that decision does not provide retrospective relief for prisoners sentenced when the guidelines were sacrosanct.

He concludes by saying: “If there were something that could be done in light of your account of the assertedly fabricated story told by Cindy Pluff, I would certainly give the matter full consideration.”

Judge Shadur’s misgivings provide a tantalizing ray of hope. The problem is, Pluff has already taken steps to remedy the situation and Martinez is still in prison. When we met in 1995, I urged Pluff to submit an affidavit stating that she had misrepresented the quantity of cocaine Martinez provided. A year later she did just that, but apparently not in sufficient detail to convince anyone or change anything.

It was odd meeting her. I’d been in sporadic contact with Martinez for years by then, and I’d conjured up an image of Pluff as a remorseless bitch. In fact, she was rueful about what had happened, and she said if she acted it would be against the warning of her brothers, who’d advised her that she could end up in prison herself if she admitted lying. That Pluff would ever be re-prosecuted seemed pretty far-fetched to me back then, and even more so now.

We’ve talked on the phone briefly a few times since. Once she said she wanted to do more. More recently, she cried for a few moments, called me an asshole, and hung up.

As for me, I guess I’m serving a life sentence, too. It’s nothing like Martinez’s, but it’s been more than 20 years and his situation continues to haunt me. He falls into some kind of dead zone in which everything that ought to work in his favor goes against him. He didn’t commit murder, so no miracle of DNA can save him. Crucial evidence was withheld at his trial, but he can’t get a hearing because of laws that were passed after he was convicted. He refused to betray his colleagues, which prompted the prosecution to make him the poster boy for a conspiracy in which he was not the central figure. The absurdity of congressionally mandated guidelines predicated on the assumption that the American judiciary system is somehow “soft on crime” has been remedied, but it doesn’t affect his case.

Rudy Martinez—a man caught inexorably in the middle—has now served more than 20 years in prison, considerably more time than he would have for any crime of which it could reasonably be said he was guilty.


As for Martinez’s responsibility in the matter, he doesn’t claim to be innocent, just not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. The chief witness against him perjured herself at the behest of prosecutors, but he isn’t on death row, so no crusade to free him is likely.

Nevertheless, Rudy Martinez—a man caught inexorably in the middle—has now served more than 20 years in prison, considerably more time than he would have for any crime of which it could reasonably be said he was guilty. Every one of his co-defendants is free. The judge who sentenced him wants to free him. And the witness who put him in prison admits she lied under oath to cut a deal.

What else is there?

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