RUTLAND -- The man whose testimony helped prosecutors put Frank Caraballo in prison for causing the death of Melissa Barratt was sentenced to seven years behind bars on two conspiracy charges.
Joshua Makhanda-Lopez appeared in U.S. District Court Monday and was ordered to serve 84 months in federal prison, with four months of supervised release to follow, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and heroin and conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
The sentence was part of a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against Caraballo, who was found guilty on all but one of the charges against him in October. The federal government had agreed to a maximum sentence of 13 years and not bring a murder charge against him if he testified against his former friend.
Makhanda-Lopez has been in federal custody since he was arrested in July 2011.
At the sentencing, Judge Christina Reiss said she used the integrity of Makhanda-Lopez' testimony as one point of evaluation in determining an appropriate sentence.
"I found your testimony to be detailed and accurate," she told Makhanda-Lopez. "I believe it was legitimately difficult to testify against a quasi-family member (he is the brother of one of Caraballo's half-brothers), especially when he was in a courtroom with you and you knew the stakes were high."
Reiss said Makhanda-Lopez -- who opted not to make a statement -- also worked with authorities and led them to certain locations relevant to the murder case and decoded recorded conversations in which Caraballo reportedly used euphemisms while talking to associates involved with his illegal drug business. The judge also said Caraballo testified that Makhanda-Lopez "wouldn't hurt a fly."
Reiss also mentioned text messages Makhanda-Lopez sent to a friend after Barratt's murder, which were used in the trial and revealed that he felt immediate remorse for his involvement. Reiss said Makhanda-Lopez was "truly a star witness."
Assistant Federal Public Defender Steve Barth, speaking on his client's behalf, said Makhanda-Lopez possibly put his life at risk for his testimony against Caraballo, who has ties to gangs such as the Latin Kings, and will live the rest of his days feeling some sort of threat against him. Barth also said Makhanda-Lopez had a difficult childhood, a mother with mental health issues and no criminal record prior to meeting Caraballo.
"Without Frank Caraballo, this never happens," Barth said.
The judge also mentioned Makhanda-Lopez' abusive childhood and said she was told he had tried to commit suicide when he was 5 years old. Makhanda-Lopez, who now weighs about 200 pounds, was 320 pounds at the time of his arrest two years ago and Reiss asked if the weight loss was the result of depression.
"I've been working out," responded Makhanda-Lopez.
Reiss then said Makhanda-Lopez could have saved Barratt's life by calling the police or convincing Caraballo not to shoot her, which he claims he saw him do. Barth acknowledged that, but said his client's punishment for his crimes would likely be only probation if a murder had not been involved. He also said Makhanda-Lopez has mentioned that he prays every night for Barratt's son and that 84 months in prison "is, by no stretch of the imagination, a slap on the wrist."
Paul Van de Graaf, who along with Joe Perella was one of the federal prosecutors working the case, told Reiss he had gotten "a view of Mr. Lopez in totality" and said he was cooperative with authorities.
"He was a good person to work with as a witness in this case," Van de Graaf said. He added that Makhanda-Lopez likely became intoxicated with the money and exciting lifestyle he got working with Caraballo.
Reiss said Makhanda-Lopez' timeliness could have been better, as he did not come forward with information until he knew he had a plea agreement in place, but she still admired his courage in testifying. She then said Makhanda-Lopez and Caraballo were making money off other people's addictions and Makhanda-Lopez was likely learning the illegal drug trade from his friend. But the judge also noted Makhanda-Lopez, in some way, righted a wrong by ensuring Caraballo suffered the consequences of his actions. She said she was looking for a sentence that would respect the law, carry out justice, keep the public safe and deter Makhanda-Lopez from committing any more crimes -- and felt the 84 months in prison would do that.
Barth said his client asked to be placed in a low-security prison, as he has proven not to be a violent person, and to be kept away from Frank Caraballo and Frank's brother, Michael Caraballo, who is currently serving a federal sentence for conspiracy to distribute drugs. Reiss said she would make that recommendation and told Makhanda-Lopez he has the rest of his life ahead of him and could turn everything around.
As Makhanda-Lopez was being led out of the courtroom after the sentencing, Van de Graaf and Perella approached him to shake his hand, wish him well and thank him for his help.
Frank Caraballo was convicted by a jury earlier this year of causing Barratt's death, though the jury did not convict him of killing her. He is currently serving a federal sentence for drug distribution and has yet to be sentenced for causing Barratt's death.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.