Jury delivers split verdict against NY cigarette dealer

Friday, May 02, 2008

By FRANK ELTMAN, Associated Press Writer



The owner of an Indian reservation smoke shop that prosecutors claim is a major supplier of black market cigarettes was convicted of racketeering conspiracy Thursday, but acquitted of charges that he waged a campaign of arson and murder to protect his multimillion dollar business.

A federal jury on Long Island deliberated off and on for a month before delivering the split verdict in the case of Mastic cigarette dealer Rodney Morrison. The marathon trial began in November.

The jury did not convict Morrison of the most heinous charge, an allegation that he ordered the slaying of a one-time business protege who had opened a rival smoke shop. The victim, Sherwin Henry, 23, was shot to death on a Brooklyn rooftop in 2003.

Morrison was also cleared of robbing another competitor in 1999 and setting fire to a rival's car in 2000.

The jury sided with prosecutors, however, in their claim that Morrison sold millions of contraband cigarettes without the required state tax stamps. He could face up to 20 years in prison.

Morrison's business, the Peace Pipe Smoke Shop, is on the Poospatuck Indian Reservation, where tobacco taxes are not collected, but prosecutors argued that he trafficked huge quantities of cigarettes off tribal land to be resold in violation of federal law.

The jury was expected to deliberate further Monday on a charge that Morrison illegally possessed a firearm.

Defense attorney Kenneth Ravenell declined to comment on the verdict, citing the continuing deliberations on the gun charge. Another defense attorney, William Murphy, said during his closing arguments that prosecutors had built the case on false testimony from witnesses he called "the most singularly incredible group of people any government has put on the stand to convict anybody."

Federal prosecutors also declined to comment.

Morrison is not a member of the Unkechaug Nation. He married into the tribe after living in Brooklyn and prosecutors said he spent most of his time before his arrest living in Mexico.

Peace Pipe supplemented sales from its small storefront by taking mail orders over the Internet. The handful of smoke shops on the 55-acre reservation sold at least 104 million packs of cigarettes last year, according to state records, making it one the state's largest suppliers of tobacco.

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