7th Circuit upholds drug offender’s conviction, vacates life sentence

October 25, 2016

A man convicted of multiple drug offenses and sentenced to a life term in prison will soon receive a new sentence after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated it on Tuesday.

In the case of United States of America v. Matthew Elder, 15-2584, Matthew Elder was one of eight defendants charged in a superseding indictment with conspiring to traffic large quantities of methamphetamine from Arizona to southwest Indiana in 2013. While six of the defendants pleaded guilty, Elder and his father chose to go to trial.

During the trial, several of Elder’s co-conspirators testified to his practices of dealing meth, including his tendencies to short them money or meth when they were working together. The jury found Elder guilty of conspiring to distribute 50 grams or more of meth and 500 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of meth.

Before Elder’s sentencing, the government filed an information indicating that Elder had two prior drug convictions in Arizona, which the government considered “felony drug offenses.” United States law requires serious drug offenders who have previously been convicted of at least two felony drug charges to be sentenced to life in prison. Although the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana noted that it believed a life sentence was too harsh, it agreed to impose the sentence in July 2015 because of the requirements in the U.S. statute.

Elder appealed to the 7th Circuit, arguing that the district court erred by allowing Lauri Cupp, one of his co-conspirators, to testify about a conversation he considered hearsay. During her testimony, Cupp recalled hearing a conversation between Elder’s father and Terry Ward, her boyfriend, who were complaining that their trip to Phoenix on a drug run had taken longer than usual because Elder had given them only part of the meth he owed them.

Elder argued that the co-conspirator exclusion – which provides that a co-conspirator’s statements are not hearsay if the statement was made in furtherance of the conspiracy – did not apply to his case because the conversation Cupp described was not in furtherance of the conspiracy. But the 7th Circuit Court disagreed Tuesday, writing that the comments made by Ward and Elder’s father were directly related to the conspiracy’s progress.

Elder also challenged his convictions on the basis that there was not enough evidence to support them. But the 7th Circuit Court also disagreed with that argument, writing that the U.S. government introduced ample evidence to prove that Elder knowingly agreed to the unlawful distribution of meth, and that the testimony of his co-conspirators supported the evidence.

In his final claim related to his life sentence, Elder argued that his 1997 drug conviction was not a felony offense because it was not punishable by more than one year in prison. The 7th Circuit agreed, noting that although Elder’s 1997 conviction would be punishable by more than one year in prison now, it was not at the time and, thus, was not a felony conviction. The U.S. government also conceded to that fact, so the 7th Circuit Court vacated Elder’s sentence and remanded for a complete resentencing.


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