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Jailed Buffalo detective denied Supreme Court review

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the case of a former Buffalo narcotics detective who feels he was unfairly hit with the longest police corruption sentence in the history of Western New York.

Sylvestre Acosta will continue serving the 45-year prison term that was imposed on him in 2005 by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

An appeals court in New York City turned down Acosta's request for a new sentence last year, and this week, the nation's highest court refused to hear further appeals on the matter.

The news left Acosta's family members -- including his wife, Carmen -- shocked and heartbroken.

"It's not right. It's an injustice," the sobbing South Buffalo woman told The Buffalo News on Tuesday. "Killers, rapists and child molesters are out of jail in a lot less time than he's doing . . . The sentence doesn't fit the crime."

The prison term given to Acosta is longer than the time served by most convicted killers, rapists and drug traffickers. Family members claim he is a scapegoat for rogue criminal behavior that led to the convictions of nine former Narcotics Squad members in recent years.

But federal prosecutors contend that Acosta was properly convicted and sentenced. They said he was sentenced under a federal law that provides big sentencing enhancements for police officers who commit crimes while carrying guns.

In 2004, a federal jury in Buffalo convicted Acosta of violating the rights of drug suspects by using phony information to obtain warrants to raid and search their homes. Federal agents said cash, jewelry and other items were stolen during some of the bogus raids.

A ring stolen in one of the raids was found by FBI agents, hidden in a cigarette pack in a garage behind Acosta's home. Because Acosta carried his police gun during those crimes, Arcara ruled that they were considered crimes of violence under federal law.

The former detective was convicted of seven felony charges -- one count of conspiracy, three counts of depriving victims of their civil rights and three counts of using a firearm during a crime of violence.

The first firearm crime carried an automatic penalty of five years, Arcara said. The next two carried automatic penalties of 20 years each, resulting in a sentence of 45 years.

Acosta's sentence is believed to be the longest ever given to any defendant in a police misconduct case in the history of Western New York. His lawyers unsuccessfully argued that violating someone's civil rights should not be considered a crime of violence.

After Acosta, now 53, was convicted, law enforcement officials revealed that he had turned down a plea deal months earlier that probably would have resulted in a prison term of less than three years.

According to Acosta's family, he turned down the deal because he firmly believed he had been unfairly accused.

His wife said she last spoke to her husband -- who is being held in a federal prison far outside New York State -- about two weeks ago. As of Tuesday afternoon, she had not yet spoken to him about the Supreme Court ruling.

"I haven't been able to think straight since I heard about this decision," she said. "I was very hopeful, because the Supreme Court has been looking at it for a long time."

His brother-in-law, Jack Gutowski, said Acosta is required to stay in his cell 23 hours a day.

Family members continue to believe Acosta was innocent of the crimes, but even if one considers him guilty of all the crimes, the sentence is unfair, his wife said.

She said she hopes that some national advocacy group will pick up on the issue.

"I will never give up on this, never," she said. "Not as long as I am alive."


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