A former professional soccer referee who gained international fame after a controversial match in the 2002 World Cup recently faced criminal charges for attempting to smuggle heroin through New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
According to a report in the New York Post, the suspect, Byron Moreno, was sentenced to 30 months in prison after police discovered him carrying almost 14 pounds of heroin through JFK Airport.
Moreno’s criminal defense attorney claimed that Moreno had found himself in serious debt after a series of failed business ventures, and that his drug smuggling operation was an act of desperation.
In the words of his attorney, “[h]e was in debt. Personal debt. He was just in over his head, and made a very foolish choice. And now he’s going to pay for it.”
Years before his arrest, Moreno gained fame as a successful soccer referee on the international stage. A controversial game in 2002, however, put a dent in his professional resume.
During a heated match between Italy and South Korea in the 2002 World Cup, Moreno ejected Italy’s star forward, Francesco Totti, after giving Totti a second yellow card for allegedly taking a dive in the penalty area.
Italian fans later claimed that the ejection, which happened midway through overtime, was grossly unfair and caused Italy’s premature exit from the World Cup.
Despite this controversy, Moreno developed a successful career after retiring from refereeing. He became a popular soccer commentator in television and radio in Ecuador, and is recognized as a major celebrity in his home country.
Moreno’s story is a sobering reminder that drug charges may be leveled at well-respected citizens, who may not anticipate the possible consequences of their crimes.
When Moreno stepped off a flight from Ecuador at the airport, Customs officials claim he was visibly nervous during a routine questioning session, which prompted them to search the unlucky traveler.
During their search, Customs officials found 10 clear plastic bags containing heroin strapped to Moreno’s body underneath his clothes.
In court, Moreno apologized to the judge, saying he was “sorry from the bottom of my heart.”
In addition, Moreno’s attorney reminded the judge that the defendant had suffered several recent tragedies, including the death of an infant child and two miscarriages suffered by his girlfriend.
Perhaps in response to Moreno’s personal desperation, his willingness to plead guilty to the charges, and his seemingly sincere apology, the judge lowered his sentence from the possible maximum of 51 months to just 30 months in prison.
The lowering of a prison sentence in a drug crime case due to extenuating circumstances, such as personal tragedy or sincere remorse, is not uncommon.
While federal sentencing guidelines may establish maximum and minimum sentencing rules, judges often have a great deal of discretion when leveling punishment against drug offenders.