Man who smuggled meth in wheelchair could get early release

SEEKING RELEASE: Erik Vincent Morta Benavente, a paraplegic who tried to smuggle nearly 1 pound of methamphetamine in his wheelchair, leaves the District Court of Guam in January 2019 following his sentencing. He was arrested upon arriving on Guam on a flight from Narita, Japan, on Oct. 15, 2017, after officers with the Guam Customs and Quarantine Agency found meth concealed in his wheelchair. He is seeking early release from federal prison. David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

A man who smuggled almost a pound of methamphetamine in his wheelchair could get out of federal prison early.

Erik Vincent Morta Benavente, 37, is a paraplegic who suffers from numerous health issues that have worsened since being confined at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon, two years ago.

Benavente appeared by video before the District Court of Guam on his emergency motion. He's asking the court to set him free by reducing his five-year sentence to time served.

Defense attorney Leilani Lujan argued in court that Benavente suffers from Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, chronic muscle spasms, uncontrollable and overactive bladder, uncontrollable irritable bowel syndrome, and four open infected wounds.

The U.S. Probation Office agreed Benavente should be granted early release, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized that people with certain medical conditions have an increased risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

Benavente alleged that the Bureau of Prisons has mismanaged his health issues, adding that he has been waiting more than one year to get surgery for his infected wounds.

“To this date, I have not been seen by a general surgeon or been referred back to a doctor. From one open wound inside that tunneled out was one hole and now it’s four open holes. One major concern not brought up is also getting the surgery here in these conditions at the prison is the aftercare,” said Benavente.

The defense also argued that Benavente, who is wheelchair-bound, was given a steel frame transport chair that weighs about 60 pounds.

He is forced to get assistance daily from other inmates at the prison.

“There is still red tape and the length of time (waiting) is one of the things I’m going through. With this pandemic going on, FCI Sheridan does have COVID. ... Every prisoner knows that luck runs out. I just don’t want my luck to run out,” Benavente said.

Both the court and the prosecution shared concerns about the crime he committed, despite Benavente being a first-time offender. The U.S. Attorney's Office opposes his early release, arguing the defendant has not met the burden of establishing that a sentence reduction is warranted.

The chief judge said on Tuesday morning, however, that she was inclined to grant his request to get out of prison early.

“How can we be sure that you really have learned from your crime?” said Tydingco-Gatewood, as Benavente did have two violations early on in his case for using drugs while he was on pretrial release.

“My sentencing and recovery from drugs and lifestyle began in 2018. Since the day I fell to now. I did have my violation in January 2018. After that I committed myself to rehab and bettering myself ... personally and for my family,” Benavente said. “I don’t think I have any desire to go back to that lifestyle. The biggest thing is really time away from my family and loved ones is enough to never do it again.”

Tydingco-Gatewood said she would issue her decision soon.

“When I first walked into court, I was more inclined to follow the U.S. Attorney's position. Having considered his current medical condition, I am inclined to grant the motion. But I think I will go back to look at records carefully then issue my decision,” Tydingco-Gatewood said. “If I do grant the motion, the court is going to expect that you follow every condition the court indicates in its order. I hope I never see you again. The crime you committed is serious.”

If granted, he would stay with family in Washington.

Benavente was arrested after arriving on Guam on a flight from Narita, Japan, on Oct. 15, 2017.

Officers with the Guam Customs and Quarantine Agency found meth concealed in his wheelchair.

The government reported approximately 438 grams of meth, with a maximum street value of $438,000 at the time, was found in the wheelchair.

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