York man gets life in prison for $150 worth of drugs. That’s the law in SC, judge says

A York County man will spend life in prison without parole after being convicted at trial of his third felony drug offense for $150 worth of cocaine. That’s the law in South Carolina, a judge said in court.

The defendant said in court Thursday he could have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to eight years. But he rejected the plea offer and went to trial.

A jury late Thursday found Ricky Dean Tate, 41, guilty of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, testimony showed in criminal court in York. Tate had spent 18 years in prison for other drug offenses before he was arrested again in 2018 soon after his prison release, testimony showed.

Tate’s lawyers called the sentence an injustice.

“Something is tragically wrong in this state when you sentence someone to life in prison without parole for $150 worth of cocaine,” said one of his lawyers, Jim Morton.

Prosecutors said Tate refused to abide by society’s rules by selling drugs and committing other violent crimes. South Carolina law allows prosecutors to seek life without parole for certain third-strike drug offenses for defendants with certain previous convictions.

Visiting Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman said her job is to rule on the law, and the state law for a third strike in this drug case was life without parole.

“I enforce the laws enacted by the Legislature,” Newman said in court.

Tate was arrested in May 2018 for possession of about 2 grams of cocaine in a Leach Road drug sweep, testimony showed. He had finished the 18-year sentence for cocaine trafficking and other drug offenses that followed prison time starting as a juvenile, court testimony showed.

“I been in and out of prison my whole life,” Tate said in court.

16th Circuit Solicitor Marina Hamilton recited in court Tate’s criminal history. Convictions starting in 1991 when Tate was a child included trafficking and other drugs charges, burglary, hit and run, and other violent crimes, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said in court she served notice to Tate and his lawyers that if he was convicted at trial on the drug charge, he would face a life sentence.

Tate also was arrested three more times while on bond before the case went to trial, police and court records show. Those charges included more drug offenses, receiving stolen goods and a domestic violence charge where Tate was accused of strangling a woman, records show.

Tate’s last arrest was in September, a month before the trial, according to court records.

“I do take the issue of life without parole very seriously,” Hamilton told the judge. “He (Tate) has shown he is unable to conform to the rules of society. This is not a one-time offense.”

After he was found guilty during sentencing, Tate said the drugs were not his.

“They offered me eight years,” Tate said of the guilty plea offer he did not accept.

Morton and his other lawyer, Montrio Belton, said in court that South Carolina drug sentencing laws that call for life in prison are too harsh.

“This happens so often to young men, disproportionately African-American men,” Belton said. “There is no justice in this.”

Newman said in this case, the sentence was already decided by South Carolina’s General Assembly because of Tate’s previous convictions and the guilty verdict on Thursday.

“Mr. Tate, you are sentenced to the department of corrections for life without the possibility of parole,” Newman said in court.

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Andrew Dys covers breaking news and public safety for The Herald, where he has been a reporter and columnist since 2000. He has won 51 South Carolina Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, race, justice, and people. He is author of the book “Slice of Dys” and his work is in the U.S. Library of Congress.