Finding that they deserved credit for time they served before their convictions last year, a federal appeals court has cut years off the sentences of three members of Telly Hankton’s drug-dealing empire in Central City.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Thomas “Squirt” Hankton and brothers Derrick and Terrell Smothers were wrongfully denied years of freedom on a last-minute motion from federal prosecutors.

Thomas Hankton now will serve 20 years instead of 25 for dealing drugs and a gun assault on a witness to a murder committed by his cousin Telly Hankton. Derrick Smothers will serve 14 years instead of 19½ for his drug conviction, and Derrick’s brother Terrell Smothers will serve 7½ years instead of 12 on similar drug charges.

The defendants' appeals hinged on complicated questions posed by federal sentencing guidelines and a last-minute request from federal prosecutors to jack up the time they must spend behind bars.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman initially sentenced all three to the shorter terms at an October hearing last year, finding that they deserved credit for time served on related state charges.

The government made no objections to the sentences as Feldman handed them down. But the appeals court said that 13 days later, the feds “backtracked.” One day before a deadline to correct faulty sentences, federal prosecutors asked Feldman to strip away the credit for time served.

“On the 13th day, we get this motion where we’re told by the court you need to respond tonight,” defense attorney Billy Sothern, who represented Thomas Hankton, said at a court hearing last month. “We are in this position where we need to respond in this expedited fashion to something that should have come up weeks earlier.”

Feldman sided with the government and stripped away the men’s credit for time served. Sothern and the attorneys for the other men appealed.

At oral arguments before the 5th Circuit panel last month, federal prosecutors were immediately put on notice that the appeals judges took a dim view of their last-minute motion.

“You have a lot of explaining to do,” Judge Edith Brown Clement said.

Even the government admitted that it should have objected to the lesser terms at the original sentencing hearing.

“These were mistakes that we could have caught, these were mistakes that we should have caught, and there’s really no excuse for it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan McLaren said.

In a Nov. 16 decision, Judge Catharina Haynes wrote in an opinion joined by Clement and Edward Prado that Feldman was within his rights to hand down the lesser sentences the first time. They gave all three men back the credit for time served.

The three defendants were once members of an enterprise that strode over Central City with a seemingly endless appetite for death and drugs.

Prosecutors said that beginning in 1996, Telly Hankton moved large amounts of cocaine from Houston to New Orleans and had his associates sell it on the streets of Central City. People who got in his way — whether to contest his turf or to finger him in court — risked their lives.

Telly Hankton was convicted in state court for standing over one rival drug dealer, Darnell Stewart, in front of a South Claiborne Avenue daiquiri shop and pumping bullet after bullet into him in 2008.

The shop’s owner, John Matthews, witnessed the killing. As he prepared to testify at trial against Telly Hankton two years later, a pair of men barreled through the Vietnam veteran’s front door in New Orleans East and shot him at least 17 times. Matthews survived to take the witness stand and send Telly Hankton away for life.

Federal prosecutors said at a subsequent racketeering trial last year that the shooting was ordered by Telly Hankton from prison. Prosecutors secured the conviction of Walter Porter and Thomas “Squirt” Hankton in connection with that attack.

After Telly Hankton’s conviction, Porter also mistakenly killed Matthews’ brother in a botched 2011 revenge attack outside the Jazz Daiquiris shop.

Thomas Hankton pleaded guilty to a role in the attack on John Matthews before the federal gang trial last year. He also admitted to a leading role in the drug enterprise.

Derrick and Terrell Smothers also pleaded guilty before the trial to racketeering and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.

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