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November 12, 2010

District judge calls federal prosecutors sentencing memorandum "mean-spirited"

This interesting piece in the DealBook section of the New York Times reports on a federal district judge expressing significant disconcert with the aggressive sentencing recommendations of federal prosecutors in a recent high-profile white-collar case.  Here are the particulars:

A federal judge in Los Angeles lambasted federal prosecutors late Wednesday at the sentencing of Bruce Karatz, the former chief executive of KB Home, who was given five years’ probation following his conviction on charges related to backdating stock options.

Judge Otis D. Wright II, in rejecting the government’s argument to send Mr. Karatz to prison for six and a half years, called the government’s sentencing memorandum “mean-spirited and beneath this office.”

Prosecutors said in a filing last month that sentencing Mr. Karatz to home detention in his “24-room Bel-Air mansion” would suggest “a two-tiered criminal justice system, one for the affluent … and a second for ordinary citizens.”...

Judge Wright did not appreciate the government’s take on things.  “But what was even more disturbing was the inflammatory language in the government’s report that if this court did not impose a harsh sentence that it was evidence of a two-tiered justice system, one of the rich and one for everyone else,” the judge said.  “To invite public ridicule and scorn on this institution, I think, is unspeakable.”

His remarks were reported by news wire services and confirmed to DealBook by two people who attended the courtroom hearing.  Federal prosecutors told reporters that the government “respectfully disagreed” with the judge’s decision.

Judge Wright ordered Mr. Karatz to serve eight months of his probation in home detention with electronic monitoring, pay a $1 million fine and perform 2,000 hours of community service.  His sentence followed the United States probation office’s sentencing recommendation.

November 12, 2010 at 08:08 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I loved this part:

"Judge Wright did not appreciate the government’s take on things. 'But what was even more disturbing was the inflammatory language in the government’s report that if this court did not impose a harsh sentence that it was evidence of a two-tiered justice system, one of the rich and one for everyone else,' the judge said. 'To invite public ridicule and scorn on this institution, I think, is unspeakable.'”

1. What's "unspeakable" is what the Connecticut killer sentenced this week did in the Petit household. Using florid language like that to characterize a sentencing memo is absurd and juvenile.

2. It's also a total cheap shot. The judge knows that the government's lawyer has no way to appeal his language.

3. And most important, whether the government is correct or not, the allegation of a two-tier system at sentencing (and in other aspects of criminal justice) has a good deal of currency, much of it right here on this blog.

Particularly in a case like this, why is the government's attorney required to wear a muzzle about what many other people have talked about at length? Indeed, if I am not mistaken, other JUDGES have complained of a two-tier system.

If I were the US Attorney, the next time I saw that judge in the hall, I would remind him that, while he is free to disagree with and rule against the AUSA's legal argument, he is not free to launch a cheap shot, personal crack at the supposedly untoward "tone" of the sentencing memo.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 12, 2010 10:10:19 AM

As the advocate representing the people, the government attorney was simply doing his job. He has a right to remind the judge-and by extension the public-that this was an $11 million dollar backdating fraud by the chief executive of a largely discredited home building firm.

If the public believes that ridicule is warranted from the imposition of a probationary sentence with a meaningless, non-punitive, 8 month "guilded cage" home detention requirement in a 24 room Bel Air mansion--so be it. The problem is with the sentence imposed not the government's characterization of it.

Posted by: mjs | Nov 12, 2010 10:49:26 AM

Why would anyone get the idea there's a two-tiered justice system?

Ridiculous!

Posted by: SRS | Nov 12, 2010 12:53:13 PM

An average Joe defendant steals several million dollars after hours from a bank. Do you think he is going to get 8 months home detention and a fine?

Oh, but there's no two-tiered justice system based upon privilege now, is there, Judge Wright? Please dismount your high horse so you can pull your head out of the clouds.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Nov 12, 2010 1:13:30 PM

As usual, mjs nails it, and I adopt his comment in toto. In addition, three other things are worth noting.

1. The judge attacks "mean spiritedness" without questioning the factual accruacy of a single thing the memo says. Anyone suppose there might be a reason the judge passes on that?

2. I don't believe a disgraceful sentence like this is a reflection on the entire system (it's more likely a reflection on this particular judge), but it's a reminder of why mandatory guidelines with an enforceable bar against considering economic status were a good thing and should be revived.

3. It's also a reminder that the honest services statute, trimmed back in the Skilling case earlier this year, got a bad rap. The banking and housing crises have caused untold misery, and both were the direct result of breathtaking dishonesty by people just like fabulously wealthy, because fabulously corrupt, Mr. Karatz.

The idea that the problem in this case was the government's truthful sentencing memo is beyond preposterous.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 12, 2010 2:10:09 PM

What part does charging disparity play in a two tiered justice system, if indeed there is a two tiered system?

Posted by: beth | Nov 12, 2010 5:28:05 PM

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