Friday, February 20, 2015
Virginia's former first lady facing sentencing after hubby got only two years
Today brings another high-profile white-collar sentencing in the federal court in Virginia as Maureen McDonnell, former first lady, is to come before the same judge who sentenced former Virginia Gov Robert McDonnell to two years' imprisonment last month. Helpfully, Randall Eliason at the Sidebars Legal Blog provides this preview, titled "What to Expect at Maureen McDonnell’s Sentencing." Randall provides this refined summary of the guideline basics and the parties' recommendations:
The Presentence Report prepared by the U.S. Probation Department concludes that the Sentencing Guidelines call for a sentence of 63-78 months in prison. The prosecution agrees with those calculations but recommends the judge sentence her to only 18 months in prison to avoid an unwarranted disparity between her sentence and that of her husband. Mrs. McDonnell’s attorneys argue that, properly calculated, the Sentencing Guidelines call for only 33-41 months, but urge the judge to depart even further from the Guidelines and sentence her to probation along with 4000 hours of community service.
In addition, the Washington Post has this article headlined "Everything you need to know about Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing." But that piece does not set out these guideline basics, so the headline is not accurate for hard-core federal sentencing geeks like me.
UPDATE: As this Washington Post piece reports, "Maureen McDonnell was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in federal prison after an emotional, hours-long hearing in which the former first lady of Virginia apologized publicly for the first time since she and her husband were accused of public corruption."
As all competent federal sentencing lawyers know, a sentence of a year and a day for the former first lady is actually better than a sentence of one year. That extra day makes her formally eligible to earn good-time credit, which nearly all non-violent offenders earn. So, practically, Ms. McDonnell is now likely to be released from federal custody after only 10.5 months in the federal graybar hotel.
February 20, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 19, 2015
"Parole Release Hearings: The Fallacy of Discretion"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by R. Kyle Alagood now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Despite nearly every U.S. state having created a parole system, incarcerated offenders do not have a constitutional right to early release on parole, and parole hearings do not automatically invoke due process. The resultant discretion afforded to parole decision-makers, coupled with the administrative regime’s relaxed evidentiary standards, risks erroneous, vindictive, or politically motivated information tainting release decisions. Louisiana, the world’s prison capital, has recently initiated parole reforms that may provide a model for reforms nationally. This article details the evolution of Louisiana’s parole release structures, highlights problems with discretionary parole-release decision-making, and proposes Louisiana pilot reforms that may transfer to parole release systems in the United States.
The back-story of George Toca's case (and its impact on other juve LWOPers)
This new Bloomberg article authored by by Matt Stroud provides an interesting account of the stories behind what was, until it was settled a few weeks ago, the case the Supreme Court had planned to use to resolve the retroactive application of its Miller Eighth Amendment ruling. The piece is headlined "Prisoners Sentenced to Life as Kids Just Lost Their Best Chance for Freedom: How the criminal justice system failed George Toca — and 1,500 others like him," and it is a must-read and a must-watch based on the video linked to the story. Here are excerpts:
In 1984, when Toca was 17, he was charged with accidentally shooting and killing his best friend, Eric Batiste, during a failed carjacking. Victims picked him out of lineups, despite initial statements to police describing an older, heavier shooter who was at least five inches taller than Toca and who did not have four gleaming gold caps on his top front teeth.
Largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, Toca was convicted of second-degree murder in 1985 and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has spent most of the last 31 years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola state penitentiary....
Toca has had an interesting winter. In addition to denying responsibility for his friend’s killing — and working with lawyers at the Innocence Project New Orleans since 2003 to prove his case — Toca appealed to be resentenced based on his age at the time of the alleged crime. The U.S. Supreme Court selects less than 2 percent of the cases presented to it. In December, it agreed to hear Toca’s appeal....
[I]n 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole, handed down in 29 states’ murder cases as well as those in federal court, is unconstitutional for offenders younger than 18. The decision left a question on the table: What about those who had already been convicted? Should they be resentenced?
Some states have said that all juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole should have a new sentencing hearing. Others — Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota — have decided against retroactivity. The exact numbers are in dispute, but according to figures from Human Rights Watch and estimates from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, that means about 1,500 sentences nationwide hang in the balance. By agreeing to hear and decide Toca’s appeal, the Supreme Court planned to end the uncertainty of those cases.
But in the weeks after the court agreed to hear the case, Toca was approached by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro with a tempting offer. Toca had long maintained his innocence in the shooting, but now the D.A. had a deal for him. If he signed a plea agreement admitting to armed robbery, Cannizzaro would drop the original conviction and Toca would be paroled immediately....
Since he agreed to a plea deal, though, the Supreme Court dismissed his case and he is no longer standing in for 1,500 juvenile lifers like him in front of the nation’s highest court.
For those who believe juveniles sentenced to life behind bars should be forced to spend their lives there, Toca’s release is actually good news. “This shows me that the system works,” said Bobbi Jamriska, whose pregnant sister was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in 1993 by a 16-year-old in suburban Pittsburgh. “They went back and they questioned his case and raised their concerns, and [Toca] ended up being let out of jail.”
Jamriska has fought hard to keep both the death penalty and life without parole on the table for juvenile offenders. As Pennsylvania director of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, she said her organization didn’t want Toca’s case in front of the Supreme Court anyway. His case is “an extreme,” she said. “Even the victim’s family is saying, ‘Get him out of jail,’ ” Jamriska said. “We’d prefer to have a case that’s more representative of some of the horrific crimes juveniles commit.”...
Will the Supreme Court [take up] another [case]? Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, believes it will. At least five cases —three in Louisiana, two in Michigan — have been sent for Supreme Court review and could replace Toca’s, but not until the next term at the earliest. That's in October.
Levick doesn’t blame Toca for his decision. “First and foremost, good for him,” she said. “I don’t think anybody who has been waiting for the retroactivity issue to be ruled upon would in any way question the decision that George Toca made. How could he not walk out of prison after 30 years?” For the other juvenile lifers nationwide, “obviously it was disappointing,” she said. “They’re still waiting, just as they have been for 30, 40, 50 years. And they think it’s time for them to get out as well.”
Toca hopes they do, too. Sitting outside with the sun shining above him, he looked down and offered an apology. “I know they was really relying on my case to get the retroactivity of the Miller case resolved,” he said. “All I can say is, I’m sorry that I let ’em down. This was all I could do.”
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
"The Divisibility of Crime"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Jessica Roth discussing some of the Supreme Court's recent Armed Career Criminal Act jurisprudence. Here is the abstract:
Near the end of the Supreme Court’s 2012-2013 term, the Court decided Descamps v. United States, which concerned the application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The ACCA is a recidivist statute that vastly increases the penalties for persons convicted of federal firearms offenses if they have previously been convicted of certain qualifying felonies. Descamps represents the Court’s most recent word on the so-called categorical approach, which directs courts to consider the elements of a prior offense of conviction, rather than the underlying facts of the crime, in determining whether the prior conviction “counts” for purposes of applying the ACCA and other sentencing enhancements and for determining the immigration consequences of prior convictions. This Essay is the first scholarly work to track the immediate effects of Descamps and to explore its implications for the criminal law more broadly. It shows that the decision is indeed having a significant effect on criminal sentencing, resulting in a steady flow of sentencing reversals and prospectively narrowing the class of defendants eligible for sentencing enhancements based on prior convictions. But more broadly, Descamps has called attention to the statutory specificity that legislators are capable of and the adjudicative clarity that courts can promote, if there are incentives for doing so. Until now, the Court has done little to encourage either. Thus, the opinion may push courts and legislators to think more carefully and systematically about what facts must be established to constitute a particular criminal offense, how such facts are established and recorded in the context of an adjudicative proceeding, and the consequences that flow from greater or lesser specificity. Ultimately, this impact may be felt not only in the context of applying recidivist statutes and sentencing enhancements, but also in other contexts that require attention to the basis for a criminal conviction, including the doctrine governing what constituent facts of a crime require jury unanimity and claims under the Double Jeopardy Clause.
Yet again, Sixth Circuit reverses one-day sentence for child porn downloading as substantively unreasonable
Regular readers who follow federal sentencing in child porn cases likely recall that the Sixth Circuit and an Ohio-based federal district judge got into a sentencing tug-of-war over the sentencing of child porn downloader Richard Bistline not long ago. And even irregular readers should know that circuits, if they stick with it, will always win these kinds wars. More proof of that reality come from another similar Sixth Circuit case decided today, US v. Robinson, No. 13-230806 (6th Cir. Feb. 18, 2015) (available here), which starts this way:
The government appeals, for the second time, from the noncustodial sentence imposed on Rufus Robinson (“Defendant”) for the possession of more than seven thousand images of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). Defendant’s previous sentence of one day of incarceration and five years of supervised release was held substantively unreasonable by this Court in United States v. Robinson, 669 F.3d 767 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Robinson I”). On remand, the district court again sentenced Defendant to one day of incarceration, with credit for time served. The district court also lengthened the period of supervised release and imposed additional conditions of release. The government’s second appeal raises the question of whether this second sentence is substantively reasonable.
For the reasons set forth below, we VACATE Defendant’s sentence and REMAND the case for reassignment and resentencing.
Prior related posts concerning similar case:
- Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading
- District Judge at resentencing continues to resist federal child porn guidelines even after Sixth Circuit reversal
- "Should defendants’ age, health issues be sentencing factors?"
- Sixth Circuit panel, again, finds substantively unreasonable a non-prison sentence for child porn downloading in Bistline
February 18, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Florida Supreme Court stays lethal injection pending SCOTUS case, and AG Holder urges national execution halt
As reported in this Reuters piece, "Florida’s highest court put executions on hold Tuesday while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether use of a controversial general anesthetic constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment of condemned killers." Here is more:
The state Supreme Court stopped the execution of Jerry William Correll next week because the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a challenge some Oklahoma inmates brought against use of midazolam hydrochloride as the first of three drugs used in lethal injections. Florida uses essentially the same formula, the court said in a 5-2 ruling.
The state switched to midazolam as an anesthetic in 2013 when some foreign drug manufacturers quit supplying other drugs previously used in executions. The Department of Corrections said 11 lethal injections have been carried out with midazolam in Florida since then. Florida courts have approved midazolam, but the nation’s highest court agreed Jan. 23 to hear an appeal by 21 Oklahoma inmates in a case citing prolonged executions and signs of pain reported in that state, Arizona and Ohio.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote that if the nation’s highest court rules in favor of the prisoners, “then Florida’s precedent approving the use of midazolam and the current Florida three-drug protocol will be subject to serious doubt as to its continued viability.”
Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying Florida should proceed with Correll’s execution unless the U.S. Supreme Court stays it. Canady wrote that a stay in another state does not automatically require one in Florida, and that agreeing to review Oklahoma’s use of the drug means the justices will forbid it.
Meanwhile, as reported in this piece in The Hill, US Attorney General Eric Holder suggested today that all states ought to follow Florida's lead while the Supreme Court lethal injection case is pending:
Attorney General Eric Holder called Tuesday for a national moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue later this year...
Late last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal the from death row inmates in Oklahoma who are challenging the state’s procedures for lethal injections. "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate," Holder said.
AG Holder brags about achievements of DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative
The Department of Justice has just made available these two notable items:
I view both of these documents to be must-reads for any and all sentencing fans, and I will here highlight the data reported by AG Holder in his speech that strike me as most intriguing, as well as the AG's closing policy pitch:
In the year before our Smart on Crime charging policy took effect, roughly 64 percent of federally-charged drug trafficking offenses carried a mandatory minimum sentence. Last year, the new policy brought that number down to approximately 51 percent — a reduction of 20 percent relative to the prior year. Put another way, we have gone from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty in two out of every three drug trafficking cases, to doing so in one out of two. That’s a major reduction. In fact, it is historic. The Sentencing Commission confirms that these numbers show that federal prosecutors sought mandatory minimum penalties at a lower rate in 2014 than in any other year on record....
Even though mandatory minimums have been charged significantly less frequently under our new policies, the percentage of cases in which we receive substantial cooperation from defendants has remained exactly the same. This also holds true of the ability of our prosecutors to secure guilty pleas in these cases. In the year before Smart on Crime took effect, our prosecutors won guilty pleas in approximately 97 percent of drug trafficking cases. A year later, despite significant reductions in our uses of mandatory minimums, this percentage stands at 97.5. So the notion that the Smart on Crime initiative has somehow robbed us of an essential tool is contradicted not only by our history – but by clear and objective facts....
The work we have done is nothing short of groundbreaking. But this is no time to rest on our laurels. Significant challenges remain before us. And a great deal of work remains to be done.
Our prisons are still overcrowded. Across the country, far too many people remain trapped in cycles of poverty, criminality, and incarceration. Unwarranted disparities are far too common. Law enforcement is distrusted in far too many places and cops are not appreciated for the tough job they do so well. And if we hope to build on the record we’ve established so far — and to make the Smart on Crime initiative not only successful, but permanent — it will be incumbent upon all Americans — most especially our Congress — to work together to ensure that all of this is just the beginning. From critical improvements to the juvenile justice system, to a range of back-end criminal justice reforms, we must continue to advance promising, bipartisan legislation to make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of law enforcement resources.
Our efforts over the last six years have laid a strong foundation for a new era of American justice. Congress can help us build on this foundation by passing important, bipartisan legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in determining sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes. And going forward – with measures like this one, and with the tireless work of our United States Attorneys and their colleagues, the strong leadership of our outstanding new Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, and the robust engagement of the American people – I believe there’s good reason for confidence in where this work will lead us.
February 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Would you urge out-going (and apparently corrupt) Oregon Gov Kitzhaber to commute all death sentences?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Frank Thompson, a retired assistant director of institutions and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary. Here are excerpts:
I know what it is like to execute someone. I am a retired prison superintendent who conducted the only two executions that have taken place in Oregon in the past 53 years.
The death penalty in Oregon comes at a high cost to our state in both human and fiscal resources. I call on Gov. Kitzhaber to convert 35 death sentences to life without the possibility of release before he leaves office at mid-morning on Wednesday.
Based on my experiences as a correctional professional, capital punishment is a failed public policy — especially in Oregon where we have funded a death penalty system for over 30 years, yet only put to death two inmates who volunteered themselves for execution by abandoning their appeals. No other corrections program exemplifies such a complete failure rate.
During my more than two decades of running correctional facilities, I saw the population of those who are capable of extreme violence up close. I have no doubts at all that these offenders did not think about the death penalty for one second before committing their violent acts. Instead, research has been shown that public safety is greatly improved when our limited tax dollars are redirected to law enforcement agencies to solve cases and prevent crimes.
I understand exactly what is being asked of public employees whose jobs include carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary to end another person's life. The burden weighs especially heavily on my conscience because I know firsthand that the death penalty is not applied fairly or equally in Oregon. I have known hundreds of inmates who are guilty of similar crimes yet did not get the death penalty because they reached a plea bargain of life without parole simply because they had the means for professional legal assistance.
I also understand, from my experiences in corrections, the potential awful and lifelong repercussions that can come from participating in the execution of prisoners. Living with the nightmares is something that some of us experience. This is particularly the case with those of us who have had more hands-on experience with the flawed capital punishment process, and/or where an execution under our supervision did not go smoothly.
I am never troubled when people make a forceful argument that "capital punishment is a failed public policy." But I find it troubling that this argument is being made now to a disgraced (apparently corrupt) out-going governor rather than to the new incoming governor and other public-policy officials who are going to be staying in their jobs and would need to deal with the administrative and political implications and consequences of their actions.
Notably, it is not just Oregonians urging out-going Gov Kitzhaber to clear the state's death row. Professors Charles Ogletree and Rob Smith have this new Huffington Post commentary headlined "Gov. Kitzhaber: Your Job Is Not Yet Done." here is how it concludes:
Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty back in 2011. He labeled the State's practice of imposing death sentences "neither fair nor just" and concluded that a "compromised and inequitable" capital punishment system is not befitting of Oregon. Nothing has changed and nothing will: the death penalty in Oregon is too broken to fix.
In his resignation letter, Governor Kitzhaber told us that he was proud to not have presided over any executions. Yet, as Governor, he presided over a state that has sentenced people to death under the same unjust system that led him to impose the moratorium. The Governor has the power to leave the troubled history of this disreputable death penalty system in Oregon's rearview mirror; and doing so would enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system without compromising public safety.
Governor Kitzhaber: You lit the torch in 2011; and now, in these few remaining hours, please carry that torch across the finish line.
NY Times editorial laments "The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform" ... while creating another
This lengthy new New York Times editorial spotlights and laments that one powerful Senator now appears to be the main impediment to federal sentencing reform moving forward in Congress. Here are excerpts:
For more than a year, members of Congress have been doing a lot of talking about the need to broadly reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population. It’s an overdue conversation, and one of the few in which Democrats and Republicans find some agreement — but, so far, they have nothing to show for it.
In the last session, senators introduced three bipartisan bills. Two proposed “front end” reforms, like reducing or eliminating ridiculously long mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. The other focused on “back end” fixes, like increasing opportunities for good-time credit to allow certain prisoners early release.
None of the bills got anywhere, but it was encouraging to see all three reintroduced in the new Republican-led Senate. At least it was until they ran into a roadblock in the shape of Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wields great power over any sentencing legislation....
Mr. Grassley, for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences. In a speech from the Senate floor this month, he called the bills “lenient and, frankly, dangerous,” and he raised the specter of high-level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets.
Mr. Grassley is as mistaken as he is powerful. Mandatory minimums have, in fact, been used to punish many lower-level offenders who were not their intended targets. Meanwhile, the persistent fantasy that locking up more people leads to less crime continues to be debunked. States from California to New York to Texas have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since 2000 putting more people behind bars has had essentially no effect on the national crime rate.
The bill that appears to have the best chance of passing anytime soon is known as the Corrections Act — that’s actually a sprawling acronym for Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System. Cosponsored by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, the bill’s name is more ambitious than its goals, which include giving a narrow group of inmates the chance to participate in educational and other programs in exchange for earlier release. (The bill authorizes no financing for these programs, relying instead on, among other things, the volunteer efforts of faith-based groups.)
Rehabilitation is a laudable aim, and it should be a part of any sentencing reform package. But the Cornyn-Whitehouse bill would exclude nearly half of all federal prisoners — in many cases without any evidence that they pose a greater risk to public safety.
The bill also relies on an inmate’s criminal history. This is a legitimate measure when it is used with the awareness that law enforcement disproportionately targets minorities. The danger is that white-collar prisoners, who are most often white, will receive the law’s benefits, while, say, drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American, will be left out.
Finally, the bill pushes the use of data-based risk-assessment tools, which sound smart but again — because they rely on factors like a person’s employment history, neighborhood and education level — often have racially disproportionate effects....
Sentencing reform is a big and complicated issue, and may take some time to get right. It would be a mistake to pass an incomplete bill and pretend that the hard work of reform is done.
Though I obviously laud the New York Times editorial board for complaining about a "roadblock" to reform created by Senator Grassley, I am troubled that this editorial goes on to create some more hurdles of its own through its (somewhat chaotic) criticisms of the Corrections Act. Every possible sentencing reform bill is sure to be an "incomplete bill" from somebody's perspective, but that should never serve alone as a reason to stall any needed reforms. The Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 was incomplete for only partially reducing the crack/powder disparity and for failing to make its reforms retroactive. But that reform still achieved a lot even though it did not achieve enough. Same goes, in my opinion, for all the sentencing reform bills now making the rounds.
Moreover, as a matter of substance, this editorial hammers Senator Grassley for defiance of empirical data, but that assails the Corrections Act for incorporating "data-based risk-assessment tools" and criminal history in its structures for back-end reform. I fear the NYT editorial board wants policy-makers to be concerned only with the public safety data that it likes and to ignore the public-safety data that might undermine the Grey Lady's own mysterious sense of "fairness." In this way, this editorial provides still more support for roadblocks to reform because any and everyone concerned about any part of the reform bills are encouraged to let their vision of the best reforms serve as an enemy and hurdle for any and all good and needed reforms.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Feds assert, despite reversal of hate crime convictions, Amish beard-cutters should get same sentences
As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Federal prosecutors want same sentences in Amish beard-cutting case when they are resentenced," the feds are claiming that the reversal on appeal of the most-serious charges against a group of Amish defendants (details here) should not impact their sentence one whit. Here are the details:
Sixteen Amish men and women whose hate crime convictions in beard- and hair-cutting attacks were overturned still should receive the same sentences, federal prosecutors told a judge who will resentence the group.
The members of the eastern Ohio Amish group are scheduled to be resentenced March 2 after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned only their hate crimes convictions. New sentences are required because the original sentences were based both on hate crimes convictions and convictions on other charges but did not differentiate between them.
The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of Sam Mullet Sr., leader of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio. The U.S. Attorney's Office, in a court filing on Friday, said Mullet should be resentenced to 15 years for concealing evidence and making false statements to the FBI. Both of those charges were not overturned.
The other defendants should also be given the same lesser sentences. Those defendants who have already been released should be sentenced to time served, the prosecutors said.
Prosecutors argued that the conduct that led to the hate crime charges, which included kidnapping, should still be considered even if the defendants are no longer convicted of a hate crime.
Defense attorneys are expected to file their response next week.
I am neither surprised or troubled that the feds want the same sentences imposed on the less culpable defendants who have already finished serving their prison time. But I struggle to see how urging the same exact sentence for Sam Mullet Sr. despite reversal of the most serious convictions against him serves to "promote respect for the law" as 18 USC 3553(a)(2)(A) requires.
Related prior posts:
- Ohio Amish hair-cutting incidents now a federal hate crimes sentencing matter
- Stark extremes for forthcoming debate over federal sentencing of Amish beard-cutters
- Interesting defense arguments for sentencing leniency in Amish beard-cutting case
- Feds request LWOP for Samuel Mullet Sr., leader of Amish beard-cutting gang
- Are tough sentences sought in Amish beard-cutting case part of a DOJ "war on religion"?
- "Amish beard-cutting ringleader gets 15 years"
- Guest post on Amish sentencing: "A Travesty in Cleveland"
- Based on Burrage, split Sixth Circuit panel reverses federal hate crime convictions for Amish beard-cutters
February 16, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Sunday, February 15, 2015
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by William Berry III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Given the Supreme Court’s recent foray into applying the Eighth Amendment to non-capital cases combined with its long history of applying procedural restrictions at sentencing in death cases, this Article argues for the application of procedural due process principles to criminal sentencing under the Eighth Amendment. Specifically, the Article develops the concept of procedural proportionality, which contemplates a relationship between the extent of the deprivation and the amount of procedure required.
Part I of the Article explains the procedural components of the cruel and unusual punishment clause and explores the expansion of these principles to non-capital cases. Part II of the Article articulates the theory of procedural proportionality, describing the procedural rights needed at sentencing and outlining a sliding scale for its application.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
Spotlighting the administrative challenges posed by high-profile capital cases
This New York Times article, headlined "Jury Pool for Trial in Aurora Shooting Is Pressed on Death Penalty," highlights the various administrative difficulties a high-profile capital case formally gets underway in Colorado. Here are excerpts:
Lawyers on Wednesday began questioning potential jurors for the trial of the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding 70 during a showing of a Batman film in a packed Colorado movie theater in 2012.
The defendant, James E. Holmes, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, though his lawyers admit he was the gunman. The district attorney is seeking the death penalty, and prosecutors and defense lawyers focused most of their questioning on how prospective jurors feel about that sentence....
Officials sent jury summonses to 9,000 people here — a number that dwarfs even the 1,300 or so potential jurors who filled out questionnaires in the trial of the man accused in the Boston Marathon bombings. The pool of potential jurors has since been whittled to about 2,000. Questioning of those people is expected to take 16 weeks, during which the pool will be reduced to 120, who will receive further questioning, and finally to 12 jurors and 12 alternates.
The trial, to be held in this Denver suburb, could last from early spring to October, with testimony expected from police officers, crime scene experts, witnesses and mental health experts. The shooting took place July 20, 2012, at a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora, where about 400 people were attending a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”...
Two and a half years later, the effects of the massacre continue to ripple through the region, with victims and their families grappling with depression and posttraumatic stress disorder and divided over the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty. Some have argued that it is the only way to ensure justice; others have said it will cause years of appeals, an excruciating prospect for those seeking a degree of closure.
Recent and older related posts (with lots of comments):
- Largest mass shooting in US history surely to become a capital case
- Offense/offender distinctions in first-cut punishment reactions to Batman mass murder
- "For James Holmes, Death Penalty is Far from a Certainty"
- You be the prosecutor: will you accept Aurora theater shooter's plea offer and drop pursuit of the death penalty?
- "James Holmes' Victims Applaud Death Penalty Plan: 'I Want Him Dead'"
- Highlighting (already extraordinary) costs of seeking to put Aurora killer on death row
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
District Judge, to chagrin of feds, relies on jury poll to give minimum sentence to child porn downloader
This fascinating story from the federal courts in the Northern District of Ohio provides an interesting perspective on the input and impact that juries can have in the federal sentencing process in at least one courtroom. The piece is headlined "Cleveland federal judge's five-year sentence in child porn case frustrates prosecutor," and here are excerpts:
A federal judge in Cleveland sentenced a Dalton man convicted of child pornography charges Tuesday to five years in prison, a move that frustrated prosecutors who pushed for four times that length based, at least in part, on a recommendation from the U.S. probation office.
A jury convicted Ryan Collins in October of one count possessing, distributing and receiving child pornography and one count possession of child pornography. Police found more than 1,500 files on his computer, and he was charged with distributing because he used peer-to-peer file sharing programs.
Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. On Tuesday, during Collins' sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan asked U.S. District Judge James Gwin to give the maximum sentence for the charge.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services said a guideline sentence for Collins, who is 32 and has no criminal history, would be between about 21 and 27 years in federal prison. While higher than the maximum sentence, the office's calculation accounted for several factors in Collins' case -- including the age of the victims and not taking responsibility for his actions.
But Gwin handed down a five-year sentence to Collins, the minimum allowable sentence for a distribution charge. The judge said that after Collins' trial, he polled jurors on what they thought was an appropriate sentence. The average recommendation was 14 months, Gwin said.
In addition to citing the juror's various jobs and where they lived, Gwin said the poll "does reflect how off the mark the federal sentencing guidelines are." He later added that the case was not worse than most of the child pornography cases that he sees and that five years "is a significant sentence, especially for somebody who has not offended in the past."
Sullivan objected to the sentence, saying it is based on an "impermissible" survey. He also argued before the sentence was issued that 20 years was justified because prosecutors did not show the jury each one of the images found on Collins' computer. Gwin rejected that argument, though, explaining that all of the photos were presented as evidence, even if they were not shown at trial.
Under federal law, either prosecutors or defense attorneys can appeal a sentence if they feel it was improper. It is uncommon for federal judges to issue sentences that go so far below the probation office's recommendations, though, so appeals by prosecutors are rare. Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said that prosecutors "will review the judge's sentence and make a decision at the appropriate time."...
Iams also said that even though his client was convicted by a jury, the fact that he went to trial may have helped Collins in the end, since Gwin was then able to poll the jury and get an idea of where the community's feelings were on sentencing. "If he had just pled guilty, that might have not been there. At the end of the day, it may have helped," Iams said.
Collins was taken into custody following his sentencing. In addition to the prison sentence, Collins was also ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and $10,000 in restitution to two girls seen in the pornography Collins downloaded. Once he is released, he will have to register as a sex offender and will be on supervised release for five years.
February 11, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack
Ohio Supreme Court finds multiple constitution flaws in mandatory sex offender sentencing process
The Ohio Supreme Court this morning handed down an interesting constitutional ruling in Ohio v. Bevly, No. 2015-Ohio-475 (Feb. 11, 2015) (available here), striking down a distinctive mandatory sentencing provision for certain sex offenders. Here is how the majority opinion concludes:
We hold that because there is no rational basis for the provision in R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a) that requires a mandatory prison term for a defendant convicted of gross sexual imposition when the state has produced evidence corroborating the crime, the statute violates the due-process protections of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Furthermore, because a finding of the existence of corroborating evidence pursuant to R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a) is an element that must be found by a jury, we hold that the application of R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a) in this case violated Bevly’s right to trial by jury found in the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals, and we remand the case to the trial court for imposition of its sentence in accordance with this opinion.
Justice French dissents in an opinion which explains why she thinks the there is rational basis for the sentencing provision struck down by the majority:
When its victims are younger than 13, the crime of gross sexual imposition (“GSI”) carries a mandatory prison term, as opposed to a presumption of prison, so long as “[e]vidence other than the testimony of the victim was admitted in the case corroborating the violation.” R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a). I cannot agree with the majority’s conclusion that this corroboration provision simultaneously violates due process, equal protection, and the right to a jury trial. Therefore, I respectfully dissent....
The General Assembly rationally could have concluded that it is unwise or unfair to categorically mandate prison for every person guilty of GSI against a child victim and that more sentencing discretion is appropriate in cases when no evidence corroborated the child victim’s testimony. By reserving the mandatory term (and the associated costs and resources) for convictions with the most evidence of guilt, the General Assembly has made a policy determination that corroboration is relevant to the punishment for child GSI convictions. As the court of appeals recognized in unanimously upholding the statute, “It seems obvious that the General Assembly felt that it was better to start out with a sentence that was not required to be mandatory and to make the sentence mandatory only if there is corroborative proof beyond the alleged victim's testimony that the crime was actually committed.” 2013-Ohio-1352, ¶ 9.
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another sentencing provision in Ohio or anywhere else that a court has found unconstitutional based on rational basis review. Notably, the Bevly opinion indicates in a footnote that it addresses only the defendants federal constitutional claims because "the state constitutional challenges were not raised at the trial or appellate levels." That means the state of Ohio might reasonably try to a press an appeal to the US Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see if it will.
"Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report produced by the Vera Institute of Justice. This New York Times article, headlined "Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, a Report Says," provides a helpful summary of and context for this report:
Jails across the country have become vast warehouses made up primarily of people too poor to post bail or too ill with mental health or drug problems to adequately care for themselves, according to a report issued Wednesday.
The study, “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” found that the majority of those incarcerated in local and county jails are there for minor violations, including driving with suspended licenses, shoplifting or evading subway fares, and have been jailed for longer periods of time over the past 30 years because they are unable to pay courtimposed costs.
The report, by the Vera Institute of Justice, comes at a time of increased attention to mass incarceration policies that have swelled prison and jail populations around the country. This week in Missouri, where the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer stirred months of racial tension last year in the town of Ferguson, 15 people sued that city and another suburb, Jennings, alleging that the cities created an unconstitutional modernday debtors’ prison, putting impoverished people behind bars in overcrowded, unlawful and unsanitary conditions.
While most reform efforts, including early releases and the elimination of some minimum mandatory sentences, have been focused on state and federal prisons, the report found that the disparate rules that apply to jails is also in need of reform.
“It’s an important moment to take a look at our use of jails,” said Nancy Fishman, the project director of the Vera Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and an author of the report. “It’s a huge burden on taxpayers, on our communities, and we need to decide if this is how we want to spend our resources.”
The number of people housed in jails on any given day in the country has increased from 224,000 in 1983 to 731,000 in 2013 — nearly equal to the population of Charlotte, N.C. — even as violent crime nationally has fallen by nearly 50 percent and property crime has dropped by more than 40 percent from its peak.
Inmates have subsequently been spending more time in jail awaiting trial, in part because of the growing reluctance of judges to free suspects on their own recognizance pending trial dates, which had once been common for minor offenses. As a result, many of those accused of misdemeanors — who are often poor — are unable to pay bail as low as $500.
Timed with the release of the Vera Institute report, the MacArthur Foundation announced Wednesday that it would invest $75 million over five years in 20 jurisdictions that are seeking alternatives to sending large numbers of people to jail. The jurisdictions, which could be cities, counties or other entities that run local jails, will be announced this spring. Nationwide, the annual number of jail admissions is 19 times higher than the number of those sent to prison, and has nearly doubled since 1983, from about 6 million to 11.7 million. A significant number are repeat offenders, the report said.
Via this link, the Vera Institute has available the full Incarceration’s Front Door report, a helpful summary and the infographic I have tried to reproduce here.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Two notable Second Circuit opinions upholding aggravated sentencing decisions
A helpful reader alerted me to two Second Circuit sentencing decisions handed down this morning. Though neither seems all that ground-breaking, both still strike me a blogworthy. Here are links to the rulings along with an excerpt from the start of the opinions:
United States v. Morrison, No. 14-485 (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2015) (available here):
Defendant-Appellant Shane Morrison appeals from a February 6, 2014 judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Wexler, J.) sentencing Morrison to, inter alia, eighteen months’ imprisonment following his guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Morrison argues that 18 U.S.C. § 3153(c) bars the district court’s reliance on positive results on drug tests administered by the Pretrial Services Agency (“pretrial services”) to enhance his term of imprisonment. Because the district court did not violate § 3153(c) by relying on the information from pretrial services in determining Morrison’s sentence, we affirm the judgment.
United States v. Cramer, No. 14-761 (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2015) (available here):
Defendant Thomas Cramer appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence of 360 months’ imprisonment and 15 years of supervised release, entered on February 21, 2014 by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York (Geraci, J.), following his guilty plea to four counts of sex trafficking of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a)(1) and (b)(2). On appeal, Cramer argues that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because he received a two-point enhancement under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual section 2G1.3(b)(3) for use of a computer in the commission of the crimes. This case presents two issues of first impression in this Circuit: First, does the computer-use enhancement under Guidelines subsection 2G1.3(b)(3)(A) apply to a defendant who begins communicating and establishing a relationship with a minor by computer, but then entices the victim through other modes of communication? Second, is Application Note 4 to Guidelines section 2G1.3 plainly inconsistent with subsection 2G1.3(b)(3)(B) and therefore inapplicable to that subsection? We answer both questions in the affirmative.
Sunday, February 08, 2015
Highlighting the role of prosecutorial activity in modern mass incarceration
I am pleased to see this new Slate piece giving attention to Professor John Pfaff's important and effective analysis of the reasons for modern mass incarceration. The piece is headlined "Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?: A provocative new theory," and here is how the piece sets up a Q&A with John, along with a key portion of the Q&A explaining the heart of John's statistical insights:
Criminal justice reform is a contentious political issue, but there’s one point on which pretty much everyone agrees: America’s prison population is way too high. It’s possible that a decline has already begun, with the number of state and federal inmates dropping for three years straight starting in 2010, from an all-time high of 1.62 million in 2009 to about 1.57 million in 2012. But change has been slow: Even if the downward trend continues, which is far from guaranteed, it could take almost 90 years for the country’s prison population to get down to where it was in 1980 unless the rate of decline speeds up significantly.
What can be done to make the population drop faster? Many reformers, operating under the assumption that mass incarceration is first and foremost the result of the war on drugs, have focused on making drug laws less punitive and getting rid of draconian sentencing laws that require judges to impose impossibly harsh punishments on people who have committed relatively minor crimes. But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place. Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be. If he’s right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.
In a conversation with Slate, Pfaff explains his theory....
Q: So why did the prison population keep on rising after 1991, when the crime wave ended? It seems like if your theory is right, that the increase in violent crime and property crime caused the prison boom, the end of the crime wave should have been accompanied by decreasing incarceration rates.
A: Three things could have happened. One, police just got much more efficient—they’re just arresting more and more people, with new policing technologies, new policing approaches—maybe they’re just arresting a bigger share of offenders. But we don’t actually see that. Arrests tend to drop with the crime rate. So the total number of people being arrested has fallen. The other thing it could be is we’re just locking people up for longer—but like I said, it’s not that. So clearly what’s happening is we’re just admitting more people to prison. Though we have a smaller pool of people being arrested, we’re sending a larger and larger number of them to prison.
Q: Why would that be?
What appears to happen during this time — the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available — is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies. I can’t tell you why they’re doing that. No one’s really got an answer to that yet. But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.
As regular readers likely know, I am a big fan of John Pfaff's research. Anyone concerned about mass incarceration, especially at the state level, need to look at his research, and I think John is very right to focus on the importance of state prosecutorial activities and the relatively limited direct impact of the modern federal drug war on state incarceration realities. (I must note, though, that John's analysis here is not now really "new and provocative": as this 2009 post notes, John himself highlighted this statistical story in a Slate commentary six years ago and most informed folks know prosecutorial activities have played a huge role in modern mass incarceration.)
That said, in part because John's analysis is especially focused on state data, I fear he misses how the modern drug war, fueled especially by the growth of the federal criminal system, provides one big explanation for why and how "over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges." In the 1980s and before, the feds generally prosecuted significantly less than 10,000 drug cases each year. But thanks largely to the tough new drug penalties (and added prosecutorial resources) that the Congress put in place by the end of the 1980s, the feds started prosecuting tens of thousands more drug offenders each year and averaged more than 25,000 yearly drug prosecutions through the 2000s. These additional federal prosecution of drug offenders surely freed up state prosecutors to focus more time and attention on other cases/offenders and allowed them to get "much more aggressive in how they filed charges."
In other words, in the 1980s and before, the feds prosecuted far less than 100,000 drug offenders each decade, and all the other folks arrested by states were not as aggressively prosecuted because state prosecutors saw limited value in cycling lots of lower-level drug offenders through their system. But throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the feds prosecuted well over 500,000 drug offenders; that freed up space, time, energy for other folks arrested by states to be aggressively prosecuted. (These forces also had a synergistic impact as new tough three-strikes laws in states and at the federal level extended greatly the terms of those repeatedly cycling through criminal justice systems.)
My point here is not to assert that John's data analysis is misguided or inaccurate in any way. But I do think it important --- indeed, essential --- to see how the drug war and other toughness effort at both the federal and state level fed off each other in order to change state prosecutorial behaviors in the way John highlights. And, perhaps most importantly, all of this needs to be studied closely to fully understand how we got into our modern costly mass incarceration mess and how we might best find out way out.
Prior posts about Prof. John Pfaff's important research:
- A systematic examination of prison growth (from 2007)
- Assessing the reality of modern prison growth (from 2009)
- A data-based exploration of prison growth and the drug war (from 2013)
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mass incarceration analysis: John Pfaff tears apart NRC report (from 2014)
- "The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, Limited Legislative Options" (from 2014)
February 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Saturday, February 07, 2015
Split Washington Supreme Court decides accomplices must receive distinct sentencing treatment
As reported in this local article, headlined "Washington Supreme Court alters sentencing structure for accomplices," the top court in the Evergreen State earlier this week issued an interest opinion concerning how the state's sentencing structure should be applied to those found guilty as accomplices. Here is a summary from the press report:
In a 5-4 opinion released Thursday, the state’s high court ruled that convicted identity thief Larry Hayes should have received a standard-range sentence after being convicted of a host of felonies in 2009. Instead, he got a 15-year term under a provision that allows prosecutors to seek extra punishment for egregious offenders. The majority ordered the case back to Pierce County for re-sentencing.
At issue is how people charged as accomplices should be treated under the law at sentencing. For years, Washington law has prescribed that accomplices and principle actors in a crime be exposed to the same culpability, a concept Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist on Thursday called “in for a penny, in for a pound.”
In an opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson and signed by Justices Charles Wiggins, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, the majority ruled that should not always be the case, especially where sentencing is concerned.
Until Thursday, when a prosecutor sought an exceptional sentence for a criminal defendant, he or she had to prove to a jury that certain aggravating factors made the crime worse than usual. The requirement applied to principle actors and accomplices alike. Thursday’s majority opinion said the blanket application to accomplices is improper.
Accomplices should be judged for their specific role in the crime and not just on the crime itself, the majority ruled. An accomplice, to qualify for an exceptional sentence, must have knowledge that the crime he or she is involved in is worse than usual, Johnson wrote, and prosecutors now must prove that knowledge to a jury. “...this finding of knowledge ensures that the defendant’s own conduct formed the basis of the sentence,” Johnson wrote....
Justice Debra Stephens authored the dissent, which was signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Mary Yu and Steven Gonzalez. Stephens argued that the majority was turning decades of case law on its head for no good reason. “It makes no sense that a principal should be punished regardless of whether he or she knew the crime was a major economic offense but an accomplice, who committed the same crime, should not be,” she wrote.
She went on to say the ruling would have far-reaching impacts. “It is no exaggeration to say that the way co-participants have long been tried in this state will need to change in order to accommodate the knowledge finding the majority superimposes on the enhancement statute,” Stephens wrote.
Lindquist agreed with Stephens’ assessment and said he would consider asking state lawmakers to pass legislation clarifying what they want to happen to accomplices. “They could say, ‘We meant what we wrote: Principals and accomplices are equally culpable,’” Lindquist said.
Appellate attorney Nancy Collins, who worked on Hayes’ appeal, said she thinks the majority got it right and that the application of the ruling would not be onerous. “I don’t see it as a change in the law at all,” Collins said. “The majority said the jury needs to consider the defendant’s individual conduct.”
The full opinion in Washington v. Hayes, No. 89742-5 (Wash. Feb. 5, 2015), is available at this link.
Friday, February 06, 2015
Bipartisan Recidivism Risk Reduction Act introduced in US House
This notable press release from the office of Representative Jason Chaffetz provides the details of a federal prison reform bill that would be extremely consequential if it can get enacted. Here are excerpts from the release providing basic details about the bill:
Republicans Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) joined with Democrats Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to introduce H.R. 759, Recidivism Risk Reduction Act. This bipartisan legislation uses risk assessment tools to reduce recidivism, lower the crime rate, and reduces the amount of money spent on the federal prison system....
H.R. 759 would implement a post-sentencing dynamic risk assessment system to identify an inmate’s risk of recidivism. Then, using evidence-based practices developed by states, effective recidivism reduction programs are identified and utilized. The bill would then provide incentives for inmates to participate in those programs.
Ultimately, inmates could earn credits toward an alternative custody arrangement – such as a halfway house or home confinement – at the end of their term. Such arrangements reduce the cost of housing an inmate in the federal prison system.
The program will be phased in over a five year period. The savings will be reinvested into further expansions of proven recidivism reduction programs during this time. After that, it is anticipated that the savings can be used either for other Justice Department priorities such as FBI agents, US Attorney offices etc., or the savings can be used to help reduce the deficit. Similar programs have found success on a state level in several states including Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Carolina.
In addition, Reps. Chaffetz and Jefferies introduced HR 760, the Bureau of Corrections Renaming Act. This bipartisan legislation would simply rename the “Bureau of Prisons” – under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice – the “Bureau of Corrections.” Over ninety percent of all federal prisoners will eventually be released. This small change will help the Bureau remember that its mission is not just to house people, but also to rehabilitate prisoners such that they are productive members of society when released. Forty-eight states throughout the country use the word ‘corrections’ in describing their prisons.
The Attorney General is directed to consult with appropriate federal agencies and stakeholders to design, develop, implement, and regularly upgrade an actuarial Post Sentencing Risk Assessment System which shall include one or more comprehensive risk and needs assessment tools, which shall be peer-reviewed and validated, and periodically re-validated, on the federal prison population for the specific purposes of this Act.
Prisoners will be divided into high, moderate, or low risks of recidivism. Prisoners will be periodically re-evaluated and have the opportunity to progress to low risk of recidivism. Prisoners who misbehave can move the other way – i.e. from low to moderate risk of recidivism. Bureau of Prisons shall incentivize prisoners to reduce their individual risk of recidivism by participating in and completing recidivism reduction programs.
Prisoners who have committed more serious crimes such as child abuse, terrorism, and violent felonies, are not eligible for the program.
If a prisoner is successfully participating in and/or completing programs, holding a prison job, participating in educational courses, participating in faith-based services and courses, or delivering programs or faith-based services and courses to other prisoners, the prisoner can earn [certain credits based on their risk levels]. Low risk prisoners will be eligible for consideration for alternative custody such as halfway houses, home confinement, ankle bracelets, etc.
This is not automatic – it must be reviewed and approved by the prison warden, the chief probation officer in the relevant federal district, and a judge in the relevant federal district.
This is not a reduction in sentence – prisoners are not being released and nothing in this Act affects Truth in Sentencing requirements that prisoners complete at least 85% of their sentence.
Some recent related posts:
- A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress
- "Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"
UPDATE: Not to be overlooked (even though I managed to overlook it), this past week also saw another notable bipartisan federal bill of not introduced in both houses of Congress. This press release from the office of Senator Rand Paul provides the basics:
Today, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 353/H.R. 706) in the Senate and House of Representatives. The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases based upon mitigating factors.
February 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 05, 2015
More than three decades after crime, SCOTUS decides it still needs to stay Texas mass murderer execution
As reported in this AP piece (with my emphasis added), a "Texas inmate set to be executed next week for fatally shooting four men at an airplane hangar more than 30 years ago won a reprieve Thursday from the U.S. Supreme Court." Here are the details:
Lester Bower Jr., 67, among the longest-serving Texas death row inmates, had been scheduled for lethal injection Tuesday. The justices gave no reason for the reprieve, saying only that it would be lifted automatically if they deny an appeal or act on it.
Bower was convicted in the October 1983 deaths at a Grayson County ranch about 60 miles north of Dallas. Authorities found parts from a small ultralight airplane at the hangar at his home in Arlington, a Dallas suburb. Prosecutors also tied unusual Italian-made .22-caliber bullets used in the slayings to similar ammunition purchased by Bower, a federally licensed gun dealer.
In their appeal to the high court, Bower's lawyers said jurors who decided on his death sentence had faulty instructions that didn't allow them to consider mitigating circumstances that he had no criminal record, was a married father of two, college educated and employed as a chemical salesman.
Since his 1984 trial, court rulings have refined instructions to Texas capital murder trial juries to account for mitigating circumstances. Several condemned inmates from that era - but not Bower - have received new court-ordered punishment trials. Bower's attorneys also contended that prosecutors misstated the rarity of the fatal bullets, and that his long time on death row and numerous rescheduled execution dates amount to unconstitutional suffering.
State attorneys argued that courts have rejected appeals about the jury instructions, that information about the bullets was available at the time of his trial and that Bower's lawyers' persistent appeals account for the lengthy case. "Any delay is purely of his own making," Stephen Hoffman, an assistant Texas attorney general, told the justices in a filing this week....
Those killed were building contractor Bob Tate, 51; Grayson County Sheriff's Deputy Philip Good, 29; Jerry Brown, 52, an interior designer; and Ronald Mayes, 39, a former Sherman police officer. Good's wife, Marlene Bushard, said the delay was "very frustrating since we were so close."
"I am hoping once this is done he will be out of options, we can get another death warrant and end this," she said in an email.
As this timeline of products reveals, over the last 30 years Apple has been able to go from its Apple IIe personal computer to a modern (multi-generation) iPhone and iPad and iMac, and the latest Apple machines now put more computing power into our hands than NASA had at its disposal in the early 1980s. Meanwhile during this same period, our legal system has been unable to conclusively determine whether a Texas mass murderer was lawfully sentenced to death. Hmmm.
Tuesday, February 03, 2015
NACDL seeking examples of federal cases impacted by "trial penalty"
Through some of my work with folks at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, I have learned that NACDL is now, as part of its Trial Penalty Project, actively seeking examples of the “trial penalty” federal defendants often face as they consider whether to exercise their right to go to trial based on the great discrepancy between post-trial sentences and those offered in the plea process. Human Rights Watch issued a report summarizing extensive statistical and anecdotal evidence of this trial penalty focusing on federal drug defendants, and NACDL is working toward producing a companion report focusing on the trial penalty in federal cases not involving drug prosecutions.
NACDL seeks, via a simple on-line survey, help in collecting examples and data for use in the report. NACDL is interested in examples such as (1) cases where a defendant after trial received a far more severe sentence than had been offered during plea negotiations; (2) cases where a defendant pleaded guilty principally because of a fear that any sentence imposed after trial would be dramatically higher than the plea offer; and/or (3) cases where defendant(s) convicted at trial received disproportionately severe sentences given their culpability as compared to co-defendants who pleaded guilty.
If you know of a federal case that fits these categories — or that otherwise reflects the “trial penalty” federal defendants often face in non-drug-offense settings — please take a few minutes to complete the online questionnaire at the NACDL website.
"Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is a partial summary of its contents from an e-mail I received earlier today:
The report identifies four key features of the criminal justice system that produce racially unequal outcomes, beyond the conditions of socioeconomic inequality that contribute to higher rates of some crimes in marginalized communities, and showcases initiatives to abate these sources of inequity in adult and juvenile justice systems around the country. In many cases, these reforms have produced demonstrable results, including:
- Indiana amended its drug-free zone sentencing laws, which imposed harsh penalties on a defendant population that was over 75% African American in Indianapolis.
- Multnomah County (Portland), OR, revised and removed bias in its risk assessment instrument for determining juvenile detention, reducing African American and Latino youth detention levels by half.
- Berks County, PA, reduced the number of youth in secure detention – who were primarily youth of color – by 67% between 2007 and 2012 in part by increasing reliance on alternatives including non-secure shelters and expanding use of evidence-based treatment programs.
- The Milwaukee County prosecutor’s office eliminated racial disparity in charges of possession of drug paraphernalia by instituting case oversight and emphasizing diversion to treatment programs and dismissals.
Friday, January 30, 2015
Aggressive litigation prompts federal prosecutor in Chicago to drop stash house sting
As reported in this lengthy front-page Chicago Tribune article, aggressive litigation by the federal defense bar concerning aggressive federal drug-war tactics have now resulted in federal prosecutors backing off the most aggressive federal criminal charges these tactics have generated. The article is headlined "Chicago prosecutors quietly drop charges tied to drug stash house stings," and here is how it begins:
Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.
The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms upon conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work. Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney's office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.
In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.
The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority suspects, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.
The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.
In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and other charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences upon conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop to just five years in prison from as much as 25 years, according to Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.
Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said hundreds of people nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. The ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said. Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgment of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, a critical factor in driving the sentencing.
The dismissal of the seven cases likely "signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring," Tinto said. "In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government."
I have been preaching in recent years that I have come to believe that aggressive litigation taking on some of the worst extremes of the federal drug war and excesses of mass incarceration was more likely to "move the sentencing reform needle" as much, if not more, than legislative advocacy directed and a gridlocked Congress. This story reinforces my sense that more and more federal judges are growing more and more willing to criticize and seek to rein in what they more and more are seeing as federal prosecutorial overreach in the drug war and elsewhere.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
George Toca now a free man ... and SCOTUS now lacks a live Miller retroactivity case
This local article from Louisiana, headlined "George Toca, La. inmate at center of debate on juvenile life sentences, to go free," reports on a remarkable turn of events in a case that was supposed to serve as the means for the Supreme Court to address the retroactivity of its Eighth Amendment Miller ruling. Here are the details:
A state prisoner from New Orleans who recently landed at the center of national legal debate about mandatory life sentences for youthful offenders won his freedom Thursday after 31 years in prison. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to vacate his murder conviction.
George Toca, 47, is set to go free after pleading guilty instead to two counts of attempted armed robbery and one count of manslaughter from a 1984 stickup that ended with his best friend, Eric Batiste, fatally shot outside a convenience store on South Broad Street in Broadmoor.
Toca’s release almost certainly means the U.S. Supreme Court will scrap a scheduled hearing this spring on whether its 2012 decision in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, barring mandatory life sentences for juvenile convicts, is retroactive. The high court in November took up Toca’s case, above others, to settle an issue that affects about 1,000 convicts in Louisiana and three other states that have refused to apply the court’s ruling to older juvenile lifers.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the DA will join in a motion with Toca’s attorneys to withdraw the Supreme Court case.
Toca, appearing briefly in court Thursday morning, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter count under an “Alford” plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but conceded that strong evidence could have led to his conviction. He returned to Angola State Penitentiary for processing, with his release expected late Thursday or Friday.
Newly elected Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams granted the joint motion in a case that the Innocence Project New Orleans had pursued on Toca’s behalf for more than a decade. DA’s Office spokesman Christopher Bowman credited a warming relationship with Innocence Project attorneys, along with Toca’s productive years behind bars, for the decision to let him go free on the reduced charges.
Bowman called it “a just outcome,” also citing the vehemence of Batiste’s family in urging Toca’s release and the fact he will remain on parole for another 30 years under the deal. “In light of all those facts, the district attorney believed he was no longer a public safety risk,” Bowman said. “The District Attorney’s Office ... is not afraid to take a look at older cases.”...
Bowman insisted that the DA’s decision to come to a deal on Toca’s release was unrelated to the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, in which Cannizzaro’s office had been gearing up to argue against the retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama.
The high court didn’t ban states from sentencing some young killers to life without parole. But the 5-4 majority opinion insisted that courts must first weigh a defendant’s youth, adding that “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” The court said “youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments,” citing “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” when compared with adults.
In legal filings, Cannizzaro’s office argued that it would be a fool’s errand to force local judges, years or decades later, to discern a long-ago juvenile’s capacity for change. Advocates for juvenile lifers argued that the task would be made easier because judges can review an inmate’s record while behind bars. And they saw Toca’s case as a promising bellwether for what the high court justices might do....
According to the state, 272 Louisiana inmates had been sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole as of April 2013 — the bulk of them, like Toca, having been sentenced before the U.S. Supreme Court decision. State Supreme Courts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota also have found that Miller v. Alabama does not apply retroactively, setting up the fight at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Toca’s vacated conviction and release will leave the issue unresolved for now, said Cara Drinan, an associate professor of law at Catholic University of America. Still, she expects the Supreme Court to take up the retroactivity question relatively soon in some other case, now that it has signaled its interest in settling the issue. “For George Toca, this is a victory and a great thing,” Drinan said. “For those of us looking at the bigger issue, and for the hundreds of people waiting for a resolution, we’ll have to wait.”
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Did feds just win the drug war?: kingpin twin drug dealers get kingly sentencing break thanks to cooperation
As detailed in this AP story, headlined "Trafficking Twins Get Sharply Reduced Sentences," the sentencing benefits of cooperating with the government was on full display yesterday in a Chicago federal courtroom. Here are the details:
Identical twin brothers who ran a drug-trafficking ring that spanned much of North America were sentenced Tuesday to 14 years in prison after a judge agreed to sharply reduce their penalty as a reward for becoming government informants and secretly recording Mexico's most notorious drug lord.
In a rare courtroom display, it was a federal prosecutor who poured praise on Pedro and Margarito Flores, portraying them as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history and describing the courage they displayed in gathering evidence against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other leaders in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.
With credit for time served awaiting sentencing and for good behavior in prison, the brothers, now 33, could be out in as little as six years.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo likened Americans' sense of security to walls and scolded the brothers for introducing drugs that fueled violence and despair. "You devastated those walls. You knocked them down," he said. The twins' cooperation was the only thing that spared them from an actual life sentence, Castillo told the brothers. But, he added, they would still serve a life sentence of sorts — having to look over their shoulders the rest of their lives in constant fear of a deadly attack by an assassin working for the cartel they betrayed.
Castillo said the twins were the most significant traffickers ever in his court. But he said he had also never seen traffickers at the height of their power and wealth come forward to offer to become government witnesses, as the siblings had.
The twins appeared in court with the same olive-green clothes and the same closely cropped haircuts. Both kept tapping one foot nervously throughout the hourlong hearing. Just before the judge imposed a sentence, each walked to a podium separately to speak, appearing uneasy. "I'm ashamed. I'm embarrassed. I'm regretful," Margarito Flores said. "There is no excuse."
So successful was their criminal enterprise that the jewelry-loving, Maserati-driving twins smuggled $1.8 billion — wrapped in plastic and duct tape — into Mexico, according to prosecutors....
Prosecutor Mike Ferrara had asked for a sentence of around 10 years. He noted the twins' cooperation led to indictments of Guzman and more than 50 others. The twins began cooperating with agents in 2008 and engaged cartel leaders for months, sometimes switching on recorders and shoving them in their pockets. They continually risked death, Ferrara said.
The 5-foot-4 twins' trafficking careers soared after they left Chicago to live in Mexico around 2004. In mid-2005, they met with Guzman in his secret mountain compound to cut major drug deals, government filings said. The brothers ran their operation from a Mexican ranch. Their network stretched from its Chicago hub to New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and to Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia....
Later Tuesday, Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announced new charges against several Sinaloa figures stemming from the twins' cooperation. Asked about their lenient sentences and the message it sent to other would-be cartel traffickers, Fardon said it should demonstrate, "You can right some of what you did wrong ... by helping the government."
So does this all mean that the federal drug war can be declared officially over, and that we can claim the good guys officially won this 50-year costly war? After all, this was a sentencing of two of the most significant drug traffickers, and they have become the "most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history." Surely this must scare off and deter all other current and would-be drug dealers and all the trillions in taxpayer dollars spent on the drug war has now been vindicated as money well spent.
Of course, I am asking the question above and in the title of this post with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. A key problem with the drug war, as I see it, is that even a huge drug war "victory" in catching and prosecuting some drug dealers typically will make it that much more valuable and enticing for other drug dealers to seek to replace the captured criminals. I fear that , unless and until illegal drug demand is reduced, illegal drug suppliers will be plentiful in part because the drug war makes their activities potentially much more lucrative.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
"Back to the Future: The Influence of Criminal History on Risk Assessment"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Evidence-based practices providing an empirical basis for predicting recidivism risk have become a primary focus across criminal justice decision points. Criminal history measures are the most common and heavily weighted factors in risk assessment tools, yet is such substantial reliance fully justified? The empirical and normative values placed on criminal history enjoy such commendation by criminal justice officials, practitioners, and the public that these practices are rarely questioned. This paper fills the gap by introducing and exploring various issues from legal, scientific, and pragmatic perspectives.
As a general rule, a common assumption is that past behavior dictates an individual’s likely future conduct. This axiom is often applied to criminal behavior, more specifically, in that prior offending is considered a primary driver to predict future recidivism. Criminal justice officials have a long history of formally and informally incorporating risk judgments into a variety of criminal justice decisions, ranging from bail, sentencing, parole, supervisory conditions, and programming. A more contemporary addendum represents empirically informed risk assessment practices that integrate actuarial tools and/or structured professional judgments. Various criminal history measures pervade these newer evidence-based practices as well.
Instead of presuming the value and significance of prior crimes in judging future recidivism risk, this Article raises and critically analyzes certain unexpected consequences resulting from the significant reliance upon criminal history in risk assessment judgments. Among the more novel issues addressed include: (1) creating a ratchet effect whereby the same criminal history event can be counted numerous times; (2) resulting in informal, three-strikes types of penalties; (3) counting nonadjudicated criminal behaviors and acquitted conduct; (4) proportionality of punishment; (5) disciplining hypothetical future crime; (6) punishing status; and (7) inadequately accounting for the age-crime curve. In the end, criminal history has a role to play in future risk judgments, but these issues represent unanticipated outcomes that deserve attention.
Monday, January 26, 2015
"Beyond a Reasonable Disagreement: Judging Habeas Corpus"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Noam Biale now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article addresses ongoing confusion in federal habeas corpus doctrine about one of the most elemental concepts in law: reasonableness. The Supreme Court recently announced a new standard of reasonableness review for habeas cases, intended to raise the bar state prisoners must overcome to obtain federal relief. This new standard demands that errors in state court decisions be so profound that “no fairminded jurist could disagree” that the result is incorrect. Scholars have decried the rigid and exacting nature of this standard, but very little interpretive work has yet been done to theorize what it means and how it should be used.
This Article develops a theoretical framework for understanding the new habeas standard and shows that the assumptions lower courts are making about its meaning are wrong. It concludes that federal courts need more data beyond the mere possibility of fairminded disagreement to find that a decision is reasonable. The Article draws on scholarship and jurisprudence in other areas of law that employ reasonableness standards, and argues that the missing data should be supplied by examining the state adjudicative process. The case for focusing on state process in federal habeas cases is not new, but this Article represents the first argument that the new habeas standard not only permits such a focus but, in fact, requires it.
The SCOTUS culture of death: "Execution Case Highlights the Power of One Vote"
The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this New York Times piece by Adam Liptak that highlights why the Supreme Court's decision on Friday to grant cert to review Oklahoma's execution protocol is so interesting and creates much death penalty drama for this coming week and the months ahead. Here is how the piece starts:
There are nine justices on the Supreme Court. It takes four votes to hear a case, but it takes five to stay an execution.
That can leave a lethal gap. A death penalty case can be important enough to claim a spot on the court’s docket of perhaps 75 cases a year. But the prisoner who brought it may not live to see the decision.
In agreeing on Friday to hear a challenge to the chemicals Oklahoma uses to execute condemned prisoners, the court brought fresh attention to the life-or-death importance of a single vote. The lead petitioner in Friday’s case, Charles F. Warner, was already dead. He was executed eight days earlier, after the Supreme Court refused to stay his execution. The vote was 5 to 4.
“What happened to Charles Warner was not an isolated glitch,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and the author of a new article on the court’s voting procedures in capital cases. “It was a typical, if high-visibility, example of a systemic flaw in the machinery of justice that has gone unrepaired for far too long.”
The case the court agreed to hear used to be called Warner v. Gross, No. 147955. On Friday, taking account of Mr. Warner’s death, the court changed it to Glossip v. Gross, No. 147955. It may change again. The new lead petitioner, Richard Glossip, is scheduled to be executed on Thursday. The other two petitioners in the case also have execution dates in coming weeks, all of them well before the court is expected to hear arguments in the case, in April.
The Supreme Court did not say on Friday whether it would stay the other three executions. In a statement, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, made a pointed reference to the fact that it took only four votes to grant review. He seemed to indicate that the state was prepared to proceed with the executions.
The petitioners’ lawyers will doubtless seek stays. In Mr. Glossip’s case, they will have to act quickly. How the court responds will illuminate the current vitality of its fitful commitment to a procedure it sometimes uses to bridge the voting gap: the “courtesy fifth” vote to stay executions. Such votes are said to be available once the court makes a formal decision to grant review of a condemned prisoner’s case.
Recent related posts:
- Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
- Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)
- Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge
High-profile capital trials put spotlight on dynamics of death-qualification of jurors
This new AP story, headlined "Death-qualified' juror search slows marathon, theater cases," effectively reviews the distinct notable realities that attend jury selection in a capital case. Here are some excerpts:
One prospective juror was brutally frank when asked whether he could consider a sentence of life in prison for the man accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. "I would sentence him to death," he said, then added: "I can't imagine any evidence that would change how I feel about what happened." Another prospective juror said he couldn't even consider the death penalty, telling the court, "I just can't kill another person."
The two men are on opposite sides of the capital punishment debate, but both unlikely to make it on the jury for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: to be seated for a death penalty case a juror must be willing — but not eager — to hand down a sentence of either life or death.
The process of finding "death qualified" jurors has slowed down jury selection in federal case against Tsarnaev, who is charged with setting off two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 during the 2013 marathon. It is expected to do the same in the state trial of James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring 70 others in a suburban Denver movie theater in 2012.
The process is designed to weed out jurors who have strong feelings for or against the death penalty. A 1985 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court said a juror can lawfully be excused if his views on the death penalty are so strong that they would prevent or substantially impair his ability to follow the law.
But death penalty opponents have long said the process is fundamentally unfair. They argue that death-qualified juries do not represent a true cross-section of the community and are less likely to be sympathetic to the defense. "You end up with a jury with less women, less blacks, less Democrats ... you end up with a jury that is skewed in ways that make it probably more conservative, more accepting of prosecution arguments, of state authority," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes executions.
The Capital Jury Project, a consortium of university researchers, interviewed about 1,200 jurors in 353 capital trials in 14 states beginning in the early 1990s. The group's research has shown that death penalty juries are more likely to convict and that jurors often make up their minds about what punishment to hand down long before they're supposed to, said William Bowers, director of the project....
Death penalty opponents have argued that to get around this kind of pre-judgment, separate juries should be chosen to hear evidence in the guilt phase and the punishment phase. But that idea has not gained traction....
In the Holmes case, an unprecedented 9,000 jury summonses were mailed. As of Friday, 210 prospective jurors had been excused over four days. Individual questioning is set to begin next month. In the marathon bombing case, 1,373 people filled out juror questionnaires. Individual questioning of prospective jurors has been slowed as the judge has probed people at length about their feelings on the death penalty. The judge had originally said he hoped to question 40 jurors each day, but during the first five days only averaged about 15.
Capital punishment supporters say the current system of screening out strong pro- and anti-death penalty jurors is the only fair way to choose juries in death penalty cases. "The process simply says that jurors must be willing to abide by the law," said John McAdams, a Marquette University professor who supports the death penalty.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Another remarkable exoneration thanks only to NC Innocence Inquiry Commission
On this blog, I typically do not extensively cover or frequently discuss exonerations and criminal appeals based on actual innocence claims because, as some may know, I fear guilt/innocence concerns can at times distort sentencing procedures and policy debates focused only on indisputably guilty persons. But this new amazing story out of North Carolina, headlined "After 36 years, Joseph Sledge's unfamiliar feeling: normal," seemed especially blogworthy for various reasons.
Most significantly, I think, is that this remarkable NC story highlights the unique benefits resulting if (and perhaps only when) a jurisdiction has a special institution and special procedures for dealing specifically with innocence claims. Here are the basic of one remarkable story that is embedded in the broader realities of North Carolina's unique approach to innocence concerns:
Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal. Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.
He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again. “I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.
Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.
On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.
As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted....
Sledge ... stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.
That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County. That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.
Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help. David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.
David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it. “There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.
Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right. Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.
During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.
Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades. Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed. The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.
January 24, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack
Friday, January 23, 2015
Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge
As reported in this new USA Today piece, taking up a "case that could have broad implications for hundreds of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug protocol used in recent lethal injections violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment." Here is more:
The justices agreed Friday to consider a case originally brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma -- one of whom was put to death last week, after the court refused to block his execution with a combination of three drugs that has caused some prisoners to writhe in pain.
Because the court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision to let that execution go forward, it presumably was their votes in private conference Friday that will give the issue a full hearing in open court. Only four votes are needed from the nine-member court to accept a case. It will likely be heard in April, though it could be held over until the next term begins in October.
Lawyers for Charles Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next six weeks sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas. While the court's conservatives refused to stop Warner's execution, the request for a full court hearing had been held for further consideration.
The lawyers claim that the sedative midazolam, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a general anesthetic and is being used in state executions virtually on an experimental basis. They say inmates may not be rendered unconscious and could suffer painfully as the other drugs in the protocol are administered.... "States now experiment with various drug formulations that have resulted in multiple malfunctioning executions — indeed, spectacles — over the past year," the challengers' brief says....
The court's four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- voiced deep concern about the three-drug protocol in their eight-page dissent last week. They also dissented last September when the court rejected a stay application from a Missouri inmate executed with the same drug.
I presume this cert grant will halt all scheduled executions in Oklahoma until the Supreme Court rules. Left unclear, however, is whether other states will be able to move forward with executions while this case is pending. This DPIC page with scheduled executions suggest that at least a half-dozen states have more than a dozen serious execution dates scheduled before the Supreme Court is likely to resolve this new case from Oklahoma.
I am sure that these states will try to move forward with executions, especially if their protocols are dissimilar to what Oklahoma does in executions. But I am also sure that death row defendants and their lawyers will urge states to postpone all execution until the Supreme Court rules in this new case (as happened when the Supreme Court first took up this issue eight years ago in Baze v. Kentucky). In short, here we go again!
Recent related posts:
- Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
- Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)
US Sentencing Commission essentially giving up on fixing definition of "crimes of violence"
As noted in prior posts here and here, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month publish proposed guideline amendments with some modest but significant possible revisions to the federal fraud sentencing guidelines. One reason these modest proposed guideline changes could be the most consequential reform coming from the Commission this year is because, as noted at the very end of these remarks at by the USSC Chair Patti Saris, it appears the Commission has given up its effort to seek to improve the doctrinal problems surrounding another big part of the federal sentencing guidelines:
I did want to briefly address an issue that does not appear in the proposed amendments. As I announced at the last public meeting, the Commission held a roundtable discussion this fall on the definition of “crimes of violence” and related terms. We had hoped that we would be positioned to publish some proposals today as an outgrowth of that very informative roundtable, and we conducted considerable follow up work after that event. But ultimately, after much consideration of this issue internally and consultation with leading experts, the Commission concluded that, given the existing statutory scheme, any attempts by the Commission at this time to clarify these definitions or establish more consistency within the guidelines would likely only lead to more confusion and renewed litigation. We are currently considering whether it would be helpful for the Commission to issue a report on this issue with recommendations for legislative fixes.
I am a bit disappointed and troubled that the USSC thinks the best way now to deal with all the confusion and litigation over some key guideline terms is just to give up trying to fix these terms. But I also understand the challenge the USSC faces given that these terms are so significant in federal statutes that the Commission cannot itself amend. And, perhaps usefully, the Commission's struggles here might further embolden the Supreme Court to declare part of the Armed Career Criminal Act unconstitutionally vague as it reconsiders the pending Johnson case (as discussed here).
Thursday, January 22, 2015
NACDL explains the massive work behind Clemency Project 2014
As noted in this prior post, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley last week sent this letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking a number of questions about the relationship between the Justice Department and outside groups working on "Clemency Project 2014." Though AG Holder has not yet, to my knowledge, late last week one of the key groups involved in Clemency Project 2014 described its work and the broader project.
Specifically, the NACDL on Friday sent around this lengthy news release (which I believe was a joint statement by all of the groups working together on this project) titled "Clemency Project 2014: A Historically Unprecedented and Wholly Independent Volunteer Effort By the Nation's Bar." The release merits a full read for those following closely the current activities surrounding federal clemency, and here is an excerpt:
An army of volunteer lawyers are diligently working on behalf of thousands of prisoners who have requested free legal assistance in drafting and submitting clemency petitions. This unprecedented, wholly independent effort by the bar, facilitated by the organizations which make up Clemency Project 2014, seeks to achieve justice for those prisoners. It reflects these organizations' shared commitment to the highest calling of the legal profession.
At its core, Clemency Project 2014 is a vehicle through which attorneys, responding to the Department of Justice's call for the bar to offer free assistance to potential petitioners, may participate in this important initiative. The Project has not been delegated any responsibility or authority by the Department of Justice. The Project expects the Department of Justice to treat these petitions as they would any other well-reasoned petition in making its recommendations to the President, who is the sole authority for granting clemency. Many prisoners have applied directly to the Department of Justice for clemency without using the lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014, and/or are using counsel they identified and retained outside of the Project.
Since its conception less than a year ago, Clemency Project 2014 created a training and case management infrastructure to prepare an army of volunteer lawyers. Indeed, in just a handful of months, the Project:
Provided volunteer support from each of the entities to organize a mechanism for outreach to inmates and attorneys, and to develop a technological infrastructure;
Received critical funding from the ACLU and supplemental funding from the Foundation for Criminal Justice to fund and recruit three critical staff positions to oversee the effort;
Obtained donated office space and technological infrastructure from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL);
Enabled Project administrators to efficiently review, sort, and assign prisoner requests, and created and implemented an electronic database to efficiently organize detailed prisoner requests for assistance that at last count numbered more than 26,000;
Developed and deployed an extensive, multi-hour legal education training program (available on demand to any interested attorney at no charge) to ensure that all volunteer lawyers, from any practice background, will be equipped with the tools necessary to evaluate and prepare petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for its review and consideration;
Responded to a legal memorandum issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts that opined that federal public defenders may not provide representation in clemency matters, by recruiting additional volunteer attorneys to fill the void while federal defenders continue to assist in gathering documents on behalf of former clients, and to provide administrative support for the Project;
Worked with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to recruit more than 50 large firms, bringing hundreds of additional lawyers to the process;
Established and implemented a multi-tier process to assist volunteer lawyers in identifying potentially eligible applicants and preparing petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration....
Assigned 5,310 cases to volunteer attorneys;
Provided individual notice to several thousand applicants with a sentence of less than ten years, a disqualifying factor under the Justice Department's criteria;
Established a website with information for the public, including family members; and
Offered ongoing, individual legal support, resource materials, and on demand training to more than 1,500 volunteer attorneys.....
This endeavor has brought in lawyers from vastly diverse practice backgrounds, more than 50 of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms and law clinics, leading not-for-profit organizations, and the criminal defense bar to answer the call made last year by Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the New York State Bar Association.
Some prior related posts:
- Extraordinary review of messiness of Prez Obama's clemency push
- Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014
- Defender hiccup or major headache for Clemency Project 2014?
- Nearly a year into clemency initiative, turkeys remain more likely to get Prez Obama pardon than people
- ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"
- President Obama (aka clemency grinch) grants a few holiday pardons and commutations
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
SCOTUS rules in favor of prisoner's RLUIPA claim and capital defendant's AEDPA contention
The Supreme Court handed down a few opinions this morning, and two of them involve notable victories for criminal defendants (and notable reversals of the Eighth Circuit).
Via a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13- 6827 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why a rigid prison beard policy wrongfully infringes religious rights. Here is how the opinion, per Justice Alito, gets started:
Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Petitioner’s objection to shaving his beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition. We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.
We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise. Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband. And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests. We thus reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Via a summary reversal in Christeson v. Roper, No. 14-6873 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why lower federal courts were too quick to preclude a capital defendant from arguing a habeas deadline ought to be tolled. Here is how the Court's per curiam decision gets started:
Petitioner Mark Christeson’s first federal habeas petition was dismissed as untimely. Because his appointed attorneys — who had missed the filing deadline — could not be expected to argue that Christeson was entitled to the equitable tolling of the statute of limitations, Christeson requested substitute counsel who would not be laboring under a conflict of interest. The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit summarily affirmed. In so doing, these courts contravened our decision in Martel v. Clair, 565 U. S. ___ (2012). Christeson’s petition for certiorari is therefore granted, the judgment of the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Notably, in Holt, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred in a little separate opinion to provide a bit of their own spin on RLUIPA. And in Christeson, Justices Alito and Thomas dissent from the summary reversal because they would have preferred full briefing concerning a "question of great importance" regarding "the availability of equitable tolling in cases governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)."
Should we be concerned about the economic or human costs of Colorado's efforts to get Aurora killer James Holmes on death row?
The question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this lengthy Denver Post piece discussing what to expect now that jury selection is about to begin in the Colorado's high-profile capital trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes. The piece is headlined "Aurora theater shooting trial could strain limits of jury service," and here are some excerpts:
After 50 days of testimony and deliberations, the jurors who decided the fate of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh emerged haunted. "Have you ever seen 12 people cry?" one juror told reporters about deliberations for the 1997 verdict, handed down in a federal courtroom in Denver. "I'm 24," another said, "But I don't feel 24 anymore."
Pummeled with horrific accounts of the attack, freighted with finding justice amid tragedy, the jurors had been pushed to near shattering. "I personally felt subject to the same sort of trauma that some of the victims and survivors went through," another said.
Now, imagine if that trial had lasted twice — even three times — as long. The trial of Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes, which starts Tuesday with jury selection, is expected to be so lengthy and arduous that it could strain the very process of justice it seeks to uphold.
Nine thousand potential jurors — one of the largest pools in American history — have been summoned for the case. If picked, jurors will be ordered to serve for as long as five straight months, longer than any state criminal trial in memory in Colorado. They will weigh whether Holmes was sane in July 2012, when he killed 12 people inside the Century Aurora 16 movie theater and tried to kill 70 others, and, if they find he was, they will decide whether he should be executed.
For their service, they will be guaranteed a wage of only $50 a day, a rate that could plunge their income to near the federal poverty level. Even harder, during what will likely be the most stressful time of their lives, they will be forbidden from talking to anyone about the experience — not their family or fellow jurors or counselors. Until deliberations begin sometime late this year, the jurors will bear that stress in silence, despite a growing body of research that shows jury service on traumatic cases can lead to mental and physical illness and impact jurors' decision-making....
Since the 1930s, perpetrators of public mass shootings nationwide are more likely to die at the scene than to be captured, according to research by Minnesota Department of Corrections official Grant Duwe. Of the 45 percent who were arrested, only a fraction ever faced a jury. And even fewer of those were charged with killing in an attack as devastating to the community as Holmes is for the Aurora theater shooting.
William Bowers, a researcher for the Capital Jury Project at the State University of New York in Albany, likens the theater shooting trial to that currently taking place for one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers. "There's nothing really comparable to these cases in modern experience, in terms of duration of the trial and effect on the jury," Bowers said....
But, at its most extreme limits, jury service can become less of a duty and more of an ordeal, legal experts say. Studies have shown that jurors in traumatic trials can suffer from insomnia, anxiety, anger and depression. One study documented cases of jurors who broke out in hives, developed ulcers or increased their alcohol consumption while serving at trials. And after the trial is over, some jurors have said they experienced flashbacks....
In recognition of the strains of jury service, courts across the country increasingly offer counseling to jurors. Jon Sarche, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said counseling will be made available to jurors in the theater shooting case once the trial is over. But — because judges routinely order jurors not to talk about the case with anyone, to protect the trial's integrity — counseling is almost never available to help jurors manage stress during the case.
While this piece effectively highlights some economic and human costs to be borne the jurors in this case, the question in the title of this post also suggests thinking about the economic and human costs sure to burden the lawyers and the court system throughout this case. And, as the question in the title of this post is meant to highlight, these costs are all endured in service now only to having Holmes sentenced to death; inevitable appeals and other factors will likely mean Holmes is unlikely ever actually to be executed by Colorado for his crimes.
I suspect these kinds of costs and uncertainties explain (and clearly justify?) why the feds were willing to cut LWOP plea deals for other mentally-challenged mass killers like Ted Kaczynski (the Unibomber) and Jared Lee Loughner (the Tucson shooter). But Colorado prosecutors in this case appear quite committed to enduring all these costs in service to trying to get James Holmes sentenced to death.
Recent and older related posts (with lots of comments):
- Largest mass shooting in US history surely to become a capital case
- Offense/offender distinctions in first-cut punishment reactions to Batman mass murder
- "For James Holmes, Death Penalty is Far from a Certainty"
- You be the prosecutor: will you accept Aurora theater shooter's plea offer and drop pursuit of the death penalty?
- "James Holmes' Victims Applaud Death Penalty Plan: 'I Want Him Dead'"
- Lawyers for Aurora shooter James Holmes attacking Colorado's death penalty again
- Intriguing sparring over victims' rights in Colorado massacre capital case
Friday, January 16, 2015
AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police
As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.
While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack
LawProf and federal judge propose special evidence rules for penalty phase of capital cases
This new article available via SSRN, titled "The Proposed Capital Penalty Phase Rules of Evidence," reflects a notable capital punishment reform proposal put together by Professor David McCord and District Judge Mark W. Bennett. Here is the abstract:
No person or organization has ever proposed model rules of evidence for the unique penalty phase of a death penalty trial. Now a law professor skilled in the scholarship of both death penalty jurisprudence and evidence, and a federal judge with extensive federal death penalty experience, do just that.
This work transcends the hodge-podge of evidentiary approaches taken by the various state jurisdictions and federal law. The result is the Proposed CAPITAL PENALTY PHASE RULES OF EVIDENCE — clear and uniform rules to govern the wide-ranging evidentiary issues that arise in the penalty phase of capital trials. Death penalty trials, long criticized for the arbitrariness of their results, will greatly benefit from these Rules.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Fifth Circuit reverses computer filter lifetime supervised release condition for sex offender
A Fifth Circuit panel yesterday handed down an intriguing little ruling in US v. Fernandez, No. 14-30151 (5th Cir. Jan. 14, 2015) (available here), reversing a notable condition of supervised release. Here is how the ruling starts and ends:
In 2013, Fernando Fernandez was convicted, pursuant to his guilty plea, of failing to register as a sex offender, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). He challenges a life-term special condition of supervised release, requiring him to “install [computer] filtering software . . . block[ing]/monitor[ing] access to sexually oriented websites” for “any computer he possesses or uses”. At issue is whether the court abused its discretion by imposing the software-installation special condition in the light of, inter alia, Fernandez’ neither using a computer nor the Internet in committing either his current offense (failing to register as a sex offender) or his underlying sex offense (sexual assault of a child)....
In the light of the facts at hand, the district court abused its discretion in imposing the software-installation special condition provision at issue, when, inter alia, neither his failure-to-register offense nor his criminal history has any connection to computer use or the Internet. Similar to Tang, the special condition imposed in this instance is related neither to the nature and circumstances of Fernandez’ offense (failing to register as a sex offender) nor his criminal history and characteristics.
Along that line, the district court’s reason for justifying the special condition is not sufficiently tied to the facts. As noted, for justifying its imposition, the court stated: “‘Failure to register’ means he’s a sex offender in the past. Ease of access through the Internet”. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the court’s general concerns about recidivism or that Fernandez would use a computer to perpetrate future sex-crimes are insufficient to justify the imposition of an otherwise unrelated software-installation special condition.
January 15, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
"Should the Medium Affect the Message? Legal and Ethical Implications of Prosecutors Reading Inmate-Attorney Email"
The title of this post is the title of this timely student note by Brandon Parker Ruben now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The attorney-client privilege protects confidential, legal communications between a party and her attorney from being used against her. It is among American jurisprudence’s most sacrosanct evidentiary principles. Unsurprisingly, federal prosecutors cannot eavesdrop on inmate-attorney visits or phone calls, or read inmate-attorney mail. Courts are currently divided, however, on whether or not the government can be prevented from reading inmate-attorney emails.
This Note explores the incipient body of case law that addresses whether federal prosecutors can read inmates’ legal email. As courts have unanimously held, the Bureau of Prison’s email monitoring policy destroys the emails’ privilege, thus allowing prosecutors to lawfully read them. Accordingly, despite misgivings about the practice’s propriety, four courts have ruled that there is no legal basis to prevent it. Two courts, however, pursuant to no clear authority, have prevented prosecutors from reading defendants’ legal email, even while acknowledging the practice’s legality.
This Note argues that prosecutors should be prevented from reading defendants’ legal email, because doing so unjustifiably degrades the adversary system, and that there are legal bases to so prevent them. It asserts that BOP’s email monitoring policy unconstitutionally restricts inmates’ Sixth Amendment right of access to counsel, a challenge prisoners’ rights advocates have yet to bring. In cases where BOP’s email monitoring policy is not at issue, or where a court seeks to avoid a constitutional decision, this Note concludes, federal courts should prevent prosecutors from reading inmates’ legal email by exercising their congressionally delegated authority under the McDade Amendment to enforce state ethics rules. Specifically, courts should apply Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d), which prohibits attorneys from engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
With interesting 6-3 split, SCOTUS gives habeas petitioner a little win on appeal
The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable habeas procedure opinion today in Jennings v. Stevens, No. 13-7211 (S. Ct. Jan. 14, 2015) (available here). Here is the start and conclusion of the majority opinion by Justice Scalia:
Petitioner Robert Mitchell Jennings was sentenced to death for capital murder. He applied for federal habeas corpus relief on three theories of ineffective assistance of counsel, prevailing on two. The State appealed, and Jennings defended his writ on all three theories. We consider whether Jennings was permitted to pursue the theory that the District Court had rejected without taking a crossappeal or obtaining a certificate of appealability....
Because Jennings’ Spisak theory would neither have enlarged his rights nor diminished the State’s rights under the District Court’s judgment, he was required neither to take a cross-appeal nor to obtain a certificate of appealability. We reverse the judgment of the Fifth Circuit and remand the case for consideration of Jennings’ Spisak claim.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, authored a dissenting opinion that starts this way:
The Court holds today that a prisoner who obtains an order for his release unless the State grants him a new sentencing proceeding may, as an appellee, raise any alternative argument rejected below that could have resulted in a similar order. In doing so, the majority mistakenly equates a judgment granting a conditional-release order with an ordinary civil judgment. I respectfully dissent.
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another recent criminal case with this particular combination of Justices in the majority and in the dissent. Except for those involved in complicated habeas proceedings, the line up of the Justices is arguably the most notable aspect of this ruling.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
"Georgia executes Vietnam veteran who killed a sheriff's deputy"
The title of this post is the headline of this extended CNN report on the first execution in the United States in 2015. Here are the details:
Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran convicted of murdering a 22-year-old sheriff's deputy in 1998, was executed Tuesday, said Gwendolyn Hogan, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections. Earlier in the day, the Georgia Supreme Court joined the state's parole board in declining to stop the execution....
Hogan said the court ordered execution was carried out at 8:33 pm ET. She said a final statement was given, expressing remorse to the family of the slain deputy.
The state's high court had also denied Brannan's request for an appeal on the basis that it is unconstitutional to execute a person with his medical conditions and combat history.... Attorneys for the 66-year-old Brannan had hoped his sentence would be found unconstitutional.
His defense attorneys claim Brannan, who served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, was suffering from post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder at the time of the shooting and was off his medication. In a petition filed Monday with Butts County Superior Court, Brannan's attorneys requested his life be spared because "executing American combat veterans whose service-related mental impairments played a role in subsequent violent conduct violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and analogous provisions of the Georgia Constitution."...
The killing of Laurens County Deputy Kyle Dinkheller was captured on the deputy's dash camera just outside Dublin, Georgia.... Brannan is seen in the video confronting Dinkheller after being pulled over for driving almost 100 mph in his pickup.
Brannan appears to be confrontational from the start, acting irrational as the deputy tells him to keep his hands out of his pocket. He then mocks the deputy and at one point seems to dance around yelling, "Shoot me," at Dinkheller. Brannan then yells that he is a Vietnam veteran. He lunges at the deputy before he runs back to his truck, grabs a rifle and begins to shoot.
The video goes on to show a heated gunbattle as both men hide behind their vehicles for cover. Bullets appear to pierce the windshield of the deputy's car. Brannan's car door window shatters above his head. In the video, Dinkheller and Brannan are shot and wounded in the battle. Brannan advances on the deputy, and off camera, you hear the deputy scream before Brannan repeatedly shoots him and then flees the scene. Dinkheller died, leaving behind a wife and child....
During the trial, attorney Kammer says the defense presented evidence that Brannan suffered from PTSD but claims that crucial testimony from a Veterans Affairs doctor treating him was never heard. His sentence was appealed, and a judge ordered a new sentencing trial, but that was later overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court.
Dinkheller's father, Kirk Dinkheller, posted on his Facebook page this month that "January 12, 2015 it will be 17 years since my son Kyle was murdered in the line of duty and on January 13, 2015 his killer will finally be held accountable. Nothing will ever bring my son back, but finally some justice for the one who took him from his children and his family."
Some related posts:
- Should prior military service reduce a sentence?
- Prior military service as a sentencing mitigator gets a big boost from SCOTUS
- Should there be a death penalty exemption for combat veterans with PTSD?
- "Military Veterans, Culpability, and Blame"
- Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?
Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014
Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:
New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.
"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."
Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.
"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...
Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.
The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.
The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.
The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push. The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."
Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.
January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
SCOTUS unanimously rejects defense effort to limit reach of sentence enhancement in federal robbery statute
The US Supreme Court this morning handed down an impressively short unanimous opinion in Whitfield v. US, No. 13-9026 (S. Ct. Jan. 13, 2015) (available here), which swiftly rejects a bank robber's attempt to limit the reach of a provision of the statute with which he was convicted. Here is the start of the opinion by Justice Scalia for the Court, as well as a few passages that my most interest sentencing fans:
Federal law establishes enhanced penalties for anyone who “forces any person to accompany him” in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery. 18 U. S. C. §2113(e). We consider whether this provision applies when a bank robber forces someone to move with him over a short distance....
In an attempt to support his position that “accompany” should be read to mean “accompany over a substantial distance,” Whitfield observes that a forced-accompaniment conviction carries severe penalties: a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In 1934, a forced-accompaniment conviction could even be punished with death. Act of May 18, 1934, ch. 304, §3, 48 Stat. 783. The severity of these sentences, Whitfield says, militates against interpreting subsection (e) to capture forced accompaniment occurring over a small distance.
But it does not seem to us that the danger of a forced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed. Consider, for example, a hostage-taker’s movement of one of his victims a short distance to a window, where she would be exposed to police fire; or his use of the victim as a human shield as he approaches the door. And even if we thought otherwise, we would have no authority to add a limitation the statute plainly does not contain. The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that. It is simply not in accord with English usage to give “accompany” a meaning that covers only large distances.
Thursday, January 08, 2015
Is California prepared to revoke parole for any sex offender with an iffy lie-detector test?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP story with the headline "California making sex offenders take lie-detector tests." Here are the basics:
For the first time, California is making paroled sex offenders take periodic lie-detector tests in response to several high-profile cases involving parolees who raped and killed.
State officials said this week that the stepped-up effort to prevent new sex crimes will help them better gauge which offenders are most dangerous and in need of increased supervision. All sex offender parolees also are required to participate in specially-designed treatment programs. Previously, only high-risk offenders had to undergo treatment.
California is not the first state to adopt the new policies. But with more than 6,000 sex offenders on parole, officials say it is by far the largest.
I have never closely followed the debates of the reliability of lie detector tests, but it appears that California has decided that they are reliable enough to become a mandatory part of parole requirements for sex offenders. That said, I wonder if these lie-detector test will be considered reliable enough (by parole officials? by courts?) to alone provide a sufficient basis for revoking a sex offender's parole if he sometimes fails to "pass the test with flying colors"?
"Sentencing Rules and Standards: How We Decide Criminal Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Jacob Schuman. Here is the abstract:
Over the course of the past 300 years, American sentencing policy has alternated between “determinate” and “indeterminate” systems of deciding punishment. Debates over sentence determinacy have focused on three questions: Who should decide punishment? What makes punishment fair? And why should we punish wrongdoers at all?
In this Article, I ask a new, fourth, question: How should we decide punishment? I show that determinate sentencing uses rules to determine sentences, while indeterminate sentencing relies on standards. Applying this insight to federal sentencing practice, I demonstrate that district court judges “depart” or “vary” from the United States Sentencing Guidelines in order to correct the substantive and formal errors that result from rule-based decisionmaking, instead sentencing based on the § 3553(a) standard. I argue that judges should be more willing to take departures and variances in cases involving particularly large or particularly numerous sentence adjustments.
Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Intriguing Sixth Circuit procedural sentencing reversal of upward variance
A helpful reader alerted me to a thoughtful Sixth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Coppenger, No. 13-3863 (6th Cir. Jan. 7, 2015) (available here), which covers effectively a (little?) procedural problem at sentencing. Here is how it starts:
Defendant Jack Coppenger, Jr., pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mortgage fraud. Pursuant to the parties’ plea agreement, the government agreed not to recommend a sentence in excess of the applicable advisory Guidelines range, which was 78 to 97 months’ imprisonment. Nonetheless, the district court used information in presentence reports prepared for Coppenger’s co-conspirators to vary upward and sentenced Coppenger to 120 months in prison. Coppenger contends the sentence is substantively and procedurally unreasonable. He asserts two claims of error: the district court impermissibly treated coconspirators as victims; and the district court failed to provide him with notice and opportunity to respond to its intent to vary upward based on information contained in co-conspirators’ presentence reports. Because the district court abused its discretion when it failed to provide Coppenger meaningful opportunity to respond to information used to vary upward, we vacate and remand for resentencing.
Victim rights' back-story at heart of new Cassell-Dershowitz blood feud
Lots of criminal justice folks are buzzing about the extraordinary spitting match that has broken out between notable criminal law professors Paul Cassell and Alan Dershowitz. Helpfully, Jacob Gershman has this effective Wall Street Journal posting which explains the interesting criminal justice issues that got this heavyweight fight started. The piece is headlined "Behind Epstein Suit, a Tussle Over Due Process and Victims’ Rights," and here are excerpts:
The salacious allegations against Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz that surfaced in a federal lawsuit involving convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have generated international attention. Drawing less coverage is the lawsuit itself — a case with the potential to expand the rights of crime victims during federal investigations.
The lawsuit centers on a 2007 agreement the federal government made with Mr. Epstein, a Florida financier suspected of sexually abusing multiple underage girls. Under its agreement with Mr. Epstein, who had been the target of an FBI probe, federal prosecutors promised not to bring charges against him in Florida if, among other conditions, he pleaded guilty to a state felony charge of soliciting an underage prostitute. Mr. Epstein pleaded guilty to the state charge in 2008 and served about 13 months behind bars.
Two of Mr. Epstein’s alleged victims then filed suit against the U.S. government in 2008, claiming federal authorities violated their rights under a 2004 law by keeping them in the dark about the non-prosecution deal. They want a federal court to invalidate the agreement, a position fiercely contested by the government. The law in question is the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a statutory bill of rights for victims of federal crimes. Among other things, the law grants victims a “reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case.”
The case exposes tensions between the due-process rights of the accused and the rights of victims. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs, former federal judge Paul Cassell and Florida lawyer Bradley Edwards, say at stake “is whether a federal statute protecting crime victims rights can be ignored with impunity or, as we argue, whether instead real remedies exist for its violation.”
U.S. prosecutors say the government had no obligation to confer with the alleged victims. Since they never charged Mr. Epstein with a crime, they argue, the plaintiffs don’t qualify as victims under that 2004 law. And even if that right existed, the government argues, the Constitution’s due-process guarantees bar prosecutors from reneging on their agreement with Mr. Epstein.
In making their argument, prosecutors have cited a Dec. 2010 opinion issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the president and executive-branch agencies. The opinion states that the “rights provided by the CVRA are guaranteed” only after “criminal proceedings are initiated through a complaint, information, or indictment.”
In a 2011 ruling, the federal judge presiding over the case, Kenneth A. Marra, sided with the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law, writing that the CVRA “clearly contemplates pre-charge proceedings.” And in a 2013 order, rejecting a motion by the government to dismiss the case, the judge wrote that a non-prosecution arrangement may be “re-opened” if it were reached in “violation of a prosecutor’s conferral obligations under the statute.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that the government failed to meet those obligations. In court documents, they accuse the U.S. attorney’s office of concealing the agreement “to avoid a firestorm of public controversy that would have erupted if the sweetheart plea deal with a politically-connected billionaire had been revealed.”
Tuesday, January 06, 2015
Notable discussions of children as mass incarceration’s "collateral damage"
The latest issue of The Nation includes this effective piece about the generational impact of incarceration headlined "Mass Incarceration’s Collateral Damage: The Children Left Behind; When a parent is sent to prison, a child’s life is derailed, leaving schools to pick up the pieces." Here is an excerpt:
A growing body of research suggests that one of the most pernicious effects of high adult-incarceration rates can be seen in the struggles of children ... who often lose a crucial source of motivation and support with their parents behind bars....
A very small subset of children — those with abusive parents — were found to be more likely to thrive academically and socially if their parents are incarcerated. But most children declined markedly. In fact, the new research suggests that prisoners’ children may be the most enduring victims of our national incarceration craze. “Even for kids at high risk of problems, parental incarceration makes a bad situation worse,” concluded Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield in their recently published book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality.
Wildeman and Wakefield found that children with incarcerated fathers were three times more likely than peers from similar backgrounds to become homeless. They also suffered significantly higher rates of behavioral and mental-health problems, most notably aggression.
Kristin Turney, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, reached similar conclusions in a report published this past September. Turney found that children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems than the average American child, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety....
Within the last few years, however, a broad range of agencies and policy-makers have begun to frame the nation’s prison boom as a children’s issue. Last summer, the Justice Department launched a wide-reaching campaign to provide support to the children of imprisoned parents — by rethinking visitation policies and changing the protocol for arresting parents in front of children, for example. In August, the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation invited key researchers, advocates and federal officials to the White House for a conference to discuss reducing the “collateral costs” to children and communities when parents are incarcerated. The conference was part of a larger inter-agency initiative begun in 2012 to focus the attention of participating agencies, including the Department of Education, on the children of incarcerated parents. A few months later, in November, the Federal Bureau of Prisons hosted its first-ever Universal Children’s Day, an event attended by nearly 8,500 children visiting more than 4,000 federal inmates....
John Hagan, a professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University, led the White House conference with his research collaborator, Holly Foster, of Texas A&M University. Fifteen years ago, in an oft-cited paper, Hagan first suggested that the effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” result of mass incarceration. Now Hagan is seeing his hypothesis proved. More than that, as his adolescent subjects enter adulthood, the effects are compounded: “Almost no children of incarcerated mothers make it through college,” he noted. “These people are now in early adulthood, and they’re really struggling.”
I have long believed and asserted that politicians and policy advocates truly concerned about family values and children's interests should be deeply concerned about the over-use of incarceration as a punishment, especially for non-violent offenders. And I find fascinating and compelling the suggestion in this lengthy post at The Clemency Report titled "Children deserve legal standing when parents are sentenced." Here is how the potent post by Dennis Cauchon starts:
Are children entitled to legal standing when parents are sentenced in criminal cases? The current answer is “no.” The answer should be “yes.”
Today, the well-being of a defendant’s children is close to irrelevant in criminal courtrooms. Institutional indifference to children is official policy. This is the most profound legal error in the last 35 years, the mistake that made mass imprisonment possible.
Criminal courts produce millions of orphans every year using procedures that weigh only the interests of adults in the courtroom. This is a profoundly ignorant way for a bureaucracy to act. Removing a mother or father from a child’s life is a not mere “side effect”of the day’s procedure; it is an “effect,” often the most important thing that will happen that day.
Children deserve rights — legal rights, established in law — to end their mistreatment in criminal courts.
In domestic courts, the “best interest of the children” is the trump card standard that overrides almost all other adult needs in divorce and custody cases. In criminal courts, defendant’s children are treated as trash in the back row. This difference is legally shameful and morally indefensible.
January 6, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Monday, January 05, 2015
Extraordinary review of messiness of Prez Obama's clemency push
Josh Gerstein has this extraordinary Politico piece which provides a terrific (and disconcerting) review of the Obama Administration's recent clemency activities. The lengthy piece is a must-read for lots of reasons. It is headlined "Obama's drug-sentencing quagmire: Justice Department turns to ACLU, others to prepare thousands of commutation requests," and here is how it starts:
President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who were caught up in the disparities in laws governing crack and powder cocaine is lagging, burdened by vague guidelines, lack of Justice Department resources and the unusual decision to invite advocacy groups like the ACLU to help screen applications, according to lawyers close to the process.
In the year since the Justice Department encouraged inmates to apply to cut short their sentences, more than 25,000 prisoners have come forward. But when Obama announced his annual commutations last month, only eight were given. That reflects deeper problems in the government’s process for reviewing sentences and determining which ones are, indeed, overly long because of the crack-powder distinction, according to those familiar with the system.
The piece includes lots of interesting and notable comments by various unnamed lawyers discussing how the President, the Justice Department, and the Clemency Project 2014 are handling matters. Here are excerpts with some of these quotes:
With so many thousands of petitions pending, the tiny number of commutations announced during the Christmas season prompted a new round of skepticism about the administration’s capacity to ease onerous drug sentencing.
“This is paltry,” said one lawyer familiar with the process. “It is very disappointing.”
“I’d be shocked if it skyrockets to 100 before [Obama] leaves office,” another added....
[DOJ] officials encouraged the groups forming the Clemency Project to recruit and train private attorneys to prepare applications. The organizations have instituted their own screening effort to try to determine if prisoners meet the criteria and to make sure the private lawyers spend time on meritorious cases....
Some liberal-leaning lawyers and clemency advocates ... say the private consortium has taken on an outsize, quasi-official role in the process and has an inherent conflict of interest: Project organizers want to get the strongest possible applications to the Justice Department, which may mean abandoning prisoners whose cases fall into a gray area.
“It bothers me that you have a group of private citizens who have an under-the-table deal with the deputy attorney general to help him do his job and the promise is, ‘We’re going to put your guys at the front of the list,’” one lawyer involved said. “Instead of dealing with a process that’s already opaque and bureaucratic and too slow, they’ve added this additional layer that’s even more opaque and bureaucratic and too slow.”...
One benefit to the administration of its current approach of working with outside groups is that it could mute criticism from advocates wrapped up in the effort — at least as long as there seems to be a prospect of a meaningful wave of commutations. “They’ve co-opted all the people who would usually be critics,” said one lawyer close to the project. “You have that dynamic in play, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
The Clemency Project groups insist their involvement hasn’t silenced them.
Though I am not too concerned about clemency critics being co-opted through the Clemency Project, I am concerned about what will be a poor allocation of pro bono lawyering efforts if 1,500 lawyers spend months and years working on clemency applications for thousands of offenders if Prez Obama ends up granting commutations to only a few hundred prisoners. I genuinely believe that an army of 1,500 lawyers working on aggressive for months and years on federal sentencing litigation — perhaps in marijuana cases or attacking some extreme mandatory minimums through habeas actions or other means — could produce jurisprudential development that could end up helping many more than a few hundred defendants.
Previewing (and predicting) federal sentencing prospects for former Virginia Gov McDonnell
The Washington Post has this lengthy article, headlined "What to expect at former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s sentencing," providing an effective preview of a high-profile white-collar sentencing taking place in federal court tomorrow. Here are highlights:
As a federal judge on Tuesday sets the punishment for former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, he will consider legal issues as well as sweeping personal questions. U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer will look first to guidelines that call for McDonnell to receive as much as 12 years and seven months for trading the influence of his office to a smooth-talking businessman in exchange for sweetheart loans, lavish vacations and high-end merchandise.
But the judge is not bound by those recommendations. And his ultimate decision rests, in part, on intangible considerations: How serious was McDonnell’s public corruption? What penalty might deter others in the former governor’s shoes? What weight should be given to the good the former governor has done?...
rosecutors want McDonnell to spend at least 10 years and a month in prison. The former governor’s attorneys believe a sentence of community service — and no time behind bars — would be sufficient.
Both sides will make their best pitches to the judge in person beginning at 10 a.m. McDonnell may offer a personal plea, as may some of his supporters. Spencer has been given more than 440 letters that friends, family members and others wrote on the governor’s behalf, urging leniency and extolling the virtues of the onetime Republican rising star. Spencer also has reviewed filings from prosecutors, who have accused McDonnell of feeling no remorse and still seeking to blame others....
The starting point for determining the former governor’s punishment is this: The U.S. probation office — the federal agency tasked with calculating a range of appropriate penalties according to the federal sentencing guidelines — has recommended that McDonnell face between 10 years and a month to 12 years and seven months in prison. There is no parole in the federal system, and if McDonnell were to be incarcerated, he would be able to reduce his time behind bars with good behavior by only 54 days a year, at most.
Spencer is not bound by the probation office’s recommendation — it is merely a technical calculation of how the office believes federal sentencing guidelines should be applied in the case — but experts say he typically heeds its advice....
After Spencer determines the guideline range, he will weigh entirely different factors as he fashions what he considers an appropriate punishment. Among those that prosecutors and defense attorneys highlighted in McDonnell’s case: the nature and circumstances of his offenses, McDonnell’s personal history and characteristics, and the need to deter others from ending up in similar straits....
A former prosecutor and Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer, Spencer was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Known as a no-nonsense and efficient jurist, he took senior status on the bench last year, meaning he is now semi-retired. Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor who now does white collar criminal defense work, said Spencer probably will not impose a decade-long sentence, but defense attorneys’ bid for only probation is something of a “Hail Mary.”
I share the view that it is unlikely McDonnell will get either probation as he wishes or the 10 years in prison sought by the feds. As a betting man, I would put the over-under line at around three years. The nature of the crime and the defendant leads me to think the sentencing judges will be likely to impose a substantial prion term, but still something less (perhaps much less) than half a decade.
Prior related posts:
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell upcoming sentencing sets out white-collar terms of debate
UPDATE: I just discovered that Randall Eliason at his Sidebars Legal Blog has this lengthy post about the McDonnell sentencing which provides much more detailed review of the interesting guideline calculation issues that are in dispute in the case.