Friday, June 24, 2016

Helpful review of Johnson's impact a year latter, just before ACCA prisoners need to file Johnson collateral appeals

A year ago, as first reported in this post and immediate follow-ups here and here, the Supreme Court  in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  This morning's Washington Post has this effective (and well-timed) extended article, headlined "Local Small words, big consequences for possibly thousands of federal prisoners,"looking at the impact of that ruling now a year later.  I recomment the piece in full, and here are excerpts: 

Hundreds if not thousands of federal prisoners are likely to have their sentences shortened — and in some cases get immediate release — due to one of the final opinions written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia’s little-noticed opinion focused on one phrase in federal law but has created uncertainty and upheaval for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys facing a pile of prisoner requests to have their cases reviewed.

Federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms after the Supreme Court labeled 12 words in the criminal code “unconstitutionally vague” in an opinion announced by Scalia last June, eight months before his death.  The ruling eliminated a section of law that prosecutors relied on to seek stiffer penaltiesfor defendants they said were especially dangerous.  Defense attorneys had decried the wording because it was used to brand too many defendants as violent....

For defense attorneys, the court’s decision provides a new avenue to challenge lengthy sentences for prisoners who received severe penalties for nonviolent offenses, such as resisting arrest.  “It was a dumping ground,” said Amy Baron-Evans of the Sentencing Resource Counsel Project of federal public defenders.  “It ended up sweeping in crimes that no one would think of as being violent.”

Filings from inmates are piling up in judicial chambers throughout the country.  In Atlanta, one judge took the unusual step this spring of flagging the names of 110 prisoners from her district eligible to refile for shorter sentences to alert them to the deadline this month — one year from the date the Supreme Court decision was handed down.  In Richmond last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, received more than 500 filings for sentence reviews, according to the clerk’s office. In the same period last year, there were 18.  More than 350 petitions have been filed in the 8th Circuit in St. Louis since May, contributing to a record number of filings in a single month....

The language overturned by the Supreme Court in the criminal code echoes in other parts of the justice system.  Nearly identical words about career offenders appear in federal sentencing guidelines, which use a formula to give judges a recommended range of possible prison time for the defendants who come before them.

Federal public defenders and the U.S. Justice Department agree that the Supreme Court ruling negates those words in the guidelines for defendants sentenced since Scalia’s 2015 opinion.  The Supreme Court separately is being asked to settle a dispute about whether inmates punished before the 2015 opinion should have another chance at sentencing.

The Justice Department says they should not, according to the government’s court filings.  The judges who handed down those prison terms were not bound to a particular mandatory sentence and imposed what they thought were appropriate punishments that should stand, the government says.  To the public defenders, that position is at odds with the Obama administration’s advocacy for clemency. If the court rules that the decision does apply retroactively to the guidelines, another 6,000 federal inmates sentenced between 1992 and 2015 could ask to have their prison time cut, according to an estimate from the public defenders’ sentencing project.

Prosecutors say “the sky is going to fall and all of these violent people are going to be let out,” said federal public defender Paresh Patel, who is handling appeals for the Maryland office.  “People are not getting a windfall. They were wrongly sentenced as career offenders.”

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said the administration’s position is “fully consistent” with its clemency efforts.  The guidelines apply “only to individuals convicted of specific crimes of violence and are wholly distinct from grants of clemency to drug offenders who have been vetted for public safety concerns.”

Prosecutors worry about the ripple effects of Scalia’s opinion. Inmates and their lawyers argue that the court’s decision to eliminate words in one law should stick to other areas of law with parallel language. These filings raise new questions about what types of crimes meet the technical definition of a “crime of violence” and how judges assess a person’s criminal past.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, attorneys for Dustin John Higgs in May asked the 4th Circuit for permission to challenge his death sentence.  Higgs was sentenced in 2001 for ordering the murders of three young women in Beltsville. The women were shot to death on a desolate stretch of federal land near the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Higgs was convicted of using a firearm during a “crime of violence” — in this case kidnapping and murder....

Even if Higgs does not personally benefit, prosecutors say, a new interpretation in his case could upend plea agreements with others facing similar firearms counts.  The uncertainty is already changing the way prosecutors draw up and negotiate charges.

The article states that "federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms," based on the one-year statute of limitations in AEDPA for bringing 2255 collateral appeals following certain critical legal development. As the title of my post indicates, it seems clear that inmates serving ACCA sentences need to get Johnson claims filed now due to this statutory deadline. Less clear, though, is whether inmates eager to extend the reach of Johnson to the career offender guidelines or other statutes are subject to the smae deadline (and, as noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines). Also, I suppose, based on the right facts, equitable tolling arguments could be made (though probably would face an uphill battle) for any inmates who missed the AEDPA deadline for bringing Johnson claims in various settings.

Long story short, as I forecasted in some of the posts below right after the Johnson ruling last year, it seems all but certain that many thousands of inmates (and thousands of lawyers) are going to be having Johnson dreams or nightmares for many years to come.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 24, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

California legislators introduce bill seeking to mandate that any future Brock Turners face three-year minimum prison terms

As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "California lawmakers move to change sentencing law following Stanford case," the common legislative reaction by policy-makers to concerns about an unduly lenient sentence is in progress in the wake of the high-profile sexual assault sentencing of Brock Turner. Here are the basics:

Seizing on a nationwide furor over the six-month jail term handed to a former Stanford University swimmer following his conviction for sexual assault on an unconscious woman, California lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation to close a loophole that allowed the sentence. The bill, known as AB 2888, marks the latest response to the sentence given to 20-year-old Brock Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in June, which was widely condemned as too lenient. Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in state prison.

"Like many people across the nation, I was deeply disturbed by the sentence in the Brock Turner case," Assemblyman Bill Dodd, one of two California state legislators who introduced the bill, said in a written statement. "Our bill will help ensure that such lax sentencing doesn't happen again."

Turner was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person in the January 2015 attack. Under California law, those charges are not considered rape because they did not involve penile penetration. According to the lawmakers, current California law calls for a mandatory prison term in cases of rape or sexual assault where force is used, but not when the victim is unconscious or severely intoxicated and thus unable to resist.

The new legislation, which was introduced in the state assembly on Monday, would eliminate this discretion of a judge to sentence defendants convicted of such crimes to probation, said Ben Golombek, a spokesman for Assemblyman Evan Low, a co-author of the bill. Golombek said that the effect of the proposed new law, which must still be approved by both houses of the legislature and signed by Governor Jerry Brown, is that Turner would have faced a minimum of three years behind bars.

Prior related posts:

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Another ACCA win for federal defendants in Mathis

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its last sentencing case this Term, and Mathis v. United States, No. 15–6092 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (available here), is another win for federal criminal defendants.  Here is the start of the Mathis opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA or Act), 18 U. S. C. §924(e), imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” including “burglary, arson, or extortion.”  To determine whether a past conviction is for one of those offenses, courts compare the elements of the crime of conviction with the elements of the “generic” version of the listed offense — i.e., the offense as commonly understood.  For more than 25 years, our decisions have held that the prior crime qualifies as an ACCA predicate if, but only if, its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense. The question in this case is whether ACCA makes an exception to that rule when a defendant is convicted under a statute that lists multiple, alternative means of satisfying one (or more) of its elements. We decline to find such an exception.

Justice Kennedy issued a concurring opinion, and so did Justice Thomas. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued a dissenting opinion. And Justice Alito issued his own dissenting opinion.

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Anyone interested in making bold predictions on the last four criminal cases still to be decided by SCOTUS this Term?

Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this helpful new post reviewing the final eight cases still to be resolved by the eight Justices before they take their summer vacations.  Some of these opinions will be handed down tomorrow and the others are likely to be released early next week.  Notably, four of the remaining eight are criminal cases (and I am leaving out of this accounting the big immigration case).  Here are Amy's review of the four criminal cases left:

Voisine v. United States (argued February 29, 2016). Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, the other petitioner in this case, both pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assaults on their respective domestic partners. Several years later, each man was charged with violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.  Voisine and Armstrong contend their state convictions (which the First Circuit affirmed) do not automatically qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence because the state-law provisions can be violated by conduct that is merely reckless, rather than intentional.

Birchfield v. North Dakota (argued April 20, 2016).  Twelve states and the National Park Service impose criminal penalties on suspected drunk drivers who refuse to submit to testing to measure their blood-alcohol levels. The question before the Court is whether those penalties violate the Fourth Amendment, which only allows police to “search” someone if they have a warrant or one of a handful of exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. Three drivers from North Dakota and Minnesota argue that neither of those conditions is met, and so the laws must fall.   The North Dakota and Minnesota Supreme Courts ruled in favor of the states, and now the Justices will weigh in.

Mathis v. United States (argued April 26, 2016).  After having been convicted of several burglaries in Iowa, Richard Mathis was later prosecuted by the federal government for being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act based on his burglary convictions.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed his conviction.  The question before the Court is how to determine whether state convictions like Mathis’s qualify for federal mandatory minimum sentences and for removal under immigration law.

McDonnell v. United States (argued April 27, 2016).  Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is challenging his convictions for violating federal laws that make it a felony to agree to take “official action” in exchange for money, campaign contributions, or anything else of value. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, and so the Justices agreed to weigh in.  He argues that merely referring someone to an independent decision maker – in his case, in an effort to help promote a Virginia businessman’s nutritional supplement – doesn’t constitute the kind of “official action” that the statute bars.

I think it is possible that any of these cases could turn into a blockbuster, and Birchfield and McDonnell arguably require the Justices to do some "big" jurisprudential work to resolve the issues before them. Narrow/technical rulings seem more likely in Voisine and Mathis, though the former may get some extra attention in light of the on-going political discussions and sparring over gun control following the Orlando shootings and the latter seems sure to add yet another chapter to the lengthy and complicated ACCA jurisprudence.

As we await these final rulings (and especially because all are sure to be eclipsed in the mainstream media by the abortion, affirmative action and immigration cases also on tap), I would be eager to hear from readers about what they are expecting or even hoping for as the SCOTUS Term winds down.

June 22, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ninth Circuit discusses timing and tolling for successor 2255 petitions making Johnson claims

Hard-core habeas fans know that all sorts of procedural issues can potentially trip up federal defendants serving Armed Career Criminal Act sentences from being able to bring claims collaterally attacking their sentences based on Johnson v. US.  Some of the procedural trip-wires, and potential work-arounds, are discussed today by a Ninth Circuit panel in Orona v. US, No. 16-70568 (9th Cir. June 22, 2016) (available here).

I am not sure any of the particulars discussed in Orona are that noteworthy, but I thought the case merited a blog mention because this week is, arguably, the last week in which defendants with long-final sentences can bring timely collateral attacks based on Johnson.

June 22, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"Society would benefit from rewarding attorneys for identifying the wrongly and unnecessarily imprisoned"

Regulation-summer-16-cover_0The title of this post is the subheading of this great new article in the latest issue of Regulation published by the Cato Institute. The article, authored Christopher Robertson and Jamie Cox Robertson, carries the main title of "Reducing Wasteful Incarcerations," and here are excerpts from the start and heart of the article:

Prisons are essential to a safe and civil society.  Prisons are also costly for the taxpayers whose government houses, feeds, medicates, and supervises millions of people underlock and key.  This expense is compounded by errors in the U.S. legal system that produces both false guilty verdicts and overly harsh penalties.  It’s time for the United States to take a closer look at these unnecessary incarcerations.  By working to release prisoners who don’t belong in prison, we can lower the costs of the prison system — not to mention restore freedom to people who are wrongly being deprived of it.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify which prisoners are wrongly incarcerated, and itwould take an enormous investment of professional expertise and money to produce that information.  However, we could make valuable progress on this issue by offering appropriate incentives for attorneys to identify some of these wasteful incarcerations, thus saving public money and serving the ends of liberty....

Under current law, most prisoners probably deserve to be there, and there is no simple algorithm for identifying which ones don’t.  The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and that requires professional skills and the investment of both time and money.  Currently, to do this sorting, we largely depend on charity, luck, and pluck, which is no way to run a multibillion dollar government enterprise.

A better approach would be for the government to increase funding for public defenders so they can do more post-conviction litigation.  Some public defenders already have in-house innocence projects.  Still, funding for public defenders’ offices is notoriously scarce, the salaries offered for these cases often fail to attract the best attorneys needed to undertake such complex work, and the overworked offices naturally triage in favor of new cases.

Of course, we could spend more on public defenders.  But as a centrally planned solution, it’s hard to assessthe optimal level of investment.  Prior reform efforts suggest that additional spending on public defenders may also be politically infeasible because it is often viewed as providing a service for criminals.

Instead, governmentsshould consider using a contingent-fee system for post-conviction counsel.  Attorneys would only receive this fee if they successfully show that a prisoner’s continued incarceration is wrongful.  The fee could be based on a simple proportion of the estimated amount the government would save by stopping the incarceration — perhaps 50% of those costs.  Or, the system could be set up like the statutory fee paid to civil rights attorneys, taking into account a reasonable hourly rate multiplied by a factor to recognize the low chances of prevailing.  In the False Claims Act, passed during the Civil War to root out fraud by government contractors, and the more recent whistle blower statute that the Internal Revenue Service uses to expose tax evaders,we have precedents for paying financial rewardsthat align the interests of knowledgeable individuals and the government.

The advantage of a contingent fee is that it gives attorneys an incentive to search for worthy cases and bring them to prosecutors and the courts, which is exactly what a cost-conscious government needs.  Unlike desperate and unskilled prisoners representing themselves, attorneys would have no incentive to clog the courts with frivolous claims for post-conviction relief.  Any such claim would require the investment of time and money without promise of return.  Instead, we should expect a small industry of specialist attorneys to develop, at first focusing on the low-hanging fruit, but then becoming more specialized to identify entire categories of cases where review is most promising.

June 21, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Open letter from large group of reform advocates urges Prez Obama to "accelerate the process" for granting clemency

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Experts warn White House that time is running out for clemency initiative," an impressive group signed on to this open letter to Prez Obama discussing his clemency activities.  Here are excerpts from the USA Today reporting providing some pf the leteer's context and content:

Thousands of federal inmates could be eligible to have their sentences reduced under the Obama administration's initiative to free non-violent offenders from prison, but experts are warning the White House that time is running out for the president to take action.

A record-setting number of clemency petitions, lack of resources and a confusion over eligibility have hampered President Obama's plan to use his constitutional pardon power to shorten sentences, particularly for low-level drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.  If those inmates are going to have any hope, President Obama needs to personally intervene in the process, a group of advocates, law professors and attorneys said in a letter to the president Tuesday.

"The initiative has been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies that have kept petitions that meet all of your stated criteria from reaching your desk," the letter said.  "We are concerned that as your days in office diminish, the clemency initiative is moving too slowly to meet the goals you set when you announced it in 2014."

The letter was signed by 41 people, led by Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and including and law professors from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Berkeley, Columbia, Northwestern, New York University and others. Also notable: former White House special adviser Van Jones and former U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner.

In response, the White House said Obama "has demonstrated a commitment to the commutations process not seen by any other president in the modern era."  He's issued more commutations than the past seven presidents combined, written personal letters to clemency recipients and met with recipients to urge society to give them second chances.

"As we have said, the president will continue to issue additional commutations throughout the remainder of his time in office," said Assistant White House Press Secretary Brandi Hoffine.  "The clemency process alone, however, will not address the vast injustices in the criminal justice system resulting from years of unduly harsh and outdated sentencing policies."

Obama has stepped up the pace of commutations in his last year in office, no longer waiting until the end of the year to announce clemency decisions. Obama granted 61 commutations in March, 58 in May and 42 this month — part of what White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said was a deliberate attempt to grant clemency on a more regular basis. In all, Obama has commuted the sentences of 348 people, more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.  (He's also granted just 70 pardons, fewer than any full-term president since 1800.)

But according to the Office of Pardon Attorney, 11,861 commutation petitions were still pending as of June 6, fueled largely by the Judtice Department's call for more applications from volunteer defense attorneys in 2014. And this isn't the first time there have been warnings of a backlog in the process.  A year ago, former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told defense lawyers that "the clock is running," and that petitions weren't coming in quickly enough.  There were questions about the eligibility criteria, and many cases required a complete re-examination of court and prison records.  Then in January, Leff resigned, citing a lack of resources and interference from Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates that prevented her recommendations from reaching the president's desk.

I had the honor of being asked to sign on to this open letter, and I agree with nearly all of its sentiments.  But, as I stressed in this post a few months ago, I have been clamoring for clemency reform since Prez Obama's first day on the job, and I remain deeply disappointed and troubled that there seems to have been no serious interest or commitment to any kind of structural/institutional reform in this space.  As a result, I did not feel I could comfortable sign this letter because it includes a sentence stating that, in th clemency arena, the signers "believe [Prez Obama's] leadership will bring lasting change to the country and set the table for further reforms in future administrations."

I certainly do not want to unduly criticize Prez Obama's (still very important) efforts in this arena, and I am especially pleased to see this open letter getting press attention.  But, unless Prez Obama does something more than just grant a few hundred more commutations (which is what I am expecting to see in the coming months), I am still going to view his Presidency in terms of a unique missed opportunity to create a criminal justice reform legacy in this historically and constitutionally important arena.

June 21, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 20, 2016

A couple of SCOTUS wins for prosecution in procedural cases

There really are no more big sentencing cases pending on the SCOTUS docket, but the Supreme Court is still resolving a number of cases dealing with a number of criminal justice issues.  Today, two such cases were handed down, and here are the basics (with links) via How Appealing:

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court in Taylor v. United States, No. 14-6166. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion.... 

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court in Utah v. Strieff, No. 14-1373. Justice Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined in part. And Justice Kagan issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined. 

For some early commentary, here are two posts from Crime & Consequences on these cases:

I expect C&C and SCOTUSblog and others will have more commentary on these cases before too long, though neither appear to blockbusters. And because I am on the road most of the rest of the day, I hope commentors will flag anything in these opinions that ought to be of special interest to sentencing fans.

June 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

GVRs based on Foster generates opinions, including dissent from Justices Alito and Thomas

Last month, as reported here, the Supreme Court's reversed a conviction in Georgia capital case, Foster v. Chapman, because the Court had a "firm conviction" juror strikes in the case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent." Today, at the end of this order list, the Court now has relied on Foster to issue this order in a few cases:

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Supreme Court of Mississippi for further consideration in light of Foster v. Chatman, 578 U. S. ___ (2016).

Justice Ginsburg explains this order via a concurrence in one of the cases, while Justice Alito joined by Justice Thomas cries foul.  Here is how Justice Alito starts his dissent on one of these cases:

This Court often “GVRs” a case—that is, grants the petition for a writ of certiorari, vacates the decision below, and remands for reconsideration by the lower court—when we believe that the lower court should give further thought to its decision in light of an opinion of this Court that (1) came after the decision under review and (2) changed or clarified the governing legal principles in a way that could possibly alter the decision of the lower court. In this case and two others, Williams v. Louisiana, No. 14–9409 and Floyd v. Alabama, No. 15–7553, the Court misuses the GVR vehicle. The Court GVRs these petitions in light of our decision in Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), which held, based on all the circumstances in that case, that a state prosecutor violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), by striking potential jurors based on race. Our decision in Foster postdated the decision of the Supreme Court of Mississippi in the present case, but Foster did not change or clarify the Batson rule in any way. Accordingly, there is no ground for a GVR in light of Foster.

June 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Alabama appeals court says, in essense, "roll tide" to its capital sentencing process

78f550493aece6b4d5c83d32617bce5eAs reported in this post from a few months ago, a county judge had declared Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme unconstitutional because it allows judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and instead impose the death penalty.  But, as reported by this local article, late last week an Alabama appeals court took a different view.  Here are the basics:

An Alabama appeals court on Friday ordered a Jefferson County judge to vacate her rulings earlier this year that declared the state's capital punishment sentencing scheme unconstitutional. In its order the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals says the state's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional and told Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tracie Todd to vacate her March 3 order in the pending capital murder cases of four men that says otherwise.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office had filed four petitions for a writ of mandamus asking the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to direct Todd to vacate her orders and allow the state to decide whether to seek imposition of the death penalty in those cases if it decides.

The cases involve Kenneth Eugene Billups, Stanley Brent Chapman, Terrell Corey McMullin, and Benjamin Todd Acton who were all indicted for various counts of capital murder. Chapman and McMullin are charged in the same case and the others in separate cases. Before their trials, the men each filed a motion to bar imposition of the death penalty in their cases and to hold Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme unconstitutional based on the United States Supreme Court's decision in January declaring Florida's death sentencing system unconstitutional....

Todd agreed and declared the capital murder sentencing law unconstitutional in a 28-page order. "The Alabama capital sentencing scheme fails to provide special procedural safeguards to minimize the obvious influence of partisan politics or the potential for unlawful bias in the judiciary," Todd stated in her ruling. "As a result, the death penalty in Alabama is being imposed in a "wholly arbitrary and capricious" manner."

The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, said Friday that the state's capital sentencing law is constitutional. "Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme is constitutional under (U.S. Supreme Court rulings) Apprendi, Ring, and Hurst, and the circuit court (Todd) erred in holding otherwise and prohibiting the State from seeking the death penalty in capital-murder prosecutions," the appeals court opinion on Friday states.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office established the prerequisites for the appeals court to issue an order to Todd telling her to vacate her opinion, the appeals court stated in its order. "Therefore, the circuit court (Todd) is directed to set aside its order holding Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme unconstitutional and to allow the State to seek the death penalty in capital-murder prosecutions if it chooses to do so.

The appeals court ruled that under Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme a capital murder defendant "is not eligible for the death penalty unless the jury unanimously finds beyond a reasonable doubt, either during the guilt phase or during the penalty phase of the trial, that at least one of the aggravating circumstances ... exists."

The court noted that Florida's law, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January as unconstitutional, was conditioned on a first-degree-murder defendant's eligibility for the death penalty based on a finding by the trial judge, rather than the jury, that an aggravating circumstance existed. The appeals court also criticized the fact that the Attorney General was not given a the required notice that a state law was being challenged as unconstitutional and that Todd then didn't allow an assistant AG to speak at the hearing she held before making her ruling. Todd also had pre-written her ruling before the hearing, the court stated.

Judges Mike Joiner and Liles Burke concurred with the majority although they differed on some points in separate opinions. Both Joiner and Burke criticized Todd's order. Todd's order "contains sparse analysis on the application of Hurst to Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme," Burke wrote. "The majority of the order is devoted to the trial court's opinions regarding partisan politics, the effects of an elected judiciary, court funding, and the propriety of the death penalty in general," Burke states. "Additionally, the trial court extensively cites secondary sources, including materials from "Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty" as well as from the Web site of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization whose attorneys are representing the defendants in this very proceeding." "In reviewing the materials that were filed with this Court, I find no mention of these issues," Burke writes. "Thus, I question whether the trial court's (Todd's) ultimate conclusion is based on its analysis of Hurst or on the trial judge's personal opinions regarding Alabama's death penalty."

Alabama's attorney general reacted to the ruling early Friday night. "Today's decision by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals is the first case to affirm under Hurst that Alabama's capital sentencing is constitutional," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange stated in a Friday evening press release. "The Appeals Court vacated the Jefferson County Court's March order and thereby held that Alabama can continue to seek the death penalty in capital murder prosecutions."

It's unclear, however, how Friday's ruling might affect recent orders by the U.S. Supreme Court telling the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider the appeals of three Alabama death row inmates in light of the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year striking down Florida's capital punishment scheme.

The full 58-pages of opinions from the Alabama Court of Appeals can be accessed at this link.

Some prior related posts:

June 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Making the case that Congress should, at the very least, make the Fair Sentencing Act fully retroactive

Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), has this notable new Huffington Post commentary headlined "The Least Congress Can Do on Criminal Justice Reform." Here are extended excerpts:

Five and a half years ago, I wrote an op-ed in this space in which I urged Congress to apply retroactively the recently passed Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA).  The FSA reduced the indefensible disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1.  Every member of the U.S. Senate, including Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), supported the FSA because they recognized that there was simply no scientific or public safety rationale for the disparity and yet ample evidence of its racially discriminatory effect.  Yet five and a half years later, Congress still has not approved FSA retroactivity.

There are approximately 4,900 individuals still serving the crack cocaine sentences Congress repudiated when it passed the FSA.  They are the people whose cases we used to illustrate why the law needed to change, yet they did not benefit.  After the FSA passed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission fixed all of the non-mandatory minimum crack sentences by lowering its guidelines consistent with the new law.  But the Commission only has authority to changes its guidelines, not mandatory minimum punishments set by Congress and found in statutes.

Today, legislation to make the FSA retroactive is included in a broader sentencing reform bill, which was introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and is pending in the Senate....  [T]he U.S. Sentencing Commission, at FAMM’s urging and with FAMM’s support, has done all it can to reduce drug sentences and make those reductions retroactive for tens of thousands of federal prisoners.  Notably, those who received retroactive relief from the Commission have reoffended at a lower rate than those who served their full sentences.

We recognize that bipartisan consensus and compromise are essential to passing criminal justice reform through the Congress. Because of the hard work of key senators and outside advocates from across the ideological spectrum, we believe that Senator Grassley’s bill would receive more than the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and would probably receive closer to 70 votes on final passage.  But in an election year, especially a presidential election year, consensus is not enough. The bar is much higher.  Unanimity, not broad consensus, is required. Without unanimity, any reform bills will require floor time and will be subject to hostile amendments that could significantly weaken them.

Unanimity is lacking today because of a number of factors.  A couple of vocal but mistaken members of Congress insist that any drug sentencing reform will endanger the public, an election-year fearmongering tactic that has no basis in fact. There is also strong disagreement about whether to include minimum criminal intent requirements (“mens rea”) in any final reform bill.  House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) support broad mens rea protection; the White House and most Democrats strongly oppose it.  The congressional calendar presents an equally daunting challenge.  We are in June of an election year.  The Senate only plans to be in session for roughly 40 days between now and the November election....

For 4,900 people serving sentences Congress itself deemed unfair, members of the Senate and House need not wait a day longer. If prospects for passing a larger package of criminal justice reforms do not dramatically improve in the coming days, Congress should at least pass narrow legislation making the FSA retroactive.  Those serving discredited, excessive sentences for crack offenses should not be forced to wait any longer for justice.  The Sentencing Commission’s evidence suggests that giving retroactive relief to those serving excessive crack sentences does not harm public safety. To the contrary, making the FSA retroactive would save lives, money, and right a terrible wrong. That is a legacy both parties can be proud to share with their voters this Fall.

June 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Delaware Supreme Court struggles to tame the post-Hurst hydra

Download (1)As regular readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to be multi-headed, snake-like litigation developing in various courts as judges sort ought what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases. This local article reports on the Delaware Supreme Court arguments yesterday trying to sort out the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in the wake of Hurst.  Here are excerpts:

After two sides argued their cases Wednesday morning, justices on Delaware’s highest court departed to consider the constitutionality of the most severe punishment of all – death.

The Delaware Supreme Court is weighing the merits of a judge’s role in capital punishment sentencing and how it relates to the right to a jury trial. “We understand how important this is (to all you),” said Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. before exiting the packed courtroom with his four Supreme Court colleagues.

The issue arose after the U.S. Supreme Court determined in January that Florida’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional and that “the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” After the ruling, all death penalty trials in Delaware were stopped until more clarity was brought to the state’s process and how it relates to the constitution.

According to the Supreme Court in an order, there are over two dozen capital cases pending in Superior Court, four scheduled for trial, in less than 120 days.

Questions to the court were raised in the currently pending murder case of Benjamin Rauf. On Wednesday, attorneys presented their beliefs before the court in a scheduled 60-minute session, at times engaging in question and answer discussions with the justices.

Since a jury decides whether a case is death penalty eligible in Delaware, the state maintains that constitutional requirements are currently met. Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg argued for the state on Wednesday. Mr. Lugg said Delaware’s sentencing scheme, which was revised in 2002 in response to a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling, meets all of the elements outlined by the Supreme Court in the Florida decision, according to the Associated Press. “The fundamental right to a jury is provided by the Delaware statute,” he said....

In Delaware, judges have the final say on whether a death sentence is ordered; a jury must find at least one statutory aggravating factor unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death penalty eligible. In Florida, judges had the responsibility to find any “aggravating factors” that qualify it for possible capital punishment sentencing.

Assistant Public Defender Santino Ceccotti argued for the appellant. “The Sixth Amendment requires not a judge, but a jury, to find each fact,” he said.

Prior related post:

June 16, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Split Second Circuit panel reverses (on procedural grounds, sort of) 60-year sentence for production and possession of child porn

A few helpful readers helped make sure I did not fail to note the interesting split Second Circuit panel decision handed down yesterday in US v. Brown, No. 13‐1706 (2d Cir. June 14, 2016) (available here).  Here area key passages from the majority opinion authored by Judge Pooler explaining its (procedural?) basis for reversal of a 60-year prison term (with most cites omitted) for the production of child pornography:

At sentencing, the district court noted “the trauma to these three children,” the fact that “three children” would have to “worry for the rest of their li[v]e[s]” about the photographs, and that Brown “destroyed the lives of three specific children.” App’x at 100‐01.  The district court’s explanation suggests that the 2 individual harm suffered by each of Brown’s three victims played a critical role in the district court’s decision to impose three consecutive 20‐year sentences.  But the sentencing transcript also suggests that the district court may have misunderstood the nature of that harm as to Brown’s third victim.  Three times the court emphasized the mental anguish that “three specific children” would suffer as a result of Brown’s abuse. App’x at 100‐01. Brown’s third victim, however, has “no knowledge of having been victimized by Brown.” PSR ¶ 35. Her mother declined to submit a victim impact statement specifically because her daughter “was unaware of the abuse” and had experienced “no negative impact.” PSR ¶ 51.  To be sure, the district court was entitled to punish Brown for that abuse regardless of whether the victim was aware of it.  But given the district court’s repeated emphasis on the fact that Brown had destroyed the lives of “three specific children,” we conclude that it is appropriate to remand for resentencing to ensure that the sentence is not based on a clearly erroneous understanding of the facts.

It is possible that, on remand, the district court will reimpose the same 60‐year sentence that it imposed at the original sentencing. Although we express no definitive view on the substantive reasonableness of that sentence at this time, we respectfully suggest that the district court consider whether an effective life sentence is warranted in this case. We understand and emphatically endorse the need to condemn Brown’s crimes in the strongest of terms.

But the Supreme Court has recognized that “defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers.” Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 69 (2010)....

The sentencing transcript suggests that the district court may have seen no moral difference between Brown and a defendant who murders or violently rapes children, stating that Brown’s crime was “as serious a crime as federal judges confront,” App’x at 101, that Brown was “the worst kind of dangerous sex offender,” App’x at 102, and that he was “exactly like” sex offenders who rape and torture children, App’x at 100.  Punishing Brown as harshly as a murderer arguably frustrates the goal of marginal deterrence, “that is, that the harshest sentences should be reserved for the most culpable behavior.”...

Finally, to the extent that the district court believed it necessary to incapacitate Brown for the rest of his life because of the danger he poses to the public, we note that defendants such as Brown are generally less likely to reoffend as they get older.

Judge Droney authored a lengthy dissent, which gets started this way:

The majority simply disagrees with the length of the imprisonment imposed upon the defendant by the district court, yet it cloaks that disagreement as procedural error.    There was no procedural error, and the sentence was well within the discretion of the district court.  It was also appropriate.  The defendant sexually abused at least three very young girls, recorded that abuse, installed secret cameras in public areas where children changed clothes, and possessed over 25,000 images of child pornography on his computers, including many scenes of bestiality and sadistic treatment.    No doubt this was a lengthy sentence, but it was warranted.   

I dissent.  The district judge committed no error whatsoever— procedural or substantive. 

June 15, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Split en banc Ninth Circuit tries its level best to sort through what Freeman means for crack guideline retroactivity eligibility

This Courthouse News Service article, headlined "Ninth Circuit Tackles Sentencing Disparities," does a nice job explaining the context and particulars of the ruling on a Ninth Circuit en banc court yesterday in US v. Davis, No. 13-301335 (9th Cir. June 13, 2016) (available here). Here are snippets from the press reporting:

Davis pleaded guilty to distributing at least 170.5 grams of crack cocaine in 2005. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, a George W. Bush appointee, sentenced Davis on the higher end of the 188- to 235-month federal guidelines range a year later.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity ratios between crack and powder cocaine down to 18-to-1. The U.S. Sentencing Commission passed an amendment the following year that would allow more than 12,000 drug offenders — 85 percent of whom were black — to apply for retroactive relief. But prosecutors claimed that Davis waived his right to contest his sentence when he signed his plea agreement back in 2005.

After losing two rounds of appeals, Davis notched a small courtroom victory that may help hundreds who received disproportionate sentences. In addressing Davis's case, the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals tried to settle a controversy that has raged since the Supreme Court's uncertain conclusion five years ago in Freeman v. United States, which did not clearly define whether defendants could be eligible for retroactively reduced sentences if they pleaded guilty under guidelines that were subsequently reduced.

Although five justices agreed that the appellant in that case should receive reconsideration of his sentence, only four concurred on the lead opinion. Four judges dissented, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a special concurrence. This left lower courts to puzzle over whether Sotomayor had broken the tie. "To say that Freeman divided the court would be an understatement," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Paez wrote for a divided 11-judge panel in Monday's majority opinion. "Not only did the plurality and dissenting opinions take opposite positions, but both also strongly criticized Justice Sotomayor's concurrence."...

Davis has received a fresh opportunity to reduce his sentence, but this does not guarantee that the district judge will grant him relief. Jones Day attorney Nathaniel Garrett, who represents Davis, said in a phone interview that his client's recommended sentence under the federal guidelines should drop dramatically when it returns to the lower court. Garrett noted sentencing guidelines without the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity would range between 78 and 97 months in prison, and Davis already has served 143 months behind bars.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission noted two years ago that at least 71 applications for sentence reductions have been denied because of plea agreements like the one Davis signed, but Garrett believes his client's case would open the way for others to find relief. "What we don't know is how many individuals are in prison who haven't applied because the courts told them that they can't," he said.

Nancy Talner, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington state affiliate, said in a phone interview that the opinion underscores "how unfair the old crack-cocaine sentencing was."...

In a concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen agreed that Davis deserved the opportunity to reduce his sentence, but quibbled about how courts should interpret plurality decisions with no clear victors. The majority opinion leaves the possibility open to take dissenting opinions into account, but Christen thought that this could sow more confusion.

"This is not to say that dissents serve no purpose," Christen wrote. "They can and should be read to provide context and a deeper understanding of the court's decisions, but they do not inform our analysis of what binding rule, if any, emerges from a fractured decision."

Dissenting Judge Carlos Bea would have rejected Davis's effort entirely. "The district court correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction to resentence Davis, and the panel should affirm on that basis," he wrote.

Defense attorney Garrett predicted, however, that the majority's "reasoned and thoughtful and thorough" opinion would serve as a guide for other circuit judges who have struggled to interpret the Supreme Court's plurality decisions.

June 14, 2016 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 13, 2016

"Taking Dignity Seriously: Excavating the Backdrop of the Eighth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Meghan Ryan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The U.S. punishment system is in turmoil.  We have a historically unprecedented number of offenders in prison, and our prisoners are serving longer sentences than in any other country. States are surreptitiously experimenting with formulas for lethal injection cocktails, and some prisoners are suffering from botched executions.  Despite this tumult, the Eighth Amendment of our Constitution does place limits on the punishments that may be imposed and how they may be implemented.  The difficulty, though, is that the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is a bit of a mess.

The Court has been consistent in stating that a focus on offender dignity is at the core of the Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, but there has been virtually no analysis of what this dignity requirement means.  This Article takes the first foray into this unexplored landscape and finds that the Constitution demands that the individuality of offenders be considered in imposing and carrying out sentences. While this appears to be a simple concept, it raises significant concerns about several modern-day sentencing practices.  Punishments rooted in pure utilitarianism, by neglecting the importance of the individual offender, run afoul of this dignity demand.  This sheds doubt on the propriety of some judges’ assertions that defendants’ freestanding innocence claims cannot stand because policy considerations like finality are of paramount importance; an individual offender cannot be ignored purely for the sake of societal goals.

For the same reason, the importance of individual dignity should lead us to question statutes supporting only utilitarian aims of punishment.  While this raises questions about the constitutionality of pure deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation, these purposes of punishment may be reconceptualized to account for the individual offender.  For example, rehabilitation could be reformulated to consider not only the offender’s effects on society when he is returned to the community but also whether the offender’s character has been reformed.  Finally, the importance of Eighth Amendment dignity raises questions about the constitutionality of mandatorily imposed punishments, which overlook the importance of individualization in sentencing. If we take seriously the dignity core of the Eighth Amendment, then many of these practices must be reconsidered.

June 13, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Intriguing Ninth Circuit ruling about restitution and forfeiture and the Excessive Fines Clause

The Ninth Circuit handed down an interesting new opinion dealing with various challenges to various financial sanctions in US v. Beecroft, No. 12-10175 (9th Cir. June 13, 2016) (available here). Here are snippets from the start and heart of the extended ruling:

Following her convictions for participating in an extensive mortgage-fraud conspiracy, a defendant was ordered to pay more than $2 million in restitution and to forfeit more than $100 million. We must decide whether either amount was erroneously calculated or unconstitutionally excessive....

As noted, Beecroft has not demonstrated error in the district court’s calculation of the amount of losses suffered by the banks injured by Beecroft’s actions. Without error in the loss calculation, Beecroft cannot show that requiring her to pay that amount back to the victims was somehow excessive or grossly disproportional to her crimes, which caused the loss in the first place. And we reiterate that Beecroft was not ordered to pay anything approaching the full amount of the banks’ losses. Uncontroverted evidence was presented to the district court showing that the scheme in which Beecroft participated caused losses in excess of $50 million; requiring her to pay slightly more than $2 million of that back is not an unconstitutional and excessive punishment....

The $107 million Beecroft was ordered to forfeit for the conspiracy (Count 1) stands apart. As with the other counts of conviction, for Count 1 Beecroft could be fined no more than $1 million (with a Guidelines range beginning as low as $20,000). In other words, for Count 1, Beecroft was ordered to forfeit a sum more than 100 times greater than the maximum fine allowable and more than 5,000 times greater than the lower-end of the Guidelines range. Even accounting for the fact that Beecroft faced potentially significant prison time as well, see Mackby, 339 F.3d at 1018, this is a tremendous disconnect between the forfeiture amount and Beecroft’s legally available fine. Indeed, such a disconnect stands out even among forfeiture orders which have previously been held grossly disproportional....

The government cites no case upholding a forfeiture order with a disparity similar to the one here, and it has not attempted to argue that the $107 million otherwise corresponds to injuries sustained by the government or the banks....

We have little doubt that the Eighth Amendment allows Beecroft to be ordered to forfeit a substantial sum of money for her participation in such an extensive and damaging conspiracy. But difficulty remains with the exceptional amount of forfeiture the court did impose. Without even an argument supporting the propriety of the $107 million forfeiture, we have no choice but to conclude that an order which so vastly outpaces the otherwise available penalties for Beecroft’s criminal activity runs afoul of the Excessive Fines Clause. Even on plain-error review, we must vacate the forfeiture order with respect to Count 1 and remand to the district court for reconsideration of that amount in light of the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.

June 13, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Two SCOTUS reslists concerning Johnson's application to the career-offender guideline worth keeping an eye on

This week's entry in the always amusing and informative Relist Watch SCOTUSblog posting by John Elwood has flagged two cases of note for sentencing fans, especially for those especially interested in the continued fall-out from the Supreme Court's big Johnson vagueness ruling last year.  I will reprint, with all the humor and links, Elwood's coverage of these cases:

Our next new relist is Jones v. United States, 15-8629. No, not that one.  Not that one either.  Or that.  Now you’re trying my patience.  Can we just agree it’s a pretty common case caption?  And indeed, this case has been up to the Court once before.  The petitioner in Jones was sentenced to about twenty-one years’ imprisonment under the residual clause of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines’ career-offender provision.  During its last trip to One First Street, the Court granted cert., vacated the judgment, and remanded (“GVR”) in light of Johnson v. United States, which declared an identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) unconstitutionally vague and therefore void.  On remand, the Third Circuit determined that Johnson was inapplicable because Jones’s career-offender designation relied not on the residual clause, but on its “Application Note,” which specifically lists robbery as a predicate offense.  During Jones’s stay in the Third Circuit, the Court held in Welch v. United States that Johnson announced a new substantive constitutional rule that applies retroactively to ACCA cases on collateral review.  Jones poses three questions: (1) whether Johnson applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging the residual clause of the Guidelines’ career-offender provision; (2) whether Johnson applies to and invalidates the Guidelines’ residual clause; and (3) whether Jones’s robbery conviction qualifies as a “crime of violence” under the residual clause based on the clause’s Application Note, “even though [the Note] does not interpret and conflicts with the text of the guideline.”

Jones, unsurprisingly, is not one of a kind: It has a doppelganger, Beckles v. United States, 15-8544, which is nearly identical right down to the GVR and raises the same three questions (except that Beckles’s third question presented involves possession of a sawed-off shotgun). Both the Jones and Beckles petitions assert urgency because of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s one-year bar: “Prompt resolution of these issues is required because the one-year statute of limitations governing collateral Johnson claims will expire on June 26, 2016,” the petitioners say, adding that “a per curiam opinion on these issues without full briefing or oral argument may be appropriate.” The government opposes cert. because, among other things, the Sentencing Commission has adopted a Guidelines amendment, likely taking effect on August 1, 2016, that deletes the residual clause from the guideline in light of the Court’s concerns in Johnson: “The question of Johnson’s application to the current career offender guideline is therefore likely to be of no continuing importance.”   Both cases got something of a late boost when the Fourth Circuit deepened the split on Wednesday....

 

15-8629

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States announced a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively on collateral review to challenges of sentences imposed under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines career offender provision, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2)'s identical residual clause thus rendering that provision void; and (3) whether Petitioner's Pennsylvania conviction for robbery by force however slight is a “crime of violence” because it is listed in the commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, even though it does not interpret and conflicts with the text of the guideline, after Johnson.

(relisted after the June 2 Conference)

 

15-8544

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

(relisted after the June 2 Conference)

June 10, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Seventh Circuit affirms above-guideline child porn sentence given to former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle

A panel of the Seventh Circuit made quick work of the appeal brought by former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle. Readers may recall Fogle received a federal sentence after pleading guilty to various child porn offense of 15 years and eight months, and on appeal Fogle asserted his sentence was unreasonable based on various alleged procedural and substantive errors. Oral argument on Fogle's appeal too place just a few weeks ago, and today this panel opinion affirmed the sentence given to Fogle and winds up this way:

Fogle attacks the district court’s overall reasoning in imposing his sentence. He characterizes the district court’s discussion as “puzzling” and claims that the various factors that the court relied upon cannot reasonably support an enhanced sentence.  For instance, he alleges that an enhanced sentence is not warranted because he only engaged in “[o]ne single act” of distribution. He tries to downplay this conduct by claiming that it was a mere “technical” violation of the statute because he only showed the video to “one individual with whom [he] was then involved with romantically and it occurred in the confines of a locked hotel room.”

Fogle’s arguments regarding substantive error are unpersuasive in light of the deference “we must give … to the district court’s determination that the § 3553(a) factors, taken as a whole, justified the extent of the variance” from the guidelines range.  Scott, 555 F.3d at 610.  The district court provided a thorough explanation for its imposition of an above-guidelines sentence, which is all that was required.  And contrary to Fogle’s allegation of double-counting, the district court properly invoked the § 3553(a) factors and explained why the aggravated nature and circumstances of Fogle’s offenses warranted a higher sentence for both counts.  Specifically, the district court noted that Fogle knew that his employee was secretly videotaping minors yet never reported this to law enforcement, as well as the fact that Fogle repeatedly acted on his attraction to minors rather than limiting himself to fantasies.  The court also discussed how Fogle’s lack of a difficult upbringing failed to mitigate the circumstances of his conviction, and how his celebrity status could be viewed as both a mitigating and aggravating factor.

In light of the district court’s sound exercise of discretion under the disturbing facts of this case, we uphold the aboveguidelines sentence as substantively reasonable.

Prior related posts:

June 9, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Celebrity sentencings, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS overturns Pennsylvania death sentence because involved DA who became state justice did not recuse

A death row defendant in the Keystone State got a key win on a judicial bias claim from SCOTUS this morning in Williams v. Pennsylvania, No. 15-5040 (S. Ct. June 9, 2016) (available here). Justice Kennedy authored the opinion for the Court, while Chief Justice Roberts dissented in an opinion Justice Alito joined and Justice Thomas authored his own dissenting opinion. Here is how the Court's opinion gets started: 

In this case, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania vacated the decision of a postconviction court, which had granted relief to a prisoner convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.  One of the justices on the State Supreme Court had been the district attorney who gave his official approval to seek the death penalty in the prisoner’s case.  The justice in question denied the prisoner’s motion for recusal and participated in the decision to deny relief.  The question presented is whether the justice’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This Court’s precedents set forth an objective standard that requires recusal when the likelihood of bias on the part of the judge “‘is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.’” Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868, 872 (2009) (quoting Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47 (1975)).  Applying this standard, the Court concludes that due process compelled the justice’s recusal.

June 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

NY Times debates "Should an Unpopular Sentence in the Stanford Rape Case Cost a Judge His Job?"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of notable commentaries discussing whether the judicial recall effort in the controversial Standford sexual assault sentencing case is a good idea.  Here is the section's set up:

A California judge sentenced Brock Allen Turner to only six months in jail for raping an unconscious woman after a Stanford University fraternity party, despite her angry, eloquent, courtroom denunciation of the way she and other rape survivors are treated.  In response, a petition was started to hold a recall election to throw him off the bench.

But should judges be subject to recall because of an unpopular sentence or would that impede their independence?

Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:

June 9, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Sixth Circuit on the drug war, immigrant crime, ineffective assistance, jury nullification, Alexander Hamilton and a circuit split all in seven pages

Long-time readers likely realize I do not cover federal circuit court rulings in this space nearly as much as I did in the early days after Blakely and Booker, largely because many of the federal sentencing issues that now occupy circuit have become of late much more settled (or, at times, just much more borring).  But a great little  new Sixth Circuit panel ruling today in Lee v. US, No. 14-5369 (6th Cir. June 8, 2016) (available here), reminded me of why I still make a regular habit of, and can sometime be greatly rewarded by, taking the time to see what the circuit courts are saying in criminal appeals.  As the title of this post highlights, there is a lot of "there there" in the short panel opinion in Lee, and I hope these snippets (with some cites omitted) will encourage everyone to check out the full opinion:

The case against him was very strong.  A government witness was prepared to testify that he had purchased ecstasy from Lee on a number of occasions, dozens of pills were discovered during a lawful search of Lee’s home, and Lee himself admitted not only that he had possessed ecstasy, but also that he had distributed the drug to his friends. In light of this, Lee’s trial attorney advised him to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Here’s the wrinkle: even though he has lived in the United States for decades, Lee, unlike his parents, never became an American citizen, and though he did eventually plead guilty, he did so only after his lawyer assured him that he would not be subject to deportation — “removal,” in the argot of contemporary immigration law.  This advice was wrong: possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute is an “aggravated felony,” rendering Lee deportable.  Lee understandably does not want to be deported, and he filed a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, contending that he received ineffective assistance of counsel....

[T]he district court’s conclusion that the evidence of guilt was “overwhelming” is not clearly erroneous, and deportation would have followed just as readily from a jury conviction as from a guilty plea. Thus, aside from the off chance of jury nullification or the like, Lee stood to gain nothing from going to trial but more prison time. On the other hand, for those such as Lee who have made this country their home for decades, deportation is a very severe consequence, “the equivalent of banishment or exile,” as the Supreme Court memorably put it.  As a factual matter, we do not doubt Lee’s contention that many defendants in his position, had they received accurate advice from counsel, would have decided to risk a longer prison sentence in order to take their chances at trial, slim though they were.

But would such a decision be “rational”? Several courts, including this circuit, have said “no”: being denied the chance to throw “a Hail Mary” at trial does not by itself amount to prejudice.... Others have reached the opposite conclusion....  We have no ability, of course, as a panel, to change camps. A nd in that sense, this is a straightforward case. In Pilla we held that no rational defendant charged with a deportable offense and facing “overwhelming evidence” of guilt would proceed to trial rather than take a plea deal with a shorter prison sentence.   Lee finds himself in precisely this position, and he must therefore lose. But given the growing circuit split (which, as best we can tell, has gone unacknowledged), we think it worthwhile to explain why we are convinced that our approach is the right one and to set out the role that we believe deportation consequences should play in evaluating prejudice under Strickland.

We begin, however, by giving the other side its due. As the Seventh Circuit noted in DeBartolo, strong evidence of guilt does not strip a defendant of his right to a jury trial, nor does it guarantee a guilty verdict.  The second point is especially true for defendants such as Lee, since it is well documented that many jurors are willing to acquit those charged with a first-time, non-violent drug offense, despite evidence of guilt. See id. (quoting Lawrence D. Bobo & Victor Thompson, Racialized Mass Incarceration: Poverty, Prejudice, and Punishment, in Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century 343 (Hazel R. Markus & Paula Moya eds., 2010)).

This possibility, at least according to many of this nation’s founders, is not a defect, but a feature of the jury system.  See, e.g., 2 John Adams, The Works of John Adams 254–55 (1850) (“It is not only [the juror’s] right, but his duty . . . to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” (Diary Entry, February 12, 1771)).  Indeed, the unreviewable power of juries to acquit, despite strong evidence of guilt, was perhaps the central reason why the right to a jury trial in criminal cases was enshrined in the Constitution.  See Rachel E. Barkow, Criminal Trials, in The Heritage Guide to the Constitution 340, 340–41 (David F. Forte & Matthew Spalding, eds. 2nd ed. 2014).  For the framers and ratifiers, the memory of how King George III had prevented colonial juries from nullifying unpopular English laws by “expand[ing] the jurisdiction of nonjury courts” was still fresh. Id. at 340.  And one of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence was that the King had “depriv[ed] us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”  Declaration of Independence para. 20 (U.S. 1776).  It is thus not surprising that nearly all commentators active during the time of the founding favored the inclusion in the new Constitution of the right to a jury trial. See, e.g., The Federalist No. 83, at 432–33 (Alexander Hamilton) (The Gideon ed., George W. Carey & James McClellan eds., Liberty Fund 2001) (“The friends and adversaries of the plan of the convention, if they agree in nothing else, concur at least in the value they set upon the trial by jury.”).

June 8, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Florida Supreme Court grapples with post-Hurst hydra and state's new capital punishment procedures

Download (1)As reported in this local article, headlined "Justices Try To Sort Out Death Penalty Law," the top judges in the Sunshine State yesterday heard oral argument in a case that requires them to find some clarity in the dark uncertainty concerning the constitutional requirements for death sentencing in the wake of the Supreme Court's Hurst ruling. Here are the details:

The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a case focused on whether the state’s new death penalty law is constitutional, and, if so, whether it applies to cases already in the pipeline when the law passed in March.

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in the court’s months-long scrutiny prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that struck down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing process because it unconstitutionally gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

But the arguments Tuesday in the case of Larry Darnell Perry, who was convicted in the 2013 murder of his infant son, did little to clear up the murky situation surrounding the January ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, or the new law, hurriedly crafted by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in response to the decision.

“Clearly at this stage in our jurisprudence, we want to make sure that the statute is construed in a constitutional manner so that we don’t have another 15 years of death penalty — if the state wants the death penalty, which apparently it does — in flux,” Justice Barbara Pariente said.

Under Florida’s old law, jurors by a simple majority could recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that “sufficient” aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed. That system was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 ruling.

Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously determine “the existence of at least one aggravating factor” before defendants can be eligible for death sentences. The law also requires at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty in order for the sentence to be imposed.

Of nearly three dozen states that have the death penalty, Florida is one of just three — including Alabama and Delaware — that do not require unanimous recommendations for a sentence of death. The lack of a unanimous recommendation — a flashpoint for lawmakers, prosecutors and defense lawyers during debate on the new law — was the focus of much of Tuesday’s hearing in the Perry case.

Because Florida’s Constitution requires that jury verdicts be unanimous for convictions, defense lawyers have argued that the death penalty should require a unanimous jury recommendation. Prosecutors, including Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, disagree.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga honed in on the issue Tuesday morning. “As you know, 32 states in our country have the death penalty. There are three states who are outliers in this country, Alabama, Delaware and Florida that only require something less than unanimous. … What is the history of Florida in requiring a unanimous verdict?” Labarga asked Martin McClain, a lawyer who has represented more than 250 defendants condemned to death and who made arguments Tuesday as a “friend of the court.” “It’s always been that way in Florida. Since before it was a state, Florida required unanimity in criminal cases for convictions,” McClain replied.

Since the Jan. 12 Hurst ruling, Florida’s high court indefinitely put on hold two executions and heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, repeatedly asking lawyers on both sides about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Florida court has yet to rule on whether the Hurst decision should be applied retroactively to all, or even some, of Florida’s 390 Death Row inmates.

Perry’s case, meanwhile, hinges on whether the new law should apply to defendants whose prosecutions were underway when the new law went into effect.  While Perry’s lawyer, J. Edwin Mills, argued that the new law should not apply in his client’s case, other defense lawyers are split on the issue. Mills contends his client should receive a life sentence.

Adding more pressure to the justices — who spend much of their time considering appeals in capital cases — lower courts have delayed hearings or decisions in death penalty cases while waiting for Florida Supreme Court to rule, both on the impact of the Hurst decision and on the Perry case.  “Until we get moving forward again, and get a determination from this court as to what Hurst actually means, everything is just sort of up in the air, which is not a good solution for anybody,” Assistant Attorney General Carol Dittmar told the justices Tuesday.

June 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

New York Times editorial calls for "federal oversight of prosecutors’ offices that repeatedly ignore defendants’ legal and constitutional rights"

This new New York Times editorial, headlined "To Stop Bad Prosecutors, Call the Feds," call for improving state criminal justice systems by having more federal oversight of those system. Here is the full editorial, concerning which I am eager to hear reactions:

Prosecutors are the most powerful players in the American criminal justice system.  Their decisions — like whom to charge with a crime, and what sentence to seek — have profound consequences.  So why is it so hard to keep them from breaking the law or violating the Constitution?

The short answer is that they are almost never held accountable for misconduct, even when it results in wrongful convictions.  It is time for a new approach to ending this behavior: federal oversight of prosecutors’ offices that repeatedly ignore defendants’ legal and constitutional rights.  There is a successful model for this in the Justice Department’s monitoring of police departments with histories of misconduct.

Among the most serious prosecutorial violations is the withholding of evidence that could help a defendant prove his or her innocence or get a reduced sentence — a practice so widespread that one federal judge called it an “epidemic.”  Under the 1963 landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are required to turn over any exculpatory evidence to a defendant that could materially affect a verdict or sentence.  Yet in many district attorneys’ offices, the Brady rule is considered nothing more than a suggestion, with prosecutors routinely holding back such evidence to win their cases.  

Nowhere is this situation worse than in Louisiana, where prosecutors seem to believe they are unconstrained by the Constitution.  This month, the Supreme Court will consider the latest challenge to prosecutorial misconduct in Louisiana in the case of David Brown, who was one of five men charged in the 1999 murder of a prison guard.  Mr. Brown said he did not commit the murder, but he was convicted and sentenced to death anyway.  Only later did his lawyers discover that prosecutors had withheld the transcript of an interview with another prisoner directly implicating two other men — and only those men — in the murder.  This is about as blatant a Brady violation as can be found, and the judge who presided over Mr. Brown’s trial agreed, throwing out his death penalty and ordering a new sentencing.  But the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling that the new evidence would not have made a difference in the jury’s sentence.

David Brown’s case is a good example of how every part of the justice system bears some responsibility for not fighting prosecutorial misconduct.  State courts often fail to hold prosecutors accountable, even when their wrongdoing is clear.  Professional ethics boards rarely discipline them.  And individual prosecutors are protected from civil lawsuits, while criminal punishment is virtually unheard of.  Money damages levied against a prosecutor’s office could deter some misconduct, but the Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult for wrongfully convicted citizens to win such claims.

This maddening situation has long resisted a solution. What would make good sense is to have the federal government step in to monitor some of the worst actors, increasing the chance of catching misconduct before it ruins peoples’ lives. The Justice Department is already authorized to do this by a 1994 federal law prohibiting any “pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers” that deprives a person of legal or constitutional rights.

The department has used this power to monitor police departments in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit and Seattle, among other municipalities with a history of brutality, wrongful arrests, shootings of unarmed civilians and other illegal or unconstitutional practices.  For the most part, the results have been positive.  Since prosecutors are also “law enforcement officers,” there is no reason they and their offices should be immune from federal oversight.

Of course, many district attorneys’ offices will balk at being put under a federal microscope.  But nothing else has worked to prevent misconduct by prosecutors, and the Justice Department is uniquely equipped to ferret out the worst actors and expose their repeated disregard for the law and the Constitution.

Because I do not closely follow local police practices or federal oversight of local police departments, I am not in a position to question (or concur with) the editorial's assertion that "for the most part, the results have been positive" from DOJ's monitoring of some big-city police departments. But even if DOJ has been generally successful at supervising problematic police practices, I am not certain that this means that it could or would be successful at supervising problematic prosecutorial practices. At the same time, there is good reason to be concerned that, at least in some local jurisdictions, it does seem that "nothing else has worked to prevent misconduct by prosecutors."

Personally, I would generally favor a "sunlight is the best disenfectant" approach to dealing with forms of significant lawyer misconduct: how about the feds calling for states to maintain public on-line registries of all public lawyers (both prosecutors and defense attorneys) who clearly have been found guilty of unconstitutional/unethical behavior. I suspect all criminal lawyers now know just how troublesome it can be to have an "on-line record," and so maybe the threat of such a record of misconduct will help deter such behavior in the first instance.

June 7, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Is SCOTUS essentially telling Alabama its capital punishment process in unconstitutional through Hurst GVRs?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new local article headlined "For third time in 5 weeks, Supreme Court tells Alabama to reconsider death row case." Here are excerpts:

For the third time in five weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court has told an Alabama appeals court to reconsider an Alabama death row inmate's appeal in light of the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year striking down Florida's capital punishment scheme.

Two Alabama attorneys said Monday that the moves by the high court indicate justices may be looking at striking down Alabama's death sentencing scheme as unconstitutional. "Personally, I think its crystal clear the Supreme Court has real concerns about the constitutionality of our current death penalty and is clearly putting us on notice of that fact," said Birmingham attorney John Lentine.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, also stated in an email to AL.com on Monday that "we believe it's now very clear that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that Alabama's death penalty scheme is called into question following the Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida earlier this year. There have been serious flaws in Alabama's process of imposing the death penalty for several years and state courts are going to have to now confront these problems."

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday remanded the case of Alabama Death Row inmate Ronnie Kirksey back to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for reconsideration of his appeal in light of the Hurst v. Florida decision in January.  The U.S. Supreme Court last month had also ordered the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its decision in the appeals of Corey Wimbley and Bart Johnson in light of the Florida case....

At issue with Alabama's death penalty scheme is that Alabama permits judges to override a jury's recommendation for a life sentence and impose death. Alabama was one of only three states that allowed such an override. The others were Florida and Delaware. Legislators in Florida's legislature re-wrote its capital punishment sentencing law this spring.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd in March ruled in four of her capital murder cases that Alabama's capital punishment sentencing scheme is unconstitutional based on the Hurst case. The Alabama Attorney General's Office has appealed Todd's ruling. The decision was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in January that Florida's sentencing scheme allowing judges to override juries in death penalty cases is unconstitutional. Alabama has a similar sentencing scheme.

A number of attorneys around the state have challenged on behalf of their clients the constitutionality of Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme based on the Florida ruling. All but Todd, however, denied those requests.  District attorneys and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange have said Alabama's law is not the same as Florida's.

First, Alabama's sentencing scheme was ruled constitutional in 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court, state prosecutors say. They also have pointed out that the high court held in the Florida case that a jury must find the aggravating factor in order to make someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama's system already requires the jury to do just that, according to an Alabama Attorney General's statement.

A few prior related posts:

June 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 06, 2016

Lots of seemingly justifiable outrage after lenient California sentencing of privileged man convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault

The recent lenient sentencing late last week of Stanford University student convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault has become a very big story today, and lots of folks across the political spectrum seem justifiably troubled by it.  This new New York Times article, headlined "Outrage in Stanford Rape Case Over Light Sentence for Attacker and Statement by His Father," provides some of the basics about the case and reactions to it:

A sexual assault case at Stanford University has ignited public outrage and a recall effort against a California judge after the defendant was sentenced to six months in a jail and his father complained that his son’s life had been ruined for “20 minutes of action” fueled by alcohol and promiscuity. In court, the victim had criticized her attacker’s sentence and the inequities of the legal process.

The case has made headlines since the trial began earlier this year but seized the public’s attention over the weekend after the accused, Brock Allen Turner, 20, a champion swimmer, was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County to what many critics denounced as a lenient stint in jail and three years’ probation for three felony counts of sexual assault.

The next day, BuzzFeed published the full courtroom statement [available here and recommended reading] by the woman who was attacked. The statement, a 7,244-word cri de coeur against the role of privilege in the trial and the way the legal system deals with sexual assault, has gone viral. By Monday, it had been viewed more than five million times on the BuzzFeed site. One of those readings happened live on CNN on Monday, when the anchor Ashleigh Banfield spent part of an hour looking into the camera and reading the entire statement live on the air.

The unidentified 23-year-old victim was not a Stanford student but was visiting the campus, where she attended a fraternity party. In the statement, she described her experience before and after the attack.

She argued that the trial, the sentencing and the legal system’s approach to sexual assault — from the defense lawyer’s questions about what she wore the night she was attacked to the light sentence handed down to her attacker — were irrevocably marred by male and class privilege. The trial privileged Mr. Turner’s well-being over her own, she said, and in the end declined to punish him severely because the authorities considered the disruption to his studies and athletic career at a prestigious university when determining his sentence....

If Mr. Turner and his defenders wanted to rebut that argument, a statement read to the court by his father, Dan Turner, and posted to Twitter on Sunday by Michele Dauber, a law professor and sociologist at Stanford, certainly did not help.

In the statement, Mr. Turner’s father said that his son should not do jail time for the sexual assault, which he referred to as “the events” and “20 minutes of action” that were not violent.  He said that his son suffered from depression and anxiety in the wake of the trial and argued that having to register as a sex offender — and the loss of his appetite for food he once enjoyed — was punishment enough. Brock Turner also lost a swimming scholarship to Stanford and has given up on his goal of competing at the Olympics.  “I was always excited to buy him a big rib-eye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him,” Dan Turner wrote.  “Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways.”

The Santa Clara, Calif., district attorney, Jeff Rosen, did not agree with Dan Turner’s assessment of the situation.  In a statement, he said the sentence “did not fit the crime” and called Brock a “predatory offender” who refused to take responsibility or show remorse. “Campus rape is no different than off-campus rape,” Mr. Rosen said. “Rape is rape.”

The editorial board of The San Jose Mercury News agreed, calling the sentence “a slap on the wrist” and “a setback for the movement to take campus rape seriously” in an editorial.

Professor Dauber said Monday that she was part of a committee that was organizing a recall challenge to Judge Persky, whose position is an elected one.  The professor said he had misapplied the law by granting Mr. Turner probation and by taking his age, academic achievement and alcohol consumption into consideration.

Professor Dauber might think about reaching out to Bill Otis for support for her effort to recall Judge Persky, as Bill now has these two notable posts up at Crime & Consequences about this case:

As the titles of these posts suggest, Bill seems right now more eager to go after the defense bar rather than the sentencing judge in this case, but I have an inkling he will be bashing on the judge soon, too.  (Bill has never been disinclined to attack judges or others whom he thinks are failing to do what he thinks they should be doing).  What strikes me as particularly notable and disconcerting, though, is that the elected state sentencing judge involved in this case was, according to this webpage, "a criminal prosecutor for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, where [he was called upon to] prosecute sex crimes and hate crimes" right before he became a judge.

I am not familiar with the particulars of California criminal procedures as to whether a prosecutor is able to appeal a sentence considered unjustifiably lenient.  If so, then perhaps this sentence can be scrutinized and perhaps rectified on appeal; if not, we have another example of why I generally think allowing both sides to appeal a sentence for unreasonableness is a good idea. 

June 6, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

SCOTUS grants cert two notable Texas capital cases

Those eager to see SCOTUS continue to question the operation of the death penalty in the US have some news to celebrate from the court via this new order list: the Justices this morning granted certain two capital cases from Texas, Moore v. Texas and Buck v. Stephens. Over at SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe has already provided this quick response to a question as to whether these Cases are notable:

They are both reasonably interesting.  Moore v. Texas includes both a question about the standard for determining whether an inmate is intellectually disabled and the question whether executing an inmate after a long stay on death row violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Buck case is about an expert witness for the defense (!) testifying that Buck was likely to be more dangerous and thus more a candidate for death sentence because he is black.

In other words, high-salience issues concerning race, mental disabilities and delays before execution are all before the Court in these cases. Among other likely echo effects from these grants, I suspect this means there will be lots and lots of (mostly abolitionist) commentary about these cases in the weeks and months to come, and also that hearings for the next SCOTUS nominee (whenever they might occur) will include some significant focus on the constitutionality of capital punishment.

UPDATE:  This revised version of the SCOTUS order list indicates that in Moore the Justices will only be considering the way Texas handles application of its Atkins intellectual disability limit on who can be eligible for the death penalty.  Still, as this SCOTUSblog post by Lyle Denniston details, these two cases will still provide plenty of grist for the capital case controversy mill.

June 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Looking into the Wisconsin case looking into the use of risk-assessment tools at sentencing

The Wall Street Journal has this effective new article discussing the case now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court considering a defendant's challenge to the use of a risk assessment tool in the state's sentencing process.  The article's full headline notes the essentials: "Wisconsin Supreme Court to Rule on Predictive Algorithms Used in Sentencing: Ruling would be among first to speak to legality of risk assessments as aid in meting out punishments." And here is more from the body of the article:

Algorithms used by authorities to predict the likelihood of criminal conduct are facing a major legal test in Wisconsin.  The state’s highest court is set to rule on whether such algorithms, known as risk assessments, violate due process and discriminate against men when judges rely on them in sentencing.  The ruling, which could come any time, would be among the first to speak to the legality of risk assessments as an aid in meting out punishments.

Criminal justice experts skeptical of such tools say they are inherently biased, treating poor people as riskier than those who are well off. Proponents of risk assessments say they have elevated sentencing to something closer to a science. “Evidence has a better track record for assessing risks and needs than intuition alone,” wrote Christine Remington, an assistant attorney general in Wisconsin, in a legal brief filed in January defending the state’s use of the evaluations.

Risk-evaluation tools have gained in popularity amid efforts around the country to curb the number of repeat offenders.  They help authorities sort prisoners, set bail and weigh parole decisions. But their use in sentencing is more controversial.

Before the sentencing of 34-year-old Eric Loomis, whose case is before the state’s high court, Wisconsin authorities evaluated his criminal risk with a widely used tool called COMPAS, or Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, a 137-question test that covers criminal and parole history, age, employment status, social life, education level, community ties, drug use and beliefs.  The assessment includes queries like, “Did a parent figure who raised you ever have a drug or alcohol problem?” and “Do you feel that the things you do are boring or dull?”  Scores are generated by comparing an offender’s characteristics to a representative criminal population of the same sex.

Prosecutors said Mr. Loomis was the driver of a car involved in a drive-by shooting in La Crosse, Wis., on Feb. 11, 2013. Mr. Loomis denied any involvement in the shooting, saying he drove the car only after it had occurred. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to attempting to flee police in a car and operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent and was sentenced to six years in prison and five years of supervision.  “The risk assessment tools that have been utilized suggest that you’re extremely high risk to reoffend,” Judge Scott Horne in La Crosse County said at Mr. Loomis’s sentencing.

Mr. Loomis said in his appeal that Judge Horne’s reliance on COMPAS violated his right to due process, because the company that makes the test, Northpointe, doesn’t reveal how it weighs the answers to arrive at a risk score. Northpointe General Manager Jeffrey Harmon declined to comment on Mr. Loomis’s case but said algorithms that perform the risk assessments are proprietary. The outcome, he said, is all that is needed to validate the tools.  Northpointe says its studies have shown COMPAS’s recidivism risk score to have an accuracy rate of 68% to 70%. Independent evaluations have produced mixed findings.

Mr. Loomis also challenged COMPAS on the grounds that the evaluation treats men as higher risk than women.  COMPAS compares women only to other women because they “commit violent acts at a much lower rate than men,” wrote Ms. Remington, the state’s lawyer, in her response brief filed earlier this year in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Having two scales — one for men and one for women — is good science, not gender bias, she said.

The parties appeared to find common ground on at least one issue. “A court cannot decide to place a defendant in prison solely because of his score on COMPAS,” Ms. Remington acknowledged, describing it as “one of many factors a court can consider at sentencing.” Her comments echoed a 2010 ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court holding that risk assessments “do not replace but may inform a trial court’s sentencing determinations.”

June 5, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Might SCOTUS soon (finally!) take up the constitutionality of solitary confinement?

Way back in March 2009, I asked via this post "Why isn't there more constitutional litigation over the 'hellhole' that is extended solitary confinement?".  And last year, as noted this post, Justice Anthony Kennedy essentially asked the same question via a remarkable (off-point) concurrence in the SCOTUS ruling in Davis v. Ayala.  Consequently, I was intrigued to see this new Mother Jones article headlined "The Supreme Court Might Finally Take On Solitary Confinement: The court could announce Monday whether it will consider the long-term solitary confinement of a death row inmate." Here is how the piece gets started:

Bobby Moore has been on death row in Texas for more than 35 years, for a murder he committed in 1980 at the age of 20.  He's come close to dying twice; once, he was hours away from execution before a court intervened.  For the past 15 years, he's been in solitary confinement nearly 23 hours a day, unable to interact with other inmates, in a type of cell described in legal filings as "virtual incubators of psychoses."

The Supreme Court is now considering Moore's claim that his solitary incarceration and the long delay between his conviction and execution are violations of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Moore's petition has been pending for nearly a month, but a decision on whether the Supreme Court will hear it could come on Monday.  If the court takes up the case, its ruling could have profound implications for the nation's nearly 3,000 death row inmates, who are often confined to solitary cells and await execution for an average of more than 15 years.  If Moore wins, not only could he get off death row, but many inmates in his position could follow.

The high court has repeatedly refused to hear cases challenging an excessive delay of an execution as unconstitutional, and it's never directly confronted solitary confinement on death row.  But there are signs that the justices are seriously considering Moore's case.  The court grants only about 70 petitions a year, out of 9,000 filings, so most cases are dismissed quickly.  But it has relisted Moore's case for its weekly review conference three times, an unusual move.

Some of the court's liberal justices have spoken out about long solitary stays on death row for a long time.  Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, was a notable advocate for the position that extended incarceration for capital offenders was a clear constitutional violation, one he first embraced more than 20 years ago.  Stevens gained an ally in Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote in 1999, "It is difficult to deny the suffering inherent in a prolonged wait for execution."  Breyer cited these long waits in a lengthy dissent last year, in which he declared his view that capital punishment in any form is unconstitutional — a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Last month, he objected to the court's refusal to take up a California death row case raising the issue, arguing that "unconscionably long delays...undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose."

The conservative justices, though, have been less sympathetic — that is, until 2014, when almost out of the blue, Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee and the court's frequent swing vote, expressed concern about solitary confinement during oral arguments in a case.  He has since shown more signs that he could eventually be a decisive vote in forcing the court to confront the issue at last.

For various reasons, I would like to see the Supreme Court take up the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement in a non-capital case. But, obviously, that has not happened yet so I suppose my perspective now is that taking up the issue in a capital case is good enough for SCOTUS work.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 03, 2016

Weldon Angelos, poster child for need to reform federal mandatory minimums, apparently released after serving 12 years of 55-year sentence

Images (2)Regular readers likely know the name Weldon Angelos and likely recall some of the details of his 55-year mandatory minimum federal sentence based on his convictions for low-level marijuana dealing and firearm possession.  And regular readers likely will also be intrigued and heartened to read this new Washington Post story, headlined "Utah man whose long drug sentence stirred controversy is released," indicating that Weldon was released earlier this week.  Here are the (somewhat mysterious) details:

One federal inmate who was released — but not under Obama’s clemency initiative — is Weldon Angelos, 36, a father of three from Utah who was sentenced in 2004 to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term in connection with selling marijuana.

The specific circumstances of Angelos’s release are unclear because court records in his case are sealed. But after a long campaign from his supporters, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Angelos was quietly released Tuesday after a federal court granted him an immediate reduction in sentence. He was able to immediately go home to his family without serving three months in a halfway house, as those who receive clemency are required to do. The release allowed Angelos to see the son he left at age 7 graduate from high school Thursday.

Angelos is one of the nation’s most famous nonviolent drug offenders and became a symbol of what advocates said was the severity and unfairness of mandatory sentences. His case was championed by the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, former FBI director Bill Sessions, conservative billionaire Charles Koch and others. Three years ago, more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, former elected and appointed government officials, and prominent authors, scholars, activists and business leaders signed a letter urging Obama to grant Angelos commutation.

In February, former federal judge Paul G. Cassell, who sentenced Angelos, wrote a letter asking Obama to swiftly grant him clemency. Cassell said that the sentence he was forced to impose was “one of the most troubling that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench” and that it was one of the chief reasons he stepped down as a judge.

But Obama never granted clemency to Angelos. The granting of mercy instead came from the Salt Lake City prosecutor who charged him in the case, according to his lawyer. “After three and half years of inaction on Weldon’s clemency petition, he is free because of the fair and good action of a prosecutor,” attorney Mark W. Osler said. “He returns to citizenship because of the actions of one individual — just not the individual I was expecting. Weldon’s freedom is a wonderful thing but remains just one bright spot among many continuing tragedies.”

A White House spokeswoman said that the White House cannot respond with details about any individual clemency case. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called the release of Angelos “fantastic news and past due.”

I am inclined to guess, absent hearing any details to the contrary, that the Utah federal prosecutor agreed to what some have come to call a Holloway motion: a motion first engineered by former Judge John Glesson in the case of Francios Holloway (discussed here) by urging prosecutors to move to undo stacked federal gun charges that had resulted in acrazy-long mandatory minimum prison term.

A few of many prior related posts on Angelos and Holloway cases:

June 3, 2016 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Obama commutes 42 more federal prison sentences

Chart_060316_commutations[1]As reported in this AP piece, this afternoon "President Barack Obama is commuting the sentences of 42 people convicted of drug-related offenses." Here is more:

Obama's latest round of clemency brings to 348 the total number of sentences Obama has commuted since taking office. The pace has increased substantially as Obama approaches the end of his presidency. Roughly half of the 42 receiving commutations Friday were serving life sentences. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also charged with firearms violations.

Obama's commutation shortens their sentences, with most of the inmates set to be released October 1.

White House counsel Neil Eggleston says Obama will keep using his clemency power to give deserving individuals a second chance. Obama has pushed to overhaul the criminal justice system but a bipartisan effort has struggled to maintain momentum.

Via this blog post (which provides the graphic reprinted here), Prez Obama's counsel notes that that "President Obama Has Now Commuted the Sentences of 348 Individuals" and highlights that now "the President has commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past 7 presidents combined." Here is more from the blog posting:

Today, the President announced 42 additional grants of clemency to men and women serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws. The individuals receiving a presidential commutation today have more than repaid their debt to society and earned this second chance.

To date, the President has commuted the sentences of 348 individuals -- more than the previous seven Presidents combined. He remains committed to using his clemency power throughout the remainder of the Administration to give more deserving individuals that same second chance....

Despite these important efforts, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. There remain thousands of men and women in federal prison serving sentences longer than necessary, often due to overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. That is one reason it is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Conservatives should celebrate Obama’s commutations"

Institute_for_Policy_Innovation_1313374The title of this post is the headline of this new Dallas Morning News commatary.  The piece is authored by Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group that explains its focus to be "on approaches to governing that harness the strengths of individual liberty, limited government, and free markets." Here are excerpts:

The White House recently announced that 58 federal inmates, mostly non-violent drug offenders, would have their sentences shortened through commutation.  This brings the total number of commutations during the Barack Obama years to 306, more than any recent administration.  And word out of the White House is that there will be more to come during President Obama’s final months in office.

Many conservatives will be initially inclined to see Obama’s commutations as the act of a liberal who is soft on crime.  But conservatives should celebrate President Obama’s commutations. In fact, as people who prize liberty and individual rights, and who are skeptical about government power, conservatives need to do a rethink on criminal justice.

It’s becoming clear that something has gone very wrong with the justice system in the United States.  Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Too many crimes have been federalized, as opposed to being handled more locally by state and local courts.  Excessive punishments are being meted out for non-violent crimes because of mandatory sentencing requirements.  And it’s dawning on people that the justice system is plagued by the same careerism and corruption that characterize other branches of government....

Taking reasonable discretion away from judges was a mistake, and it caused a shift in power from judges to prosecutors, who can select and “stack” charges involving mandatory minimums.  While judges are appointed or elected to consider both sides of a case, prosecutors are hired to convict.  It should trouble conservatives that the government side of the equation has been awarded such disproportionate power, which has clearly led to abuses.

Consider the case of Weldon Angelos, who at age 24 was arrested in Utah for selling marijuana and possessing a firearm.  Because of stacked charges with mandatory minimums, Federal Judge Paul Cassell had no choice but to sentence him to 55 years in prison.  Judge Cassell has ever since been pleading for a commutation to Angelos’ sentence, pointing out that far worse crimes, such as hijacking, rape, and second-degree murder, have lighter sentences.  But the judge, who clerked for Antonin Scalia, was appointed by President George W. Bush, and who favors the death penalty, was powerless in the face of a prosecutor armed with federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Yes, our justice system should be about public safety first. But all too often it is about careerism, government revenue and corruption.  Stephanos Bibas, professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that “the criminal justice system and prisons are big-government institutions.  They are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guard’s unions, and they consume huge shares of most states’ budgets.”

Social conservatives should understand the need for criminal justice reform, since we believe that every human life has inherent dignity and value, and we believe in the possibility of redemption.  Non-violent offenders can be punished and make restitution while keeping families intact and offenders productive.  Economic conservatives should recognize that non-violent offenders are better deployed working in the private sector than incarcerated in expensive government facilities.  And libertarians — well, libertarians already get it.

There are many pieces to the justice reform movement, including giving judges more sentencing leeway, eliminating civil asset forfeiture, and prioritizing drug treatment and in-home monitoring of incarceration.  But commuting sentences for non-violent offenders that are far in excess of the crime is a great place to start.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Appellate judges certify to Florida Supreme Court whether state sentencing scheme violates Due Process Clause or Eighth Amendment

A helpful reader alerted me to a remarkable decision handed down earlier this week by the Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals. The reader provided this helpful summary that I could reprint here (with my emphasis added):

The Fourth District Court of Appeal wrote a decision that (in essence) asks our Supreme Court to revisit the constitutionality of our sentencing scheme, a scheme that gives judges complete discretion to sentence a defendant anywhere between a calculated "lowest permissible sentence" and the statutory maximums stacked end to end. This system of nearly unlimited sentencing discretion is everything Judge Frankel decried, and the sentence the court reviewed is a case in point: the defendant was 55 years old, he had no prior record, and his "lowest permissible sentence" was 23.7 months in prison.  For trying and failing to steal three boat motors he was sentenced to 35 years in prison (the statutory maximums stacked end to end), effectively a life sentence.

Judge Gross wrote a thoughtful and scholarly concurring opinion that begins with the history of sentencing in Florida, talks about the evils of unfettered sentencing discretion, and ends with Judge Frankel and his modest proposal that judges be required to explain their sentencing decisions (at present they need say nothing).

Here is the question the court certified to Florida Supreme Court as one of great public importance:

Does a sentence within the statutory maximum under the Criminal Punishment Code violate either the Due Process Clause or Eighth Amendment when it is significantly greater than the lowest permissible sentence on the defendant’s scoresheet or the offered plea and grossly disproportionate to the median sentence imposed for similar crimes within the jurisdiction?

Alfonso-Roche v. Florida, No. 4D13-3689 (Fla. 4th DCA June 1, 2016) (available here).

I do not know enough about Florida's appellate procedures to know if the Florida Supreme Court will now have to, or at least is now very likely to, take up these important constitutional issues.  But for anyone and everyone working in state or federal systems worried about the exercise of unfettered sentencing discretion, this Alfonso-Roche decision is today's must-read.

June 3, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is "geography" really an "arbitrary feature" of a capital prosecutions?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this passage today in Justice Breyer's dissent from the denial of certiorari in Tucker V. Louisiana (with my emphasis added):

Lamondre Tucker shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend in 2008.  At the time of the murder, Tucker was 18 years, 5 months, and 6 days old, cf. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005) (“The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed”), and he had an IQ of 74, cf. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002) (execution of the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment). Tucker was sentenced to death in a Louisiana county (Caddo Parish) that imposes almost half the death sentences in Louisiana, even though it accounts for only 5% of that State’s population and 5% of its homicides. See Pet. for Cert. 18.

Given these facts, Tucker may well have received the death penalty not because of the comparative egregiousness of his crime, but because of an arbitrary feature of his case, namely, geography.  See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 12–14).  One could reasonably believe that if Tucker had committed the same crime but been tried and sentenced just across the Red River in, say, Bossier Parish, he would not now be on death row.

I do not dispute that Tucker might not have been sent to death row if he had committed the same murder, and had been tried and sentenced, in another county. Indeed, one can certainly assert that had Tucker committed the same murder in, say, Michigan, a state without te death penalty, he definitely would not be on death row.  But, I do not think it quite right to call this geographic reality "an arbitrary feature of his case."  Arbitrary means "not based on reason," but there are many (seemingly sound) reasons why geography often will define and influence how a capital prosecution proceeds.

Most obviously, a criminal being capitally prosecuted has generally picked where his murder took place, and he typically will be (and some times only can be) prosecuted in a particular locality due to his own homicidal choices.  Moreover, the locality where a murder is committed necessarily experiences the impact of the crime most directly, and local decision-makers ought to be most responsive to local concerns as to how best to respond to that murder.  And, a locality's prosecutors and judges and jurors have all been selected to be respresentative of local community views and judgments.  (Indeed, in his concurring opinion in Ring v. Arizona, Justice Breyer made much of a "community’s moral sensibility" in the resolution of capital cases and the importance of a jury's role in reflecting "a community’s sense of capital punishment’s appropriateness in a particular case.")

In other words, to parrot a newly popular SCOTUS term, I think it is nonsense to call geography an "arbitrary feature" of a criminal case. And while lots of abolitionists complain about the impact of geography on the adminstration of capital punishment, I have never found this complaint to be conceptually convincing or nearly as compelling as other arguments against the modern administration of the death penalty.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

SCOTUS order list inclludes a couple notable criminal appeal summary reversals

The Supreme Court returned from the long weekend with this long order list, which includes a few long per curiam decision in an habeas case from the Ninth Circuit (Johnson v. Lee) and a capital case from Arizona (Lynch v. Arizona). In addition, the Court denied cert in Tucker v. Louisiana, a case in which the constitutionality of the death penalty was directly challened and Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) dissented in an opinion that calls again for taking up this question.

Notably, the Ninth Circuit (and the criminal defendant) is the loser in Lee, whereas the capital defendant prevails in Lynch.  There was not dissent from the ruling in Lee, but Justice Thomas (joined by Jusice Alito) dissented from Lynch.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Split Iowa Supreme Court decides any and every "sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution"

As noted in prior posts here and here, yesterday brought notable post-Miller juve sentencing decisions from state supreme courts in California and Florida. But today the Iowa Supreme Court has one-upped its colleagues via its post-Miller ruling in Iowa v. Sweet, No. 14–0455 (Iowa May 27, 2016) (available here).  The lengthy majority opinon in Sweet wraps up this way:

In sum, we conclude that sentencing courts should not be required to make speculative up-front decisions on juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation because they lack adequate predictive information supporting such a decision. The parole board will be better able to discern whether the offender is irreparably corrupt after time has passed, after opportunities for maturation and rehabilitation have been provided, and after a record of success or failure in the rehabilitative process is available. See Seats, 865 N.W.2d at 557 (“Even if the judge sentences the juvenile to life in prison with parole, it does not mean the parole board will release the juvenile from prison.”); see also State v. Andrews, 329 S.W.3d 369, 379 (Mo. 2010) (Wolff, J., dissenting) (noting an offender sentenced to life with parole may nonetheless “spend the rest of his life in prison if the parole board does not determine that he is suitable for parole release”).  Steinberg has poignantly made this very point:

It’s not only adolescents’ immature judgment that demands that we treat them differently when they break the law.  If the plasticity of the adolescent brain makes juveniles more amenable to rehabilitation, this argues against mandatory life sentences that don’t allow courts to consider whether an impulsive or impressionable teenager might grow into a law-abiding adult who can control his impulses and stand up to peer pressure.  Of course, a teenager who kills another person deliberately should be punished — no one is arguing otherwise.  But should he be incarcerated for the rest of his life, with no chance to prove that he has matured?

Steinberg at 188. Thus, juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation augur forcefully against speculative, up-front determinations of opportunities for parole and leads inexorably to the categorical elimination of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

For the above reasons, we adopt a categorical rule that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. As a result, the sentence of the district court in this case is vacated and the matter remanded to the district court for resentencing.

Nothing in this opinion, of course, suggests that a juvenile offender is entitled to parole.  The State is not required to make such a guarantee, and those who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison.  The determination of irredeemable corruption, however, must be made when the information is available to make that determination and not at a time when the juvenile character is a work in progress.

A lengthy dissent authored by Justice Mansfield gets started this way:

Recognizing that our legislature and our trial courts have the primary role in determining criminal sentences, I would affirm the life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for this seventeen year old who murdered his grandparents who had raised him.

Today, the court breaks new ground in finding that the Iowa Constitution categorically forbids such sentences.  As I will explain below, I believe the justification offered by the majority for its ruling is insufficient.  More is needed before we strike down a legislatively authorized sentence — especially one the general assembly reauthorized by large majorities in both houses just last year.

May 27, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Split Florida Supreme Court finds technical eligibility for parole insufficient to comply with Miller Eighth Amendment requirements

The Florida Supreme Court today handed down a notable new opinion applying Miller in a case involving a juvenile offender who got a life sentence for a murder back in 1990.  Here is how the opinion in Atwell v. Florida, No. SC14-193 (Fla. May 26, 2016) (available here), gets started:

Angelo Atwell was sixteen years old when, in August 1990, he committed armed robbery and first-degree murder. Under the statute then in effect, Atwell was sentenced for the first-degree murder to a mandatory term of life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the armed robbery.

As mandated by the existing statutory scheme, Florida’s parole process requires “primary weight” to be given to the “seriousness of the offender’s present offense and the offender’s past criminal record.” See § 947.002, Fla. Stat. (2015). Under this statutory scheme, twenty-five years after Atwell was sentenced, the Commission on Offender Review conducted a parole hearing and set Atwell’s presumptive parole release date, which is the earliest date he may be released from prison as determined by objective parole guidelines, for the year 2130—one hundred and forty years after the crime and far exceeding Atwell’s life expectancy. Thus, while technically Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison.

The issue we consider is whether Atwell’s sentence for first-degree murder is constitutional, in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), which held that the Eighth Amendment “forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” We conclude that Florida’s existing parole system, as set forth by statute, does not provide for individualized consideration of Atwell’s juvenile status at the time of the murder, as required by Miller, and that his sentence, which is virtually indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole, is therefore unconstitutional. 

May 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

This breaking news just in: the Connecticut death penalty is still dead

Download (2)I am demonstrating my age (and my affinity for Saturday Night Live) when I thought of one of the first famous SNL catch-phrases upon seeing this new local headline from Connecticut: "State Supreme Court Upholds Abolishment Of Death Penalty, Including For Death-Row Inmates."  Here are the serious details of a serious decision that prompted my not-so-serious reaction:

The Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld its decision to abolish the state's death penalty, including for inmates on death row. The 5-2 ruling, released Thursday, upholds the justices 4-3 decision last August that the death penalty was unconstitutional for all — including 11 convicts on Connecticut's death row — following the legislature's abolition three years ago of capital punishment in Connecticut. Lawmakers made the law prospective, meaning it applied only to new cases and kept in place the death sentences already imposed on those facing execution before the bill was passed.

Attorneys for those on death row challenged the law, saying it violated the condemned inmates' constitutional rights. The ruling last August came in the case of Eduardo Santiago, who had faced the death penalty for the December 2000 killing of Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford. Santiago has been resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.  In the August ruling, the justices in the majority wrote that executing an inmate "would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment" and that the death penalty "no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency."

Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who joined with Justice Carmen E. Espinosa and Justice Peter T. Zarella in the August dissents, voted this time with the majority, saying she felt bound to the doctrine of "stare decisis," a Latin term meaning "stand by things decided."

"Just as my personal beliefs cannot drive my decision-making, I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason — my respect for the rule of law," Rogers wrote. "To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court's integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut."

Rogers said, "stability in the law and respect for the decisions of the court as an institution, rather than a collection of individuals, in and of themselves, are of critically important value, especially on an issue of such great public significance as the constitutionality of the death penalty."

In separate dissents, Zarella and Espinosa rejected the assertion that respect for precedent mandated Thursday's ruling, saying that doctrine should never be used to enshrine a flawed decision. And they pointedly noted that Rogers herself had blasted the original Santiago decision as "a house of cards, falling under the slightest breath of scrutiny." They also criticized Justice Richard A. Robinson, who came on the court after the Santiago decision and voted with the majority, along with justices Richard N. Palmer, Dennis G. Eveleigh and Andrew J. McDonald. Like Rogers, Robinson cited the importance of respecting precedent.

"I cannot fathom how Chief Justice Rogers and Justice Robinson believe they respect the rule of law by supporting a decision that is completely devoid of any legal basis or believe it is more important to spare this court of the purported embarrassment than to correct demonstrable constitutional error," Zarella wrote....

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in a statement released Thursday afternoon, said the ruling "reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom."  Malloy noted that Connecticut in the last half century has executed only two inmates, both of whom volunteered for death....

Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane said his office respects the decision and would "move forward" to re-sentence the individuals currently on death row to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.  "The Division of Criminal Justice and I extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims of these crimes and to their families," Kane said in a statement.  "I also wish to express my appreciation to the dedicated professionals in the Division of Criminal Justice who have devoted so much of themselves throughout this process."

All the opinions in this new case can be found right now at this Connecticut Supreme Court link.

May 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Creating Meaningful Opportunities for Release: Graham, Miller and California's Youth Offender Parole Hearings"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Beth Caldwell now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article presents findings from a study on the implementation of California’s new Youth Offender Parole Hearing law, which aims to provide juvenile offenders with meaningful opportunities to obtain release from adult prison.  It contributes to the debate surrounding how to apply the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” standard that the Supreme Court deliberately left open to interpretation in Graham v. Florida and, to some extent, in Miller v. Alabama. The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana reinforces the idea that juveniles who demonstrate that they are capable of change are entitled to release.

The data contained in this Article was obtained by reviewing the transcripts of the first 107 Youth Offender Parole Hearings; this sample represents all but two of the Youth Offender Parole Hearings that took place between January 2014 and June 2014.  In the first six months of the law’s implementation, juvenile offenders were found suitable for parole at younger ages than the general population.  Further, youth offenders appeared to have a more realistic chance of being released under the new law. This reform is, at the very least, an important step towards offering juvenile offenders more meaningful opportunities to earn their release from prison.  At the same time, it does not go far enough.  After discussing some limitations of the law, this Article concludes by recommending guidelines that would provide youth offenders more meaningful opportunities for release in parole hearings. 

May 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"Many serving sentences for marijuana offenses deserve clemency"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent San Francisco Chronicle commentary authored by Alex Contreras, a former federal inmate serving a 40-year sentence for drug and gun charges who received clemency from President Obama in December 2015.  Here is the text:

More than 10,000 clemency applicants wake up every day in a federal prison, awaiting an answer from President Obama on whether their lengthy prison sentence will come to an end. Most of them will be crushed when they are eventually denied.  There are a few, however, who will realize the unlikely and overwhelming joy of finally being released. I was one of those rare few whose name was on the list of Obama’s recent clemency grants.  And while I was excited to finally be going home — and extremely grateful to the president — I was also perplexed by those who weren’t on the list.

In speaking about criminal justice reform, Obama has highlighted the injustice of incarcerating marijuana offenders for “long stretches,” and has described marijuana as being “less harmful than alcohol” and a “vice,” not unlike cigarette smoking. He also instructed his Justice Department to not prosecute medical or recreational marijuana sellers who are operating under state law.  But his pool of clemency recipients does not reflect these views.

Out of the 306 clemency grants, less than 3 percent were marijuana offenders, and not one of them was a medical marijuana provider, despite being the most deserving given that they were following state law and the Obama administration is no longer prosecuting them. Some of them are even serving decades in prison.

One such inmate is Ricardo Montes, a Latino serving a harsh mandatory 20-year sentence for operating a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto under California law.  Montes and his co-defendant received the longest sentences ever doled out to any medical marijuana provider, because — during the aggressive George W. Bush administration — they were charged under a fearsome mandatory minimum statue designed for drug kingpins and dangerous cartels.

Individuals like Montes are even more deserving of clemency than I was.  Yet I fear that men such as Montes will be left to serve the remainder of their lengthy prison terms, while others reap the rewards of the change in the legal landscape of our nation’s marijuana policies. I hope that Obama’s remaining clemency grants will reflect his sensible views regarding marijuana, ensuring that our criminal justice system “keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

May 25, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Making a friendly pitch for SCOTUS to consider constitutional limits on extreme judicial sentencing increase based on uncharged homicide

Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by significant sentence increases by judges based on so-called acquitted conduct, and that I have filed a number of federal appellate briefs articulating my concerns. Building on some of that prior work, I recently had a chance to work on an amicus brief in support of certiorari in Hebert v. US, a case out of the Fifth Circuit involving an extreme sentence increase based on uncharged conduct. The full amicus (which the fine folks at the Jones Day in DC made so fine) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from its start providing context and key arguments:

It is difficult to imagine a starker violation of the Sixth Amendment and due process than what transpired below. Mr. Hebert pleaded guilty to a $16,000 fraud that carried a guidelines range topping out at 5 years.  After persuading Mr. Hebert to admit responsibility for his fraud and accept punishment for that crime, the Government ambushed him at sentencing by asserting that he had committed an intentional murder along with the fraud to which he had confessed. The Government then asked the district court to find it was more likely than not that Mr. Hebert committed this un-charged, non-admitted, never-convicted, non-federal crime. Then, on the basis of that judicial determination, the district court gave Mr. Hebert a 92-year sentence — a sentence the Government has conceded and the Fifth Circuit recognized “would have been substantively unreasonable under the post-Booker sentencing regime absent a judicial finding of murder,” Pet.App.22a — again, a crime with which Mr. Hebert has never even been charged.

Because Mr. Hebert has never been charged with — much less convicted of — murder, he remains entirely innocent of that crime. If the Government wishes to convict Mr. Hebert of murder, it is welcome to try.  But what it cannot do is use Mr. Hebert’s confession to lesser crimes as the springboard for de facto convicting him of a far more serious crime in a judicial proceeding with no jury, the civil standard of proof, and none of the criminal justice system’s fundamental rules and procedures....

There are at least two constitutional provisions that, under this Court’s well-established jurisprudence, forbid this inverted regime.  First, this Court has made clear that a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment “right to have a jury find the facts behind his punishment.” Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616, 621 (2016).  That right reflects the vital role of the jury as the “circuitbreaker in the State’s machinery of justice” — a role that cannot be “relegated to making a determination that the defendant at some point did something wrong [as] a mere preliminary to a judicial inquisition into the facts of the crime the State actually seeks to punish.” Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 306–07 (2004).  The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is a constitutional protection of “surpassing importance,” Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 476, yet the decision below makes a mockery of it....

Second, this Court has long recognized that due process forbids grossly unfair procedures when a person’s liberty is at stake. Specifically, this Court has indicated that (1) judges are sometimes limited from imposing distinct new punishments based on “a new finding of fact that was not an ingredient of the offense charged,” Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605, 608 (1967) (citation omitted); (2) the “safeguards of due process” in criminal cases are “concerned with substance rather than [any] kind of formalism,” Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698–99 (1975); and (3) constitutional concerns are raised whenever sentencing findings become “a tail which wags the dog of the substantive offense,” or when the government restructures criminal prosecutions “to ‘evade’ the commands” of the Constitution. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 88–89 (1986).

The simple principle that unifies these decisions is fatal to the legal rule embraced below: Due process forbids prosecutors from manipulating the criminal justice system to evade its core protections.  Applied here, that principle barred prosecutors from waylaying Mr. Hebert at sentencing with allegations of a far more serious crime for which he has never been indicted or convicted — allegations that depend, moreover, on evidence which the prosecutors were apparently unwilling to subject to the crucible of a criminal trial or test against the burden of proof they must carry there.  Due process demands more.

Download Berman Amicus in Support of Cert in Hebert

May 25, 2016 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dynamic commentary on SCOTUS work in Foster and related Monday news

A number of bright folks have already had some dynamic takes the Supreme Court's rulings yesterday in the Georgia capital case, Foster v. Chapman.  Organized alphabetically by location of the commentary, here are a few early takes that caught my eye:

The pieces by Epps and Otis are extra-notable because they link into their discussions the SCOTUS Miller remands and the not guilty verdict in a Freddy Gray prosecution, respectively.

UPDATE Scott Greenfield made via Twitter the excellent point that the list above included only "commentaries on Foster from people who don't pick juries & nothing from anyone who does." So, with Scott's help, I am here rounding out my round-up of Foster takes:

May 24, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Virginia Republicans go directly to state Supreme Court to try to undo Gov's clemency order restoring vote to former felons

As first reported in this post last month, Gov Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive clemency powers to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 former felons who had been permanently disenfranchised under Virginia's state election laws.  Now, as reported in this Washington Post piece, political opponents are going to court to try to undo this effort to allow more people to participate in democracy.  Here are the details:

Leaders of Virginia’s House and Senate went to the state’s highest court Monday in a bid to reverse Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s sweeping order to restore voting rights to 206,000 felons. Skipping lower courts, they filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of Virginia, contending that McAuliffe (D) exceeded his authority in April when he restored voting rights to felons en masse instead of individually.

The lawsuit — bankrolled by private donors — presents a complex constitutional question with the urgency of presidential election-year politics. Republicans are seeking an expedited review so that reinstated ex-cons who have registered to vote can be stripped from the rolls before November.

Virginia governors have restored felons’ voting rights, but none with anything close to McAuliffe’s scale and speed. “From Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell, every Governor of Virginia has understood the clemency power to authorize the Governor to grant clemency on an individualized basis only,” said the lawsuit, filed on behalf of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and four other Virginia voters....

The governor says that his move helps former convicts to fully reenter society. Republicans call it a favor to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe’s close friend and political ally, who could benefit from higher numbers of minority voters in the crucial swing state.

McAuliffe blasted the lawsuit, suggesting that Republicans were trying to hold onto a remnant of the Jim Crow era, since African Americans have been disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement. One in four African Americans in Virginia had been banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions.

“Today Republicans filed a lawsuit to preserve a policy of disenfranchisement that has been used intentionally to suppress the voices of qualified voters, particularly African Americans, for more than a century,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “These individuals have served their time and are now living, raising families and paying taxes in our communities — this suit is an effort to continue to treat them as second-class citizens.”...

The lawsuit, filed by Charles J. Cooper, who ran the Office of Legal Counsel under President Ronald Reagan, pushed back against the claim that felon disenfranchisement was rooted in racism. “Governor McAuliffe has falsely suggested that Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement provision was first introduced into the Constitution after the Civil War for the purpose of disenfranchising African-Americans,” the lawsuit says. “But Virginia has prohibited felons from voting since at least 1830 — decades before African-Americans could vote.”...

McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Robert F. McDonnell, simplified and sped up the application process for nonviolent offenders. When he was governor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, now a U.S. senator, considered a broader action but opted against it on the advice of his senior counsel, Mark Rubin. “A blanket order restoring the voting rights of everyone would be a rewrite of the law rather than a contemplated use of the executive clemency powers,” Rubin wrote in 2010. “And, the notion that the Constitution of the Commonwealth could be rewritten via executive order is troubling.”

McAuliffe’s order also allows ex-felons to serve on juries, run for public office and apply for restoration of their gun rights. It applies to all ex-felons, including those guilty of violent offenses such as murder and rape — a point emphasized by Republicans. The lawsuit notes that attorneys for a man accused of killing a state police trooper in Dinwiddie County are seeking to have felons whose civil rights were restored added to the pool of eligible jurors for his trial.

The McAuliffe administration notes that felons would still need a judge’s approval before winning back their gun rights and would still be vetted by the jury selection process before being added to such a panel. McAuliffe said that nearly 80 percent of those affected by his order were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Still, Republicans say, that means McAuliffe restored rights to 40,000 violent felons.

Prior related posts:

May 24, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 23, 2016

SCOTUS has "firm conviction" strikes in Georgia capital case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent"

The Supreme Court's one criminal justice ruling today comes in Foster v. Chatman, 14-8349 (S. Ct. May 23, 2016) (available here), a capital case out of Georgia involving a Batson claim. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered six votes, and its ruling is reasonably summarized via these passages: 

As we explained in Miller-El v. Dretke, “[i]f a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack [panelist] who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.” 545 U. S. 231, 241 (2005). With respect to both Garrett and Hood, such evidence is compelling. But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file. Considering all of the circumstantial evidence that “bear[s] upon the issue of racial animosity,” we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” Snyder, 552 U. S., at 478, 485....

The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a “color-blind” manner. App. 41, 60 (pretrial hearing). The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting....

The State’s new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.

Justice Alito has an interesting corcurrence about procedures that I will likely discuss in another post. Justice Thomas, in notable contrast, dissents on the merits, and his dissent starts this way:

Thirty years ago, Timothy Foster confessed to murdering Queen Madge White after sexually assaulting her with a bottle of salad dressing. In the decades since, Foster has sought to vacate his conviction and death sentence on the ground that prosecutors violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), when they struck all black prospective jurors before his trial.  Time and again, the state courts have rejected that claim.  The trial court twice rejected it, and the Supreme Court of Georgia unequivocally rejected it when Foster directly appealed his conviction and sentence. Foster v. State, 258 Ga. 736, 736, n. 1, 738–739, 374 S. E. 2d 188, 190, n. 1, 192 (1988), cert. denied, 490 U. S. 1085 (1989).  A state habeas court rejected it in 2013. App. 175–176, 192–196.  And most recently, the Supreme Court of Georgia again rejected it as lacking “arguable merit,” Ga. Sup. Ct. Rule 36 (2001). See App. 246.

Yet, today — nearly three decades removed from voir dire — the Court rules in Foster’s favor.  It does so without adequately grappling with the possibility that we lack jurisdiction. Moreover, the Court’s ruling on the merits, based, in part, on new evidence that Foster procured decades after his conviction, distorts the deferential Batson inquiry.  I respectfully dissent.

May 23, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

SCOTUS concurrences explore what Montgomery GVRs might mean for juve murderers originally sentenced to death

Continuing its recent trend, the short-staffed Supreem Court opted in this new order list not to grant certiorari review in any new cases.  But the list still has some intrigue for sentencing fans thanks to dueling concurrences in a set of cases vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana.  The start of Justice Alito's corcurrence in Adams v. Alabama sets up what makes these cases potentially different from other post-Montgomery GVRs:

The present case differs from most of those in which the Court grants, vacates, and remands for reconsideration in light of Montgomery.  The petitioner in this case — as with a few others now before the Court — was sentenced to death prior to our decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005), which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a death sentence for a minor. During that pre-Roper period, juries in capital cases were required at the penalty phase to consider “all relevant mitigating evidence,” including “the chronological age of a minor” and a youthful defendant’s “mental and emotional development.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 116–117 (1982); see also Roper v. Simmons, supra, at 603 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (“A defendant’s youth or immaturity is, of course, a paradigmatic example” of the type of mitigating evidence to which a “sentencer in a capital case must be permitted to give full effect”). After Roper, death sentences imposed on prisoners convicted of murders committed as minors were reduced to lesser sentences.

Justice Alito goes on to explain his view that this case history might be of constitutional consequence now:

In cases like this, it can be argued that the original sentencing jury fulfilled the individualized sentencing requirement that Miller subsequently imposed.  In these cases, the sentencer necessarily rejected the argument that the defendant’s youth and immaturity called for the lesser sentence of life imprisonment without parole.  It can therefore be argued that such a sentencer would surely have felt that the defendant’s youth and immaturity did not warrant an even lighter sentence that would have allowed the petitioner to be loosed on society at some time in the future.  In short, it can be argued that the jury that sentenced petitioner to death already engaged in the very process mandated by Miller and concluded that petitioner was not a mere “‘child’” whose crimes reflected “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’” post, at 2 (SOTOMAYOR, J., concurring in decision to grant, vacate, and remand), but was instead one of the rare minors who deserves life without parole.

Justice Stotmayor is not so sure that Justice Alito's view on this matter should carry the day on remand, and she explains why in her concurrence:

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), did not merely impose an “individualized sentencing requirement”; it imposed a substantive rule that life without parole is only an appropriate punishment for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 17) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17) (same).  There is no indication that, when the factfinders in these cases considered petitioners’ youth, they even asked the question Miller required them not only to answer, but to answer correctly: whether petitioners’ crimes reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption.” 577 U.S., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17).

The last factfinders to consider petitioners’ youth did so more than 10 — and in most cases more than 20 — years ago. (Petitioners’ post-Roper resentencings were generally automatic.)  Those factfinders did not have the benefit of this Court’s guidance regarding the “diminished culpability of juveniles” and the ways that “penological justifications” apply to juveniles with “lesser force than to adults.”  Roper, 543 U.S., at 571.  As importantly, they did not have the benefit of this Court’s repeated exhortation that the gruesomeness of a crime is not sufficient to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is beyond redemption: “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” Id., at 570; see also id., at 573; Miller, 567 U. S., at __ (slip op., at 17).

May 23, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

DAG Yates spotlights in commencement speech role of Georgia School of Law in clemency achievement

Today, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates returned to her alma mater, the University of Georgia School of Law, to deliver this Commencement address. Like all good Commencement addresses, the whole piece is a lovely read. But sentencing fans should be especially interested in these closing comments:

I’d like to close by telling you about a recent intersection between the work of some students graduating here today and my work in Washington.  As some of you may know, the Obama Administration has embarked on a clemency initiative designed to address the disproportionately long sentences given to lower-level, non-violent drug offenders who were sentenced under outdated drug laws.  As Deputy Attorney General, I am charged with making a recommendation to President Obama on each petition. One such recent clemency petition was prepared by two of today’s graduates. These students participated in the representation of a man named Steven Boyd.  In 1998, Mr. Boyd was convicted of selling crack and sentenced to life in prison. He had absolutely no history of violence and other than a few small time drug deals, no other criminal history. Yet the harsh mandatory minimum statutes in effect at the time mandated a life sentence.  That’s life with no possibility of parole. The students prepared Mr. Boyd’s petition for clemency and submitted it to the Justice Department.  That petition made its way to my desk and then on to the White House. And just three weeks ago, the president granted Mr. Boyd’s clemency petition. Mr. Boyd served 18 years and paid his debt to society. As a result of your classmates’ hard work and their commitment to their duty as lawyers, Mr. Boyd will be a free man. Your classmates unlocked justice for Steven Boyd.

Each and every one of you has both the capacity and the obligation, in the words of Attorney General Kennedy, to breathe meaning and force into the pursuit of justice.  I hope that you will seize opportunities to right wrongs large and small, that you will stand up for the voiceless and that you will uphold the promise of our country. I hope that you will use the key that you are about to receive to unlock justice.

May 21, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Does anyone think former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle has any real chance to have his long federal sentence reversed as unreasonable?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story discussing the high-profile sentencing appeal being heard today by the Seventh Circuit.  Here are the basic details:

Former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle is asking a federal appeals court judge to shorten his nearly 16-year prison sentence. A hearing on Fogle's appeal, which is scheduled this morning in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, comes about six months after U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt sentenced Fogle to 15 years and eight months in federal prison.

Fogle argued that his sentence was unreasonable and that Pratt abused her discretion when she went beyond the sentence that federal prosecutors had recommended as part of a plea agreement.

The one-time face of Subway sandwiches pleaded guilty to possession or distribution of child pornography and traveling across state lines to have commercial sex with a minor. Prosecutors recommended a maximum sentence of 12.5 years, while Fogle's defense attorneys asked for five years....

On appeal, Fogle argued that the sentence he received is "procedurally flawed" for three reasons. First, Fogle did not plead guilty to production of child pornography, and he played no role in producing the images and videos he received from Taylor, according to court records filed by Fogle's attorney.

Second, the punishment is "erroneously grounded in acts that Fogle didn't do and in Fogle's fantasies," neither of which should have been used to justify an enhanced sentence, court records say. "Notwithstanding any fantasies Fogle may have had, or his discussions with third parties concerning possible sexual contact with children younger than the prostituted minors, these events never ultimately culminated in any chargeable criminal activity," court records say.

Third, the sentence was erroneously based on Fogle collecting and viewing pornography of children as young as 6. Fogle argued that although he viewed pornographic images of children, he neither collected them nor asked Taylor for the images.

The district court also seemed to punish Fogle for seeking treatment after his arrest, court records say, and erroneously rejected a probation officer's recommendation for a less harsh sentence based on the additional stress and collateral damage he will endure because of his notoriety.

Fogle also argued that he never had sex with the minors whom Taylor recorded, and never shared any of the pornographic images and videos with anyone other than on one occasion, when he showed them to a woman with whom Fogle was romantically involved. Although he expressed interest in having sex with minors as young as 14, court records say, he never actually did.

In response to Fogle's arguments, federal prosecutors said Pratt "thoroughly and appropriately explored the unusual nature and circumstances of Fogle's offenses and his history and characteristics." Although Fogle was not involved in the production of child pornography, "he knew where the production took place, knew that it was going to happen, and did nothing, instead waiting for his chance to receive the material," according to court records filed by the U.S. attorney's office.

While prosecutors acknowledged the differences between Fogle and Taylor, they said Fogle rationalized and encouraged Taylor's conduct — and, for several years, benefited from it. "Fogle's fantasies were grounded in reality, in that he fantasized about and sought actively to repeat what he had already done, i.e., pay minors for sex," court records say.

Prosecutors also echoed Pratt's statements during Fogle's sentencing hearing last November. Fogle, unlike many offenders, had a relatively easy childhood, free of abuse and neglect. Although he did seek medical treatment, he did so only after he was caught.

Prior related posts:

May 20, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Celebrity sentencings, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two interesting intricate criminal justice rulings from SCOTUS (including a first-ever casebook cite in Betterman!)

The Supreme Court release three opinions this morning, two of which are criminal justice cases. Here are the most essential basics with links via How Appealing:

1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Luna Torres v. Lynch, No. 14-1096. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer joined. You can access the oral argument via this link.

2. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court in Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-1457. Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined. And Justice Sotomayor also issued a concurring opinion. You can access the oral argument via this link.

Statutory interpretation fans will be most interested in the ruling, but sentencing fans will be focused on the Betterman ruling. It gets started this way:

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . .” Does the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution?  That is the sole question this case presents.  We hold that the guarantee protects the accused from arrest or indictment through trial, but does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty to criminal charges.  For inordinate delay in sentencing, although the Speedy Trial Clause does not govern, a defendant may have other recourse, including, in appropriate circumstances, tailored relief under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Petitioner Brandon Betterman, however, advanced in this Court only a Sixth Amendment speedy trial claim.  He did not preserve a due process challenge.  See Tr. of Oral Arg. 19.  We, therefore, confine this opinion to his Sixth Amendment challenge.

Because I would like to see the Due Process Clause play bigger role in regulating sentencing matters, I am inclined to like the Betterman ruling. And, as the title of this post highlights, I definitely linked this passage from the majority opinion for an obvious personal reason:

[A] central feature of contemporary sentencing in both federal and state courts is preparation by the probation office, and review by the parties and the court, of a presentence investigation report. See 18 U. S. C. §3552; Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 32(c)–(g); 6 W. LaFave, J. Israel, N. King, & O. Kerr, Criminal Procedure §26.5(b), pp. 1048–1049 (4th ed. 2015) (noting reliance on presentence reports in federal and state courts). This aspect of the system requires some amount of wholly reasonable presentencing delay.8 Indeed, many — if not most— disputes are resolved, not at the hearing itself, but rather through the presentence-report process.  See N. Demleitner, D. Berman, M. Miller, & R. Wright, Sentencing Law and Policy 443 (3d ed. 2013) (“Criminal justice is far more commonly negotiated than adjudicated; defendants and their attorneys often need to be more concerned about the charging and plea bargaining practices of prosecutors and the presentence investigations of probation offices than . . . about the sentencing procedures of judges or juries.”); cf. Bierschbach & Bibas, Notice-and-Comment Sentencing, 97 Minn. L. Rev. 1, 15 (2012) (“[T]oday’s sentencing hearings . . . rubber-stamp plea-bargained sentences.”).

May 19, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Implementing Graham and Miller: just what qualifies as a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release"?

This new Marshall Project piece effectively details the enduring challenges that states necessarily face in honoring both the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court's modern Eighth Amendment work limiting LWOP sentences for juveniles.  The piece's full headline highlights its themes:  "When Parole Boards Trump the Supreme Court: The high court has said most kids shouldn't be sentenced to life without parole, but some prisoners' fate are in the hands of politics."  Here is how the piece started (with links from the original):

Almost everyone serving life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles deserves a shot at going home. That’s the thrust of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the fourth and most recent of which was decided this year. Taken together, the high court’s message in these cases is that children are different than adults when it comes to crime and punishment — less culpable for their actions and more amenable to change. As such, court rulings have determined all but the rarest of juvenile lifers are entitled to “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The court left it up to states how to handle this year's new ruling but suggested parole boards were a good choice. “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in January, gives states a way to identify “juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured.” Most states have taken this option, changing juvenile lifers’ sentences en masse from life without to lifewith the possibility of parole.

But prisoner’s rights advocates and attorneys have begun to argue whether parole boards, as they usually operate, may not be capable of providing a meaningful opportunity for release. A handful of courts have agreed.

Last month, a New York state appeals court judge ruled that the state’s parole board had not “met its constitutional obligation” when it denied parole to a man who had killed his girlfriend when he was 16. Dempsey Hawkins is now 54 and has been denied parole nine times in hearings that, the court said, did not adequately weigh what role his youth and immaturity had played in his crime.

Also last month, a group of juvenile lifers in Maryland filed suit, arguing that not a single juvenile lifer had received parole in that state in the last 20 years. “Rather than affording youth a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release…grants of release are exceptionally rare, are governed by no substantive, enforceable standards, and are masked from view by blanket assertions of executive privilege,” the lawsuit says.

Similar suits are proceeding in Iowa, Michigan, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, where a judge heard oral arguments last week.

“There are just two relevant kinds of sentences: those that provide a meaningful opportunity for release and those that don’t,” says Sarah French Russell, a Quinnipiac University law professor who studies juvenile justice. “Sentences that are not technically labeled life without parole can deny a meaningful opportunity for release because of the procedures or criteria used by the parole board.”

A few of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

California voters in November to have "mend it or end it" death penalty initiative options

As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Showdown Set Over Future of California's Death Penalty," two competing ballot initiative appear poised to be before voters on the Left Coast this fall. Here are the details:

Death penalty supporters are setting the stage on Thursday for a November showdown over whether to speed up executions in California or do away with them entirely. Crime victims, prosecutors and other supporters plan to submit about 585,000 signatures for a ballot measure to streamline what both sides call a broken system.

No one has been executed in California in a decade because of ongoing legal challenges.  Nearly 750 convicted killers are on the nation's largest death row, but only 13 have been executed since 1978.  Far more condemned inmates have died of natural causes or suicide.

Supporters plan 10 news conferences statewide to promote an initiative they say would save taxpayers millions of dollars annually, retain due process protections and bring justice to murder victims and their families.  The measure would speed what is currently a lengthy appeals process by expanding the pool of appellate attorneys and appointing lawyers to the death cases at the time of sentencing.

Currently there is about a five-year wait just for condemned inmates to be assigned a lawyer.  By contrast, the ballot measure would require that the entire state appeals process be completed within five years except under extraordinary circumstances. To meet that timeline, appeals would have to be filed more quickly and there would be limits on how many appeals could be filed in each case....  Additional provisions would allow condemned inmates to be housed at any prison, not just on San Quentin's death row, and they would have to work and pay victim restitution while they wait to be executed....

Opponents say their measure, too, would save money by doing away with the death penalty and keeping currently condemned inmates imprisoned for life with no chance of parole. They submitted about 601,000 signatures on April 28 with much less fanfare, said deputy campaign manager Quintin Mecke.  Each side needs nearly 366,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.  "It's unfortunate that the DAs (district attorneys) want to double down on a fundamentally broken death penalty system that simply can't be fixed," Mecke said. "You can't streamline or reform a failed policy."

A similar attempt to abolish the death penalty failed by 4 percentage points in 2012. Besides the latest initiative put forward by opponents, that failed effort spurred this year's counter-move by law enforcement and crime victims.

May 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Jurisdiction and Resentencing: How Prosecutorial Waiver Can Offer Remedies Congress Has Denied"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely scholarship authored by Leah Litman and Luke Beasley. Here are excerpts from the start of the piece which highlights its themes and timeliness: 

This Essay is about what prosecutors can do to ensure that prisoners with meritorious legal claims have a remedy. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) imposes draconian conditions on when prisoners may file successive petitions for post-conviction review (that is, more than one petition for post-conviction review).  AEDPA’s restrictions on post-conviction review are so severe that they routinely prevent prisoners with meritorious claims from vindicating those claims.

Take, for example, the recent litigation about whether prisoners with “Johnson” claims may be resentenced. Johnson v. United States held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague. ACCA imposed a mandatory fifteen-year term of imprisonment on prisoners; but without ACCA, the statutory maximum term of imprisonment for these prisoners is ten years.  Johnson therefore means these prisoners could lawfully be sentenced to no more than ten years in prison.  Prisoners whose ACCA sentences depended on the residual clause are now seeking to have their 15-year sentences reduced to the lawful 10 years.  But three courts of appeal held that AEDPA bars prisoners with Johnson claims from obtaining relief if they have already filed one petition for post-conviction review, because the prisoners do not satisfy AEDPA’s conditions for filing a successive petition for postconviction review....

Part I describes AEDPA’s restrictions on post-conviction petitions that are preventing prisoners with meritorious claims from obtaining relief, and how the United States is attempting to bypass those restrictions by waiving the argument that AEDPA’s restrictions are not satisfied.  Part II argues that AEDPA’s restrictions on filing successive petitions for post-conviction review are not jurisdictional, and that courts may therefore accept the government’s waiver and allow prisoners to obtain relief on their claims even if prisoners do not satisfy AEDPA’s preconditions for filing successive petitions for post-conviction review.

May 18, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)