Thursday, January 19, 2017
Prez Obama wraps up his clemency work with 330 more commutations on his final full day in office
As reported here via USA Today, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more federal inmates Thursday, capping an unprecedented clemency effort that has now released 1,715 prisoners — more than any other president in history." Here is more:
The clemency grants announced on Obama's last full day in office set a one-day record. "Proud to make this one of my final actions as President. America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot," Obama tweeted Thursday.
The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, was targeted at drug dealers who received mandatory-minimum sentences during the War on Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s. But the effort ultimately fell far short of the 10,000 clemency grants former attorney general Eric Holder predicted when the initiative began. And while Obama set a record for granting commutations, he also set a record for denials. As of the end of 2016, he had denied 14,485 petitions and closed another 4,242 without action — an overall grant rate of 5.9%, a couple of percentage points higher than many of his predecessors.
"The president set out to reinvigorate clemency, and he has done just that," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement.
It's unclear how big of a backlog in clemency cases President-elect Donald Trump will inherit. But Justice Department officials had promised to give an up-or-down determination on every clemency initiative case it received by August. “I’m proud to say we kept that promise," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement. "This undertaking was as enormous as it was unprecedented, and I am incredibly grateful to the teams of people who devoted their time and energy to the project since its inception."
Obama's final list of clemency grants included no more full pardons, meaning his final pardon tally will stand at 212 — fewer than any modern president except Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (It was the younger Bush who gave Obama this advice in the limo ride to the Capitol on his Inauguration Day eight years ago. "Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.")
The grants on Thursday also did not include any of the more high-profile political cases, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former congressman Chaka Fattah, all serving time on corruption charges.
With Thursday's action, the Clemency Project 2014 also closes its doors. The coalition of defense attorneys who had agreed to help inmates with their cases says it completed work on all the applications it received. "Of course we'd be delighted to continue, but we have to wait to see whether the next president says whether he will or will not pursue this," he said.
This NBC News coverage of the final grants and the recent history of Obama's clemency initiative closes with a useful account of its ups and downs:
Obama's clemency grants came in large batches, hundreds at a time, accompanied by statements that framed his effort as a bid to become the most merciful president of all time. But his denials were even more voluminous. The effect on applicants and their lawyers was like an emotional roller coaster.
On Wednesday, sandwiched between Obama's two ballyhooed clemency announcements, the Justice Department quietly released the names of more than 2,000 applicants who'd been denied.
James Felman, a Florida defense lawyer who represents dozens of inmates who applied for clemency, celebrated Tuesday when he learned that four had received commutations. On Wednesday, he learned that a dozen others had been denied, and he mourned. On Thursday, Felman was elated again, this time for four more clients who were on Obama's list. A dozen of Felman's clients still have heard nothing. Three are serving life sentences.
And then there's the matter of reform. Advocates point out that clemency does nothing to change policies that led to mass incarceration. Efforts to ease those laws beyond the 2010 changes have stalled in Congress.
Felman, who won commutation for 44 total clients, called Obama's initiative "the single most gratifying professional experience I've ever undertaken." He added: "I have so much gratitude for the president for having the courage and fortitude for doing this. But we know this is not a substitute for reforming the laws that got us here, and we still haven't accomplished that."
Noting that two death row inmates were among the latest batch of commutations by Prez Obama
I am intrigued and a bit surprised that there has not been more media attention surrounding the fact that two of the persons granted clemency by Prez Obama earlier this week were murderers on federal death row. This posting at the Death Penalty Information Center reports on the basics, with also interesting links to some clemency materials:
On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th.
Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty.
In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment."
Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die.
Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
This new Marshall Project piece, headlined "How Obama Disappointed on the Death Penalty: Two commutations this week was less than many had hoped for," discusses these two clemencies while also suggesting that they provide only a little succor to the capital abolitionist community.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Top Massachusetts court adopts "new protocol for case-by-case adjudication" of over 20,000 drug convictions tainted by misconduct of lab chemist
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issues a huge new ruling to try to resolve a huge old problem caused by drug lab misconduct. The start of the opinion in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, No. SJC 12157 (Mass. Jan. 18, 2017)(available here), provides the back-story and the essential:
We once again confront the tragic legacy of the misconduct of Annie Dookhan when she was employed as a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute (Hinton lab). In Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 471 Mass. 465, 487 (2015) (Bridgeman I), the petitioners and the intervener, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), asked that we exercise our broad powers of superintendence to vacate the thousands of drug convictions affected by Dookhan's misconduct because the time and expense of case-by-case adjudication had become "untenable." We declined at that time to adopt their proposed "global remedy." However, the district attorneys have now provided the single justice with lists identifying more than 20,000 defendants who could be eligible for relief based on Dookhan's misconduct but who have not yet sought relief from their drug convictions. As a result of the number of potentially aggrieved defendants, the single justice issued a reservation and report to the full court that essentially invites us to reconsider whether the time has come for a global remedy or whether further steps must be taken to realistically implement the remedy of case-by-case adjudication of potentially thousands of motions for a new trial.
After such reconsideration, we decline to adopt the district attorneys' argument that we should stay the course we had previously set and take no further action to protect the rights of the "relevant Dookhan defendants." We also decline to adopt the petitioners' request for a global remedy in which we would either vacate the convictions of all relevant Dookhan defendants with prejudice, and thereby bar any reprosecution, or vacate the convictions without prejudice, and allow the Commonwealth one year to reprosecute, dismissing with prejudice all cases not reprosecuted within that time period.
We instead adopt a new protocol for case-by-case adjudication, which will occur in three phases, and order its implementation by the single justice in the form of a declaratory judgment. In the first phase, the district attorneys shall exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the number of relevant Dookhan defendants by moving to vacate and dismiss with prejudice all drug cases the district attorneys would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered. In the second phase, new, adequate notice shall be approved by the single justice and provided to all relevant Dookhan defendants whose cases have not been dismissed in phase one. In the third phase, CPCS shall assign counsel to all indigent relevant Dookhan defendants who wish to explore the possibility of moving to vacate their plea or for a new trial. If the number seeking counsel is so large that counsel cannot be assigned despite CPCS's best efforts, the single justice will fashion an appropriate remedy under our general superintendence authority for the constitutional violation, which may include dismissing without prejudice the relevant drug convictions in cases where an indigent defendant is deprived of the right to counsel.
We recognize that the implementation of this protocol will substantially burden the district attorneys, CPCS, and the courts. But we also recognize that Dookhan's misconduct at the Hinton lab has substantially burdened the due process rights of many thousands of defendants whose convictions rested on her tainted drug analysis and who, even if they have served their sentences, continue to suffer the collateral consequences arising from those convictions. And we recognize as well that, more than four years after Dookhan's misconduct was revealed, more than 20,000 defendants who are entitled to a conclusive presumption that egregious government misconduct occurred in their case have yet to receive adequate notice that they may have been victimized by Dookhan's misconduct, that they may file a motion to vacate their drug conviction, and that they have a right to counsel to assist them in the preparation of such a motion. The remedy we order, challenging as it is to implement, preserves the ability of these defendants to vindicate their rights through case-by-case adjudication, respects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and maintains the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system in the wake of a laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude.
Some attacks and some defenses of Prez Obama's decision to commute sentence of Chelsea Manning
Because I have not spent a lot of time reviewing the many distinctive and seemingly unique facts relating to Chelsea Manning's offenses and personal history, I really do not have strong opinions about Prez Obama's notable decision to commute her sentence from 35 years down to roughly 7. But it does seem that a lot of other folks have strong views, and here is a mini-round up of criticisms and defenses:
From Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences here, "Treason? Not a Problem!"
From Michael Rubin at the New York Post here, "Setting traitor Manning free is a betrayal by Obama"
From Cully Stimson via the Daily Signal here, "Obama’s Commutation of Manning Sentence Sends a Horrible Message to Service Personnel"
From Fred Kaplan via Slate here, "Obama Was Right to Commute Chelsea Manning’s Sentence"
- From Charles Pierce via Esquire here, "If You Think Chelsea Manning Got Off Easy, You're Out of Your Mind"
From Benjamin Wittes & Susan Hennessey via Lawfare here, "Obama is Right on Chelsea Manning"
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Extended dissent laments First Circuit panel's rejection of Eighth Amendment attack on 160-year sentence for stash house participant
I just notices a lengthy and blog-worthy opinion issued by the First Circuit late last week in US v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Jan 13, 2017) (available here). The start and final substantive paragraphs of the majority opinion provides the factual background for the Eighth Amendment claim and its formal fate:
This case arises out of a now-familiar, large-scale FBI investigation known as "Operation Guard Shack," in which the FBI, in an effort to root out police corruption throughout Puerto Rico, orchestrated a series of staged drug deals over the course of several years. For his participation in six of these Operation Guard Shack drug deals, Defendant- Appellant Wendell Rivera-Ruperto stood two trials and was found guilty of various federal drug and firearms-related crimes. The convictions resulted in Rivera-Ruperto receiving a combined sentence of 161-years and 10-months' imprisonment.....
At oral argument, counsel for Rivera-Ruperto argued that we should be swayed by the fact that, in this case, the crime involved fake drug deals. A near two life-term punishment where no real drugs and no real drug dealers were involved, he contended, is a punishment that is grossly disproportionate on its face. But in coming to this sentence, the judge below was guided by and correctly employed a sentencing scheme that is written into statute -- a statute that makes no distinction between cases involving real versus sham cocaine. At each of the six stings, in fact, Rivera-Ruperto repeatedly and voluntarily showed up armed and provided security services for what he believed to be illegal transactions between real cocaine dealers. The crime of possessing a firearm in furtherance of such a drug trafficking offense is a grave one, and Congress has made a legislative determination that it requires harsh punishment. Given the weight of the case law, we see no Eighth Amendment route for second-guessing that legislative judgment.
We thus cannot conclude that Rivera-Ruperto has established that his sentence, which is largely due to his consecutive sentences under § 924(c), is grossly disproportionate to the crime, so as to trigger Eighth Amendment protections.
The start and end of Judge Torruella's 35+-page dissent provides a much fuller primer on the Eighth Amendment and one judge's concerns about its application in this case:
The majority today affirms a sentence of 160 years and one month without the possibility of parole for Rivera-Ruperto. The transgression for which Rivera-Ruperto was punished in such an extreme manner was his participation as a security guard in several fake transactions, while the FBI duped Rivera-Ruperto into believing that the composite was actually illegal drugs. The FBI ensured that more than five kilograms of composite moved from one agent's hands to another at each transaction; the FBI also made sure that the rigged script included Rivera-Ruperto's possession of a pistol at each transaction. This combination -- more than five kilograms of composite, a pistol, and separate transactions -- triggered the mandatory consecutive minimums of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which make up 130 years of Rivera-Ruperto's sentence.
In a real drug transaction, all participants would be guilty of a crime. And, in general, the greater their knowledge of the crime would be, the harsher the law would punish them. In the fictitious transaction we are faced with today, however, only the duped participants, who had no knowledge of what truly transpired, are punished. The other participants are not only excused, but indeed rewarded for a job well done.
If Rivera-Ruperto had instead knowingly committed several real rapes, second-degree murders, and/or kidnappings, he would have received a much lower sentence; even if Rivera-Ruperto had taken a much more active role in, and brought a gun to, two much larger real drug deals, he would still have received a much lower sentence. For these and many other crimes Rivera-Ruperto would have received sentences that would see him released from prison during the natural term of his life. For the fictitious transgressions concocted by the authorities, however, Rivera- Ruperto will spend his entire life behind bars -- a sentence given to first-degree murderers, 18 U.S.C. § 1111, or those who cause death by wrecking a train carrying high-level nuclear waste. 18 U.S.C. § 1992.
From the majority's approval of the draconian sentence imposed in this case, I respectfully dissent. Rivera-Ruperto's sentence is grossly disproportionate to his offense, and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. While some seemingly excessively harsh sentences have withstood Eighth Amendment challenges, such harsh sentences have been sanctioned only in the context of recidivists or those who otherwise dedicated themselves to a life of crime -- a context that explained the severity of the sentences. But Rivera-Ruperto has no criminal record, nor has he dedicated himself to a life of crime. Not even under the infamous § 924(c) has a first-time offender like Rivera-Ruperto ever been condemned to spend his entire life in jail....
Never before has a first-time offender who has not dedicated his life to crime been condemned to spend his entire life in prison for a transgression such as Rivera-Ruperto's, not even in cases in which the transgression was real -- and Rivera's-Ruperto's transgression is fictitious.
The Government has effectively asked this court to pronounce the Eighth Amendment dead for sentences for a term of years. I respectfully refuse to join in this pronouncement. "Unless we are to abandon the moral commitment embodied in the Eighth Amendment, proportionality review must never become effectively obsolete." Graham, 560 U.S. at 85 (Stevens, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, JJ., concurring).
Prez Obama issues clemency to 273 more individuals (209 commutation and 64 pardons) and Chelsea Manning among those getting a commuted sentence
Today, 273 individuals learned that the President has given them a second chance. With today’s 209 grants of commutation, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals — the most grants of commutation issued by any President in this nation’s history. President Obama’s 1,385 commutation grants — which includes 504 life sentences — is also more than the total number of commutations issued by the past 12 presidents combined. And with today’s 64 pardons, the President has now granted a total of 212 pardons.
Today, 209 commutation recipients — including 109 individuals who had believed they would live out their remaining days in prison — learned that they will be rejoining their families and loved ones, and 64 pardon recipients learned that their past convictions have been forgiven. These 273 individuals learned that our nation is a forgiving nation, where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance, and where wrongs from the past will not deprive an individual of the opportunity to move forward. Today, 273 individuals — like President Obama’s 1,324 clemency recipients before them — learned that our President has found them deserving of a second chance.
There is at least one high-profile recipient of a commutation today, as this FoxNews headline reveals:
The White House said that Manning is one of 209 inmates whose sentences Obama is shortening. Obama is also pardoning 64 people, including retired Gen. James Cartwright, who was charged with making false statements during a probe into disclosure of classified information. Most of the other people receiving commutations were serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
Manning is more than six years into a 35-year sentence for leaking classified government and military documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. Her sentence is now set to expire May 17.
Monday, January 16, 2017
SCOTUS to confront implication for immigration statute of Johnson vagueness ruling
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral argument in Lynch v. Dimaya, which comes to the Justices as part of the aftermath of their big 2015 Armed Career Criminal Act vagueness ruling in Johnson v. United States. Over at SCOTUSblog here, Kevin Johnson has this preview of the case. It starts this way:
The U.S government targets noncitizens with criminal convictions for removal from the United States. These efforts have allowed President Barack Obama’s administration to deport approximately 2.5 million noncitizens during Obama’s eight years in office, more than any other president in American history. On several recent occasions, the Supreme Court has found that the administration went too far and has set aside orders of removal of criminal offenders that it has found to be inconsistent with the immigration statute. For example, in Mellouli v. Lynch, in 2015, the court held that a state misdemeanor conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia did not justify removal. In 2013, in Moncrieffe v. Holder, the justices found that a lawful permanent resident’s conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana — now legal in many states — did not mandate removal. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Lynch v. Dimaya, another criminal-removal case, but one with potentially far-reaching constitutional implications.
A noncitizen, including a lawful permanent resident, who is convicted of an “aggravated felony” is subject to mandatory removal. The Immigration and Nationality Act defines “aggravated felonies” expansively to include crimes, including some misdemeanors, that run the gamut from murder to virtually any drug and firearm offense. That definition incorporates 18 U.S.C. §16(b), known as the “residual clause,” which defines a “crime of violence” to encompass “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”
In 2015, in Johnson v. United States, the court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, struck down as unconstitutionally vague the Armed Career Criminal Act’s definition of “violent felony,” which included crimes that “involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The Johnson court held that the statutory language “fail[ed] to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, [and was] so standardless that it invite[d] arbitrary enforcement.”
Born in the Philippines, James Garcia Dimaya has lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident since 1992. Based on Dimaya’s two California burglary convictions, the U.S. government sought to remove him from the United States. Finding that burglary was a “crime of violence” under Section 16(b)’s residual clause and thus an “aggravated felony,” an immigration judge ordered Dimaya removed. The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed. In a rare decision finding a removal provision of the U.S. immigration laws to be unconstitutional, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit concluded that Section 16(b) was void for vagueness.
Friday, January 13, 2017
Supreme Court grants cert on four new criminal cases and a dozen others
After a seemingly long quiet period of avoiding taking on too many new cases, the Supreme Court this afternoon issued this order list which grants cert on 16(!) new cases. I believe these four cases from the list are the only criminal ones, with links to case pages and descriptions via SCOTUSblog:
WEAVER, KENTEL M. V. MASSACHUSETTS: Whether a defendant asserting ineffective assistance that results in a structural error must, in addition to demonstrating deficient performance, show that he was prejudiced by counsel's ineffectiveness, as held by four circuits and five state courts of last resort; or whether prejudice is presumed in such cases, as held by four other circuits and two state high courts.
MASLENJAK, DIVNA V. UNITED STATES: Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit erred by holding, in direct conflict with the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 1st, 4th, 7th and 9th Circuits, that a naturalized American citizen can be stripped of her citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement.
McWILLIAMS, JAMES E. V. DUNN, COMM'R, AL DOC, ET AL.: Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.
DAVILA, ERICK D. V. DAVIS, DIR., TX DCJ : Whether the rule established in Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler, that ineffective state habeas counsel can be seen as cause to overcome the procedural default of a substantial ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim, also applies to procedurally defaulted, but substantial, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims.
Most of these cases look intricate, and maybe Maslenjak could even be viewed as a kind of sentencing case. But, on first look, I see no brewing blockbusters.
UPDATE: Over at Crime & Consequences here, Kent Scheidegger shares some initial reactions to this quartet of new SCOTUS criminal cases.
Thursday, January 12, 2017
"Mistakes and Justice — Using the Pardon Power to Remedy a Mistake of Law"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
American criminal law has never recognized a mistake-of-law defense. The principal rationale for rejecting it has been that the community knows what the criminal law prohibits. That may have been a reasonable rule when there were only a handful of crimes, and each one also violated the contemporary moral code, but that rule makes no sense today, given the use of the criminal law to enforce thousands of sometimes technical, arcane administrative regulations. Clemency, however, may be a perfect vehicle for the implementation of a mistake- or ignorance-of-the-law defense.
Throughout Anglo-American legal history, kings, presidents, and governors have used their pardon power as a vehicle to remedy injustices in the criminal justice system. The conviction of a person for conduct that no reasonable person would have thought to be a crime certainly qualifies as a miscarriage of justice. Presidents and governors should consider using their clemency authority to pardon legitimate cases of mistake or ignorance, which might particularly arise in connection with strict criminal liability or regulatory crimes.
New Jersey Supreme Court addresses Miller's application to all serious juve sentencings
As reported in this local article, the top court in the Garden State "ruled unanimously Wednesday to overhaul the way New Jersey judges sentence juveniles convicted in violent crimes that could keep them in prison until they are elderly or dead." Here is more from the press report on the opinion:
The state's highest court ruled 7-0 that judges must consider a number of factors -- including age, family environment, and peer pressure -- before issuing lengthy sentences to youths in serious cases. Peter Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, said this is "one of the most significant sentencing decisions" the court has made in "many years."
And in a rare move, the court also urged the New Jersey Legislature to revise the state's current law on juvenile sentencing to "avoid a potential constitutional challenge in the future," according to the decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
The decision is the result of appeals filed by a pair of men who were convicted separately of violent crimes years ago in Essex County when they were 17 and were sentenced to decades in prison. Ricky Zuber was convicted for his role in two gang rapes in 1981 and was sentenced to 110 years in prison. He would not have been eligible for parole for 55 years -- a time when he would be 72. James Comer was convicted of four armed robberies in 2000, including one where an accomplice shot and killed a victim. He would have become eligible for parole when he was 85 -- after having served 68 years.
Rabner wrote that judges in both cases did not take "age or related circumstances" into account when issuing the sentences. But, Rabner said, the U.S. Supreme Court has since "sent a clear message" that "children are different" from adults and that "youth and its attendant characteristics" must be considered when sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole.
"Because of their young age at the time of their crimes, both defendants can expect to spend more than a half century in jail before they may be released -- longer than the time served by some adults convicted of first-degree murder," Rabner wrote.
Rabner cited how in a 2012 decision called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges presiding over cases involving juveniles facing life sentences without parole must consider a number of factors before sentencing. Those include immaturity; family and home environment; family and peer pressures; an"inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors" or their own attorney; and "the possibility of rehabilitation."
But New Jersey's Supreme Court went further, saying those standards must be applied not only to sentences of life without parole but also to youths who face lengthy sentences. The court also cited a the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects defendants from "cruel and unusual punishment."
"Youth matters under the constitution," Rabner wrote.
The full opinion is available at this link, and it covers a lot of important post-Graham and post-Miller ground concerning juvenile sentencing.
January 12, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
"Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?"
The title of this post is the title of this provocative new article authored by William Baude and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The doctrine of qualified immunity operates as an unwritten defense to civil rights lawsuits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It prevents plaintiffs from recovering damages for violations of their constitutional rights unless the government official violated “clearly established law,” usually requiring a specific precedent on point. This article argues that the doctrine is unlawful and inconsistent with conventional principles of statutory interpretation.
Members of the Supreme Court have offered three different justifications for imposing such an unwritten defense on the text of Section 1983. One is that it derives from a common law “good faith” defense; another is that it compensates for an earlier putative mistake in broadening the statute; the third is that it provides “fair warning” to government officials, akin to the rule of lenity.
But on closer examination, each of these justifications falls apart, for a mix of historical, conceptual, and doctrinal reasons. There was no such defense; there was no such mistake; lenity ought not apply. And even if these things were otherwise, the doctrine of qualified immunity would not be the best response.
The unlawfulness of qualified immunity is of particular importance now. Despite the shoddy foundations, the Supreme Court has been reinforcing the doctrine of immunity in both formal and informal ways. In particular, the Court has given qualified immunity a privileged place on its agenda reserved for few other legal doctrines besides habeas deference. Rather than doubling down, the Court ought to be beating a retreat.
Though technically not a sentencing article, any conceptual and/or doctrinal strike against qualified immunity seems likely also to be a blow against the absolute immunity that right now protects from litigation scrutiny the sentencing decisions made by prosecutors and judges.
Monday, January 09, 2017
"In the Mold of Scalia or Alito: Recent Criminal and Habeas Decisions of Judges Pryor and Sykes"
The title of this post is the title of this new and timely short piece authored by Scott Meisler now available via SSRN that ought to be of special interest to sentencing fans. Here is the abstract:
Recent press reports indicate that federal appellate judges William Pryor and Diane Sykes are among the finalists for the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s death. But just as Justice Scalia and fellow conservative Justice Alito often differed on questions of criminal and habeas corpus procedure, so too have Judges Pryor and Sykes. This short essay analyzes four legal issues on which the two judges have recently reached contrary results or demonstrated different approaches — including two legal issues arising from Justice Scalia’s last major criminal procedure opinion, Johnson v. United States. The essay concludes that, though the decisions analyzed here represent only a small sample, they suggest that Judge Sykes’s approach to criminal procedure questions would more closely resemble Justice Scalia’s, while Judge Pryor’s would be more similar to that of Justice Alito.
January 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
SCOTUS issues per curiam opinion strengthening claim of qualified immunity after police shootout
The Supreme Court's first big order list of 2017 had no cert grants, which I think provides still more evidence that the Justices are disinclined to take up much of note until they get a replacement for Justice Scalia. But the court found one case they could resolve through a summary opinion, White v. Pauly, No. 16–67 (S. Ct. Jan. 9, 2017) (available here). In this case, the Supreme Court vacating a split Tenth Circuit ruling that had denied qualified immunity to a New Mexico police officer after deadly shooting during a confrontation with armed suspects. Here is how the opinion starts and a key passage:
This case addresses the situation of an officer who — having arrived late at an ongoing police action and having witnessed shots being fired by one of several individuals in a house surrounded by other officers — shoots and kills an armed occupant of the house without first giving a warning....
This is not a case where it is obvious that there was a violation of clearly established law under Garner and Graham. Of note, the majority did not conclude that White’s conduct — such as his failure to shout a warning — constituted a run-of-the-mill Fourth Amendment violation. Indeed, it recognized that “this case presents a unique set of facts and circumstances” in light of White’s late arrival on the scene. 814 F.3d, at 1077. This alone should have been an important indication to the majority that White’s conduct did not violate a “clearly established” right. Clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action in circumstances like this from assuming that proper procedures, such as officer identification, have already been followed. No settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or her fellow officers in instances like the one White confronted here.
Th per curiam opinion closes with a lot of nuance as to what the Justices were not deciding, and a concurring opinion by Justice Ginsburg highlights that point.
Sunday, January 08, 2017
SCOTUS back in action with booking fee process as first notable criminal case of 2017
The Supreme Court returns to action tomorrow morning, and the Court's January sitting only has a couple cases that should be of serious interest to criminal justice fans. But the very first case slated for the very first 2017 oral argument is one of procedural note, Nelson v. Colorado. The folks over at SCOTUSblog have provided this preview by Steve Vladeck, which starts and ends this way:
Every jurisdiction in the United States requires at least some criminal defendants to make certain payments to the government tied to their convictions. And if a defendant’s conviction is subsequently vacated — whether on appeal or through collateral post-conviction proceedings — virtually every jurisdiction directly returns those funds to the acquitted individual. Colorado does not. Instead, according to the Colorado Supreme Court, criminal defendants seeking a return of funds paid in conjunction with a later-vacated conviction must bring a separate civil suit under a Colorado statute — the Exoneration Act — in which, among other burdens, plaintiffs apparently have to prove their actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover. The very first argument the justices will hear in 2017 — Nelson v. Colorado — raises the question whether this seemingly unique scheme violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment....
Although it is often difficult to predict from an oral argument how the justices are likely to rule, the sharp distinctions in how the parties have framed the issue in this case may allow for more than the usual tea-leaf reading at next Monday’s argument. The more the questioning focuses on distinctions between the different types of payments made by Nelson and Madden, and the state’s interest in collecting and preserving those funds, the more it may bode well for Colorado. But the more the justices’ attention appears drawn to how poor a fit the Exoneration Act actually is for defendants like these, the more likely the court will be to reverse. After all, as Nelson and Madden conclude in their reply brief, Colorado appears to be the first and only jurisdiction in the United States “to require successful appellants to prove their innocence by any standard to get their money back when their convictions are reversed.” If that fact seems to trouble enough of the justices during their first argument of the new year, then a reversal may well be in the offing.
Thursday, January 05, 2017
Marijuana reform and clemency conversations at the state and federal level
Two new lengthy pieces combining news and commentary on the clemency and marijuana fronts further reinforces my view that marijuana reform is a form of sentencing reform. Here are the extended headlines and links to these two interesting reads:
From the Christian Science Monitor here, "Vermont governor pardons 192 marijuana offenders. Will other states do the same?: Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin pardoned nearly 200 nonviolent offenders convicted of marijuana possession under the state’s old laws. Will other state executives follow his lead?"
From Politico here, "The Big Statement Obama Could Make On Legalizing Pot: Pardoning a 73-year-old marijuana kingpin would please thousands of voters, but probably not the next attorney general."
Wednesday, January 04, 2017
Louisiana public defenders lacking resources needed to adequately prepare for Miller resentencings in old juve LWOP cases
This interesting local article highlights the economic challenges posed for some local courts and lawyers when now having to implement retroactively the Supreme Court's Miller ruling precluding mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers. The article is headlined "'Unfunded mandate' of individualized sentencing hearings for some juveniles causing headaches for public defenders," and here are excerpts:
A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled out laws mandating life without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, and a subsequent decision last year made that ruling retroactive. Now, those juveniles are required to get what’s called “individualized sentencing hearings” before such a harsh sentence can be handed down, said Carol Kolinchak, a compliance officer for the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
And those hearings take resources. “You have to investigate and develop evidence (about) the youth and the circumstances surrounding the crime,” Kolinchak told [Judge Arthur] Hunter, adding that it is the defense’s “ethical obligation” to make sure each juvenile offender gets a proper investigation into their backgrounds prior to their hearing.
But, she added, the mandate isn’t cheap, and it’s also unfunded. At a cost of $60,000 to $75,000 a client, both [Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn] Bunton and State Public Defender Jay Dixon said they were at a loss for how to properly prepare for each client’s sentencing hearing.
According to Kolinchak, there are nearly 300 juveniles eligible for such individualized hearings throughout the state. “The question in Louisiana is the same as it is nationally, which is that it has really been an unfunded mandate,” she said. “It places burdens on defense counsel with no discussion of funding.”
The issue came up in Hunter’s courtroom Tuesday in the case of Joseph Morgan, a defendant convicted in 2015 of second-degree murder in the death of Gervais "Gee" Nicholas, a teenager gunned down in 2008 outside the Chat Club at Tulane Avenue and South Lopez Street. Morgan was 16 at the time of the shooting, but prosecutors are nevertheless seeking life without parole.
Defense attorney Tom Shlosman, who is representing Morgan pro bono, told the judge he doesn't have the resources for the elaborate proceedings now required in Morgan's case. The other officials who testified before Hunter were brought in to help bolster the broader case that more money needs to be set aside statewide to handle these types of defendants....
In New Orleans, the question is how to proceed with about 72 cases that now qualify for a so-called “Miller hearing,” Kolinchak said. On Tuesday, both Bunton and Dixon said they didn’t anticipate being able to pay for those hearings, at least for indigent clients, anytime soon, because there’s no money available to properly investigate possible mitigating circumstances for those clients.
Dixon said the state public defender’s budget has been “stagnant” at about $33 million for the past several years. Moreover, he said, the threat of a 5 percent cut to his budget looms ahead, a move he said would be “devastating” for both death penalty cases and juvenile cases like Morgan’s. That’s because Dixon's office is required to distribute about 65 percent of its budget to district defenders' offices throughout the parishes, and so the cuts would have to come from the more complex pool of cases that his office contracts out to other law firms.
Bunton said he has to stretch an $8 million budget to cover nearly 22,000 cases a year — a situation that he said leaves him no room for taking on new work like individualized sentencing hearings for indigent juveniles....
“We don’t have an answer. This is the kind of thing that funding or lack of funding creates,” Dixon said. “You’re talking about basically a juggling act with a lack of funds. And we’re both in that trick box. We do not have an answer for that.”
GOP Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley says federal sentencing reform a priority after Trump nominations completed
This lengthy new Politico article, headlined in full "Senators plan to revive sentencing reform push: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley says he's not done yet pressing a cause with broad bipartisan support," brings some welcome new year good news for advocates of federal sentencing reform. Here are the details, with a couple of lines emphasized for subsequent commentary:
Criminal justice reform — the great bipartisan hope of 2016 that ended in disappointment — may not be dead just yet. Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) plans to take up a bill to revamp U.S. sentencing laws and reform prisons soon after his panel clears the high-profile nominations from Donald Trump. A similar measure passed his committee overwhelmingly last year before stalling out in the face of opposition from law-and-order conservatives.
But Grassley told POLITICO he will soon try again. "The committee will begin the year working through the attorney general and Supreme Court nominees, but criminal justice reform will be one of the legislative bills I plan to bring up early on,” he said in a statement. “It cleared the committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress, and I don't expect that to change.”
The chief authors of the criminal justice overhaul, led by Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), will continue to try to drum up more support among senators, while “educating” the Trump administration about their bill’s merits, Grassley said. The legislation isn’t expected to be substantially different than last year’s version.
Criminal justice reform could’ve been one of the bright, bipartisan spots in an otherwise contentious election year. But despite support from President Barack Obama, powerful congressional Republicans, and a sprawling network of groups from the left and right, the legislation never made it to the floor. That was partly due to the determined efforts of law-and-order conservatives to steamroll it — and there's little to suggest that if the legislation heads to the Senate floor, that dynamic would change.
Nevertheless, Durbin approached Grassley after the election and pressed the chairman about whether the duo should make another run at it this year, Durbin recalled in a recent phone interview. Grassley was in. And once the chairman tees up the bill this year in his committee, its supporters expect a bipartisan vote similar to the 15-5 tally it received in October 2015.
Durbin and Grassley’s aides have been discussing a strategy to advance the bill in 2017. Aiding their cause is the fact that three opponents — GOP Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Perdue of Georgia — are leaving the committee this year, stirring hope that the vote count in favor of the measure could be higher. Vitter no longer serves in the Senate, Sessions is expected to be confirmed as attorney general and Perdue is shifting committees. Replacing them on the influential panel are Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Kennedy of Louisiana. “I think the committee will be just as strong. It may be stronger,” Durbin said. “When you have people like Grassley and Durbin and [Senate Majority Whip John] Cornyn and [Sen. Patrick] Leahy for goodness sakes … it ought to be enough for us.”...
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is rarely eager to take up policy fights that divide his conference — and Democrats point a finger at him as a prime reason why criminal justice reform stalled last year. “The problem we ran into is Sen. McConnell, who didn’t want to call the bill to the floor. He was concerned about the impact on the election and also that the House wasn’t going to take it up,” Durbin said. The question remains going forward, he added, "whether McConnell will give us a chance.” McConnell aide Don Stewart responded that the majority leader spoke several times about the issue in 2016 and “doesn’t need Sen. Durbin to be his spokesman.”
The president-elect ran on a law-and-order platform, but Trump doesn't appear to have weighed in on the Senate measure during his campaign. Another wildcard factor is Sessions, Trump’s pick to become the attorney general. As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a fervent opponent of the sentencing overhaul and one of the five votes against it.
But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another supporter of the criminal justice reform effort, speculated that once Sessions becomes the attorney general, his chief objective will be on enforcing what Congress sends him — even if he disagrees with it — rather than slipping into the role of legislator and try to change the laws. “He’s going to be focused on being the nation’s top law enforcement official,” Tillis said. “I don’t necessarily see him weighing in heavily on public policy choices that President Trump makes.”
Durbin said he intends to press Sessions on his views of criminal justice reform and how he’ll handle the issue at the Justice Department when the two meet privately to discuss about his bid to become attorney general on Wednesday. Though Sessions had wanted to meet earlier, Durbin said Senate Democrats decided as a caucus to not meet with any Cabinet selections until the new year. “I want to know after all of the speeches he gave on the floor against criminal justice reform, what we can expect of him as attorney general,” Durbin said. “I don’t know what he’ll say.”
Still, others speculate that after Washington endures partisan wars over repealing Obamacare and confirming polarizing presidential nominees, Trump will be looking for a bipartisan win. Criminal justice reform could deliver one. “I know we have enough votes to send this to the president’s desk,” Tillis said. Stressing his desire to avoid legislative gridlock, Tillis added: “The election was not a Republican mandate. The election was a results mandate.”
This story is both encouraging and not all that surprising given the events of the last few years surrounding the proposal, debates and modifications of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The two lines I have emphasized reflect two coming developments that I think are crucial to this developing 2017 federal sentencing reform story:
1. I think it would be a policy mistake, despite the 2015 Judiciary Committee success of the SRCA, for that bill to serve the essential template for new Senate reform legislation. In my view, there are a host of ways a new and improved federal sentencing reform bill could and should be much more streamlined AND I think a new bill could and should garner even more bipartisan support if it also were to include some modest (or even aggressive) mens rea reforms.
2. I think Senators Sessions and Durbin are really critical players here, especially over the next few weeks, as Sessions develops and articulates his priorities as Attorney General and as Durbin seeks to explain why the horrific uptick in violent crime in his own Chicago (Which Prez-Elect Trump has been tweeting about) should not be a reason to tap the brakes on any further federal sentencing reforms.
January 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, January 03, 2017
Eighth Circuit panel reverses district court findings of substantive due process problems with Minnesota's sex offender commitment program
As reported in this local article, a "federal appeals court in St. Louis has reversed a lower-court ruling that Minnesota's sex-offender treatment program is unconstitutional — a major victory for the Minnesota Department of Human Services and a decision that could delay long-awaited reforms to the state's system of indefinite detention for sex offenders." Here is more about the ruling and its context:
In a decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a class of sex offenders who sued the state failed to prove that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) violated their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. "We conclude that the class plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that any of the identified actions of the state defendants or arguable shortcomings in the MSOP were egregious, malicious, or sadistic as is necessary to meet the conscience-shocking standard," the court ruled.
In response, the lead attorney for a class of offenders who sued the state said he is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which must be filed within 90 days. "Justice was not done today," said Dan Gustafson, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "We're still considering what we are going to do but, as Governor Dayton said the other day, we are not going quietly into the night."
Minnesota confines more offenders per capita, and has the lowest release rate, among the 20 states that use civil commitment to confine sex offenders in treatment programs. Only 14 offenders have been conditionally discharged from the program in its more than 20-year history. Of those, seven are currently living in the community. Just one offender has been unconditionally discharged, and that did not occur until August.
In June 2015, federal Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul, ruling in a lawsuit brought by a group of sex offenders, declared the program unconstitutional for confining offenders indefinitely, after they have already completed their prison terms, without a clear path toward release. The judge ordered state officials to conduct independent evaluations of the roughly 720 offenders confined at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter to determine if they still pose a public safety risk. He also ordered the state to develop less restrictive options for housing offenders in the community.
The unanimous Eighth Circuit panel ruling in this case is available at this link, and it gets started this way:
Class plaintiffs, civilly committed sex offenders, bring a facial and as applied challenge under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming their substantive due process rights have been violated by Minnesota’s Civil Commitment and Treatment Act and by the actions and practices of the managers of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). The Minnesota state defendants in this action are managers of MSOP — Emily Johnson Piper, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services; Kevin Moser, MSOP Facilities Director at Moose Lake; Peter Puffer, MSOP Clinical Director; Nancy Johnston, MSOP Executive Director; Jannine Herbert, MSOP Executive Clinical Director; and Ann Zimmerman, MSOP Security Director (collectively “state defendants”). After several months of litigation, including a six-week bench trial, the district court found for plaintiffs and entered an expansive injunctive order. The district court applied incorrect standards of scrutiny when considering plaintiffs’ claims, thus we reverse the finding of substantive due process violations and vacate the injunctive relief order. We remand to the district court for further proceedings to address the remaining claims.
Friday, December 30, 2016
Third Circuit reverses (short) sentence based in part on "bare arrest record" ... JAN 3, 2017 UPDATE: Opinion VACATED at "the direction of the Court" ... AND on Jand 9, 2017 the opinion returns
A number of helpful readers made sure I did not miss the significant sentencing opinion handed down by a Third Circuit panel in US v. Mateo-Medina, No. 15-2862 (3d Cir. Dec. 30, 2016) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts:
Maximo Mateo-Medina appeals his sentence of twelve months plus one day imprisonment for illegally reentering the United States, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) and (b)(1). Although Mateo-Medina pled guilty to the offense, he now appeals the sentence, arguing that the sentencing court violated his Due Process Clause rights by impermissibly considering, among other things, arrests that did not result in convictions. The Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) that disclosed those arrests did not contain any of the underlying conduct. For the reasons set forth below, we agree and we will therefore vacate the sentence that was imposed and remand for resentencing.
The opinion includes citations to considerable research regarding "disparities in arrest rates," and it ultimately holds that the district court's sentencing decision amounted to plain error in a final section which notes that "calculating a person’s sentence based on crimes for which he or she was not convicted undoubtedly undermines the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings."
UPDATE on January 3, 2017: Another helpful reader today sent me this link to a one-page Third Circuit order which reads: "At the direction of the Court, the opinion and judgment entered on December 30, 2016 are hereby VACATED." Hmmm.
ANOTHER UPDATE on January 9, 2017: I was again alerted by a helpful reader that, as evidenced here, US v. Mateo-Medina, No. 15-2862 is back and seemingly as good as ever. Color me confused and curious, but ultimately pleased to learn that this seemingly sensible opinion remains good law.
Thursday, December 29, 2016
"Clemency seeker to Obama: please don't forget us"
The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN commentary, authored by Alice Marie Johnson. Here is how it gets started and concludes:
The week before Christmas, President Obama gave a second chance -- in the form of clemency -- to 231 people. I was not among them, but since many of them, like me, were incarcerated on drug-related charges, I feel I know their stories. I am only one of thousands of first-time, non-violent offenders given a mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing a crime under financial distress.
In 1996, I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row. I was convicted as a first-time nonviolent drug offender to life behind bars in federal prison. Since I went to prison, the laws governing my wrong-doing have changed. If I were convicted again today for the same crime, my life might look very different.
Last month, as I was preparing to put on a short play I wrote, entitled "The Strength To Be," a fellow inmate pulled me aside and gave me the news that the Obama Administration had just started announcing its next slate of clemencies. My mind went racing. What if this could be my chance to be reunited with the outside world, to see my family or what is left of it?
For 20 years I have been incarcerated, and I won't lie, it's hard to keep the hope of freedom alive for that long. But my faith in God has carried me this far. Despite the impending announcement, I knew that the show had to go on. I channeled the uncertainty of my future into my play and danced a duet to Whitney Houston's song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength."...
I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers. I participated in a drug conspiracy and I was wrong.
My trial took a toll on my family. At the time of my conviction, I had two children in college and a senior in high school. Bryant, the senior, ended up dropping out of school because of the trial. Tretessa had a good paying job with Motorola and was flying down to support me. Members of the community were at my hearings encouraging me and hoping for the best.
But I was convicted on October 31, 1996 -- and sentenced to life in prison. The day after my oldest son Charles "celebrated" his 20th birthday. It was his first birthday spent away from me. It's hard to imagine that I have now served 20 years of my life sentence for that one mistake. The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, with five percent of the world's incarcerated population and one-quarter of the world's prisoners. I am one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders who were given mandatory lengthy prison terms.
During my two decades in here, I've become an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are also in prison. And if I get out -- I have a job secured, and plan to continue to help those in prison and work hard to change our justice system. My daughter started a petition to President Obama asking him to grant me clemency, and more than 100,000 people have signed it. It a source of strength and hope for me -- a chance to be free.
The President has made an incredible push at helping to right the wrongs of our criminal justice system. I applaud him and hold out hope for me and thousands of others who face lifelong sentences for nonviolent crimes. But with the historic Obama administration coming to an end, this could be a last chance at freedom for me and for many others -- so I also hope he moves quickly. I hope his administration will process all the applications for clemency currently waiting for the President's review.
No matter what happens, I was not built to break. I will keep writing. I will continue to hold my head high and live a productive life either as a free woman or here behind bars. God has shown me my strength.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Former Deputy AG Phil Heymann makes full-throated pitch for Justice Department to address Rubashkin case
Last month via this Wall Street Journal commentary, two former Justice Department officials Charles Renfrew and James Reynolds advocated for clemency for Sholom Rubashkin in a piece headlined "Obama Should Pardon This Iowa Kosher-Food Executive: Prosecutors overstepped, interfered with the process of bankruptcy and then solicited false testimony." This week via this Washington Post commentary, LawProf and former Deputy AG Philip Heymann is making the case for Rubashkin while calling out the Justice Department's failure to address these matters. The piece is headlined "107 former Justice officials think this case was handled unjustly. DOJ must act." Here are excerpts:
“You don’t just try to hammer everybody for as long as you can, because you can,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told the New York Times. That is the right attitude for someone tasked with the fair administration of justice. Unfortunately, Yates and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch have, for the past year, rebuffed efforts by me and many other former senior Justice Department officials to even discuss another prosecution in which justice fell far short: the case of Sholom Rubashkin, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who was sentenced to 27 years for bank fraud.
Rubashkin, a 57-year-old father of 10, has already served seven years for the crime, which ordinarily merits no more than three years. Worse, his sentence was based on perjured testimony and prosecutorial misconduct.
If even a few highly respected prosecutors think a particular case was handled unjustly, resulting in a vastly excessive sentence, the department’s representatives should be prepared at least to discuss the reasons. In Rubashkin’s case, 107 former Justice Department officials, including five former attorneys general, six former deputy attorneys general (myself included), two former FBI directors, 30 former federal judges and other leading jurists, have sought to meet with senior officials of the department we once served. The only response: a form letter from an assistant attorney general stating that no meeting could take place while Rubashkin was also pursuing his case in court.
Meanwhile, Kevin Techau, the U.S. attorney in Iowa (where Rubashkin was prosecuted), has suggested that Rubashkin used his financial resources to buy the support of so many prominent justice officials. Not only has Rubashkin lost everything he owned in this case, his wife and children now depend heavily on the support of their community for their needs. Moreover, all 107 of us are working on this pro bono. Among other things, former deputy attorneys general Larry Thompson, Charles Renfrew and I have traveled to distant meetings and volunteered considerable time to this matter, all on our own nickel.
The facts are clear: Rubashkin was vice president of Agriprocessors, a kosher meatpacking plant based in Postville, Iowa. In May 2008, more than 500 federal immigration agents raided the plant and arrested hundreds of undocumented workers. The raid resulted in the company declaring bankruptcy. Rubashkin was arrested a short time later and charged with bank fraud. And this is where things went terribly wrong. The sentence for bank fraud depends on the amount of the loss to creditors. In this case, the prosecution deliberately increased the amount of the loss — and thus the length of Rubashkin’s sentence....
I am saddened by the unwillingness of the department’s senior leaders to even discuss the injustice that more than 100 of their predecessors and former judges find evident in the Rubashkin case. Experienced former prosecutors and career Justice Department officials view this case as a stain on an institution created to uphold the law. If the department’s leadership refuses to act, I hope President Obama pardons Rubashkin and ends this tragedy. The alternative is a display of either blind self-righteousness or frightened defensiveness that is inconsistent with the Justice Department we all have served and respected.
Sunday, December 25, 2016
Fulsome (and incomplete) criticisms of Prez Obama's fulsome (and incomplete) clemency efforts
Liliana Segura has this lengthy new Intercept commentary headlined "Obama's Clemency Problem – And Ours." I recommend the full piece and here are some excerpts:
President Obama broke his own remarkable clemency record [last week], granting an unprecedented 231 commutations and pardons in a single day. Headlines and tweets broadcast the historic tally; on the White House website, a bar graph tracks Obama’s record to date, which has dramatically outpaced that of his predecessors. With a total of 1,176 recipients, the White House boasted, Obama has granted clemency “more than the last 11 presidents combined.”
The president certainly deserves credit for making clemency a priority before leaving office.... Those who make the cut are, as the White House put it this week, “individuals deserving of a second chance.” Many have been serving long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, crimes for which they have shown remorse. Applications list courses completed, prison jobs maintained, records untarnished by disciplinary write-ups. Last spring, Obama highlighted a handful of men and women who “have made the most of their second chances,” describing their ability to leave prison, get a job, and piece their lives back together as “extraordinary.”
With his legacy and the politics of crime in mind, it makes sense that Obama would be cautious with his commutations, while amplifying the success stories. Yet there’s something disingenuous in the now-familiar rhetoric peddled by the White House with every clemency announcement, which repeatedly tells us we are a “nation of second chances.” Even within the narrow scope of Obama’s clemency initiative — and putting aside his treatment of immigrants and whistleblowers — this is wishful thinking at best. As Obama himself has written in his congratulatory letters to clemency recipients, “thousands of individuals have applied for commutation, and only a fraction of these applications are approved.” Before the latest round of pardons and commutations, Obama had rejected nearly 14,000 clemency applications....
[W]hen it comes to the president’s pardon power — the one place where Obama could directly address the problem — there are few signs of a transformation.
Instead, the White House has promoted a story about exceptionalism: The president has proven exceptionally merciful and the clemency recipients are uniquely deserving — even extraordinary. If the former is true, it is only because we have set the bar so low. As for the latter, it is certainly no small thing to survive — even thrive — while serving some of the harshest prison sentences in the world. But praising such men and women as exceptional diminishes the vast human potential that exists behind bars. As one clemency recipient told me last month, recalling an exchange with the former White House pardon attorney, “I have a list of names of people I would like to see come home. But there are even more people who I’ve never met. To give a list of names would exclude too many people.”...
On the same day activists published their letter exhorting Obama to expand his clemency efforts, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences.” Documenting how states routinely deny release to those eligible for parole, the ACLU offers numerous profiles of men and women sent to grow up (and in many cases, to die) in prison, whose efforts to prove their value as adults have been repeatedly rebuffed. The stories are all too familiar. They show how poverty, neglect, trauma, and mental illness factor into the lives of young people arrested for violent crimes. They also show how harshly we continue to punish such youth, first with decades in prison, and then with repeated refusals to grant parole, no matter how much they change in the years that follow — or how much evidence shows that older people “age out” of crime. People of color are seen as even less amenable to rehabilitation. Today, despite the wide rejection of the “superpredator” myth, state parole boards show very little mercy to people serving sentences that grew out of such racist hysteria.
As with Obama’s clemency initiative, the problem is largely political: Nobody wants to be the person to free an individual who might go out and commit another crime, even if it has been decades since the original offense — and even if the sentence was disproportionate to begin with. What’s more, the ACLU notes, by focusing on the original crime, “parole board members may never know about the success stories: people convicted of serious crimes who, once released, have become successful community leaders supporting themselves and their families, who grew up and moved beyond the worst thing they ever did.”
One bright spot of Obama’s clemency initiative has been in these very kinds of success stories — publicized in the press and by the White House itself. But in the absence of a deeper rethinking of what we consider a second chance, such anecdotes are no match for generations of fear mongering that has entrenched fear of violent criminals into our very psyche, even at times when crime has hit historic lows....
Just a few days after the ACLU report on parole, the Washington Post unveiled a front-page, four-part investigative series called Second Chance City, which examined a D.C. law called the Youth Rehabilitation Act. Passed in 1985, the law aimed to give judges discretion in handling juvenile cases — including by circumventing mandatory minimums — to allow deserving young people to avoid harsh punishment and, ultimately, expunge their record. The Post series raised alarm, finding dozens of cases where beneficiaries of the law had gone on to commit new, often violent offenses, and describing the crimes in dramatic detail....
Most counterproductive was the framing of the series, placed squarely as a counterpoint to efforts at prison reform on Capitol Hill. “At a time when the Obama administration and Congress are working to ease ‘mandatory minimum’ sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses, in part because of concerns that such laws have unjustly imprisoned large numbers of African-Americans,” the authors write, “D.C. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the number of repeat violent offenders on the streets.”
The media should certainly scrutinize attempts at reform, pointing out where they fail. But the Post series was a reminder of how quickly we revert back to old narratives about crime, to convince ourselves that more imprisonment will keep us safe. With the real fights over prison reform happening at the state and local level — over things like the Youth Act — any efforts by the president were always going to be limited. But if the pendulum is to swing back toward a more punitive era, as many fear it will under Trump, Obama must do as much as he can now to preserve the legacy he has carved out.
But beyond Obama — and if we are to make a dent in mass incarceration — Americans must also begin to think much bigger than his administration ever did. We should refuse to let the same government that gave us mandatory minimums define what counts as a “second chance.” We must stop letting our leaders — whether the president or a parole board — divest their responsibility to remedy draconian punishments by placing the burden on people who never should have received them in the first place. Ending mass incarceration will require mercy, but fundamentally it is about justice. And the state has not even begun to account for its own mistakes.
I credit Segura for noting and lamenting that what's most remarkable about Prez Obama's clemency efforts are how non-transformative they are. Despite lots of advocacy from lots of advocates for the development of a new structure for clemency decision-making, Prez Obama has barely tweaked the status quo in order to better discover a few thousand prisoners with extreme prison sentences that could be shortened. Prez Obama merits praise and credit for doing something, but that something is largely a last-minute tweak rather than a timeless transformation.
The story of clemency here is a variation on the broader drug war reality throughout the Obama years. As of 2013, then-AG Eric Holder started talking up a new "Smart on Crime" initiative. But, despite this useful talk and some tweaked approaches to federal prosecutions, Prez Obama's Department of Justice for all eight years of his presidency continued to prosecute, on average, 20,000 new federal drug cases each year even though there is still little evidence that severe federal drug sentences for nonviolent drug offenders help reduce drug crime or violent crimes. (Of course, the prior decade saw on average 25,000 federal drug prosecutions, so the Obama DOJ can claim credit for being a lesser evil.) Running these numbers, if Prez Obama commuted 2000 federal drug sentences each and every year he was in the Oval Office, through the work of his DOJ, he still would be responsible for a net addition of 18,000 federal drug sentences each and every year.
Put simply, at the margins, Prez Obama left federal criminal justice matters somewhat better than he found them. But the federal criminal justice system continues to need a wide array of reforms that go, in my mind, far beyond the margins.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Louisiana appeals court find LWOP sentence unconstitutionally excessive for fourth minor offense
As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Appeals court vacates 'unconscionable' life sentence for New Orleans man over theft of $15 from 'bait vehicle'," this past week brought a notable state constitutional ruling from the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Here are the basics from the press report:
Walter Johnson was walking down a street in Uptown New Orleans a week before Thanksgiving in 2013 when he noticed a Jeep Cherokee with the driver's side window down. He glanced inside and saw a laptop and $15 in cash -- a $10 bill and a $5. Johnson snatched the bills. He left the computer.
As it turns out, the Jeep was a law enforcement "bait vehicle," and Johnson was the catch of the day. He was found guilty of simple burglary and illegal possession of stolen things at a trial in April 2015, and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office promptly invoked the state's habitual-offender law.
Johnson, who had prior convictions for simple burglary, heroin possession and cocaine distribution, was deemed a four-time felon. Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman sentenced him in October 2015 to a mandatory life prison term with no parole.
But on Wednesday, an appeals court panel threw out Johnson's life sentence, finding his street heist "shockingly minor in nature," the amount "extraordinary in its triviality" and Johnson's life sentence an "unconscionable" punishment that "shocks our sense of justice." The appeals court sent the case back to Herman, telling her to resentence Johnson "to a term that is not unconstitutionally excessive."
The 10-page opinion, written by 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Paul Bonin, marks the latest bid to limit the discretion that state law grants prosecutors to ratchet up sentences for low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals with multiple convictions.
Judges have little control over such decisions, and the Louisiana Supreme Court has been loath to step on the Legislature's toes by overriding one of the nation's stiffest habitual-offender laws. The state's high court has ruled that departures below the law's mandatory minimum sentences must be limited to "exceedingly rare" cases.
But occasionally it has seen fit to do so. Last year, for instance, the Supreme Court found a 30-year sentence "unconscionable" for Doreatha Mosby, a 73-year-old New Orleans woman who was found with a crack pipe tucked in her bra. Yet in the case of Bernard Noble, a father of seven who was found with the equivalent of two joints of marijuana, the court found he wasn't unusual enough to allow a sentence below the mandatory 13-year minimum under the statute.
Both of those cases, as well as Johnson's, came out of Orleans Parish, where Cannizzaro employs the habitual-offender law far more than any other prosecutor in the state. In 2015, Cannizzaro's office sent 154 convicts off to long prison sentences under the statute — almost one of every four offenders who were shipped to state prisons from New Orleans that year, according to state data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"You're dealing with different crime problems, socioeconomic levels, and you're dealing with different judges, different sentencing dispositions," Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, said in explaining the office's penchant for deploying the statute. "If you were dealing with a situation where a prosecutor feels probation is being given too freely, then the district attorney is required to use the habitual-offender law."
The full majority ruling in Louisiana v. Johnson is available at this link. Notably, the rule s based on the Louisiana state constitutional provision prohibiting "cruel, excessive, or unusual punishment." La. Const. art. 1, § 20. Here is one notable passage (with some cites removed) from the Johnson decision:
Despite its legality, however, we find the life-without-parole sentence imposed upon Mr. Johnson unconstitutionally excessive. Mr. Johnson reached into the open window of a bait-vehicle and took fifteen dollars. He is now condemned to die in prison for that crime.
We acknowledge that Mr. Johnson's life sentence, under the habitual offender law, is intended as punishment not only the current conviction, but all prior convictions as well. Legitimate sentencing goals notwithstanding, Mr. Johnson's status as a fourth felony offender "cannot be considered in the abstract." Solem, 463 U.S. at 296. As previously noted, the trial judge found that all his prior felonies were for nonviolent crimes. And the instant offense, the one which set in motion the habitual offender proceedings, is shockingly minor in nature. No person was harmed, nor any property damaged. Had Mr. Johnson taken the fifteen dollars but not by entry into a vehicle or other structure listed in the simple burglary statute, he would have been convicted of misdemeanor theft.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Florida Supreme Court brings back to life some older death sentences
As reported in this local article, headlined "Florida Supreme Court: Death penalty cases finalized before 2002 will stand," it now appears that there is a little bit of life left in some old Florida death sentences. Here are the basics:
Some of the nearly 400 prisoners waiting on Florida's death row will not be allowed a re-sentencing under new death penalty laws, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The 6-1 ruling in a death sentence appeal by Mark James Asay says that death row inmates are not entitled to a re-sentencing unless their case was finalized after the 2002 ruling in Ring vs. Arizona, which required juries to find aggravating factors to impose the death penalty.
The court also lifted a stay on Asay's execution, previously scheduled for March of this year. It appears executions could commence soon.
Florida's death penalty has been under siege for the past year. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty scheme unconstitutional in Hurst vs. Florida, prompting the Legislature to re-write sentencing laws. Then, in October, the Florida Supreme Court found that the Hurst ruling required a unanimous vote by the jury to sentence someone to death, rather than a majority or supermajority required under old and existing laws. It was not clear until Thursday's ruling whether these changes entitled people already on death row to a re-sentencing hearing.
The lengthy Florida Supreme Court in Asay v. Florida is available at this link. Here is the key concluding paragraph from the majority opinion:
After weighing all three of the above factors, we conclude that Hurst should not be applied retroactively to Asay’s case, in which the death sentence became final before the issuance of Ring. We limit our holding to this context because the balance of factors may change significantly for cases decided after the United States Supreme Court decided Ring. When considering the three factors of the Stovall/Linkletter test together, we conclude that they weigh against applying Hurst retroactively to all death case litigation in Florida. Accordingly, we deny Asay relief.
There can be little doubt that this ruling will be appealed to the US Supreme Court, though there can and should be much doubt about whether SCOTUS will take up the issue.
UPDATE: A helpful tweeter made sure I did not miss this additional ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that reaches this companion conclusion for cases in which a death sentence was imposed after 2002:
After weighing all of the considerations essential to a faithful Witt analysis, we conclude that Hurst should be applied retroactively to Mosley. The purpose of the holdings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst is to prevent a violation of the fundamental and critically important right to a trial by jury. See Hurst, 202 So. 3d at 50-51, 55.
Split Ohio Supreme Court concludes Graham violated by term-of-years juve sentence that exceeds life expectancy
The holiday season is often a time that brings some interesting sentencing ruling, and this year the jurisprudential present under my tree comes from my own Ohio Supreme Court in Ohio v. Moore, No. 2016-Ohio-8288 (Ohio S. Ct. Dec. 22, 2016) (available here). Here is how the lengthy majority opinion in Moore gets started and concludes:
We decide in this case whether the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), prohibiting the imposition of sentences of life imprisonment without parole on juvenile nonhomicide offenders also prohibits the imposition of a term-of-years prison sentence that exceeds the offender’s life expectancy on a juvenile nonhomicide offender. We hold that pursuant to Graham, a term-of-years prison sentence that exceeds a defendant’s life expectancy violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution when it is imposed on a juvenile nonhomicide offender.
We hold in this case that Graham’s categorical prohibition of sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles who commit nonhomicide crimes applies to juvenile nonhomicide offenders who are sentenced to term-of-years sentences that exceed their life expectancies. The court of appeals abused its discretion in failing to grant Moore’s application for reconsideration. The 112-year sentence the trial court imposed on Moore violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and vacate Moore’s sentence, and we remand the cause to the trial court for resentencing in conformity with Graham.
Interestingly, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor appears to have been the key swing vote here on a court that split 4-3, and her lengthy concurring opinion concludes this way:
Graham is one of the most momentous decisions in American juvenile law. Given its significance, the stated intention of the sentencing judge in this case, the de facto life sentence he imposed, and the curtness with which the court of appeals denied Moore’s application to reconsider his sentence in light of Graham, I conclude that the appellate court abused its discretion in refusing to consider Moore’s claim. The court was not bound to accept his arguments, but it was bound to consider them more thoughtfully after allowing the application for delayed reconsideration.
I concur fully in the majority opinion, which addresses the significant constitutional question that is properly before us and which holds that the court of appeals abused its discretion in failing to recognize that extraordinary circumstances were presented by Moore’s application, i.e., the unconstitutional imposition of a lengthy term-of-years sentence on a juvenile offender.
Monday, December 19, 2016
Judicial panel concludes judge committed no misconduct in the sentencing of Brock Turner
This new local article, headlined "Panel clears judge of bias in sentencing of Brock Turner," provides a notable postscript to what became a national sentencing story earlier this year. Here are the basics:
A commission cleared Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky Monday of misconduct in his light sentencing of a former Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside a college party.
The Commission on Judicial Performance had received thousands of complaints and petitions that Persky — who on June 2 sentenced Brock Allen Turner to six months in county jail, three years’ probation and lifetime registration as a sex offender — was biased in his sentencing decision. The district attorney’s office had asked for six years in state prison, while the defense had requested four months in county jail with up to five years probation.
“Neither the judge’s statements about the impact of prison and the defendant’s future dangerousness — factors that the judge was required to address on the record — nor any other remarks made by Judge Persky at the sentencing hearing constitute clear and convincing evidence of judicial bias,” the panel concluded unanimously. Based in San Francisco, the panel include six public members, two lawyers, and three judicial officers.
The 12-page panel decision is available at this link, and here is a key paragraph from its introductory section:
The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged injudicial misconduct warranting discipline. First, the sentence was within the parameters set by law and was therefore within the judge’s discretion. Second, the judge performed a multi-factor balancing assessment prescribed by law that took into account both the victim and the defendant. Third, the judge’s sentence was consistent with the recommendation in the probation report, the purpose of which is to fairly and completely evaluate various factors and provide the judge with a recommended sentence. Fourth, comparison to other cases handled by Judge Persky that were publicly identified does not support a finding of bias. The judge did not preside over the plea or sentencing in one of the cases. In each of the four other cases, Judge Persky’s sentencing decision was either the result of a negotiated agreement between the prosecution and the defense, aligned with the recommendation of the probation department, or both. Fifth, the judge’s contacts with Stanford University are insufficient to require disclosure or disqualification.
Some (of many) prior related posts on the Brock Turner case:
- Lots of seemingly justifiable outrage after lenient California sentencing of privileged man convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault
- Lots more mainstream and new media commentary on lenient sentencing of Stanford sex assaulter
- "The Stanford rape case demonstrates liberal hypocrisy on issues of basic fairness in the criminal justice system"
- Juror involved in trial of Stanford swimmer Brick Turner assails sentence given for sexual assault convictions
- Considering the potential negative consequences of the Stanford rape sentencing controversy and judge recall effort
December 19, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)
Prez Obama grants another large bunch of commutations as well as a big batch of pardons
Big pre-holiday news on the federal clemency front is reported in this new White House blog posting: "President Obama Grants 153 Commutations and 78 Pardons to Individuals Deserving of a Second Chance." Here are the details as reported by White House Counsel Neil Eggleston:
Today, President Obama granted clemency to 231 deserving individuals — the most individual acts of clemency granted in a single day by any president in this nation’s history. With today’s 153 commutations, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 individuals, including 395 life sentences. The President also granted pardons to 78 individuals, bringing his total number of pardons to 148. Today’s acts of clemency — and the mercy the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients — exemplify his belief that America is a nation of second chances.
The 231 individuals granted clemency today have all demonstrated that they are ready to make use — or have already made use — of a second chance. While each clemency recipient’s story is unique, the common thread of rehabilitation underlies all of them. For the pardon recipient, it is the story of an individual who has led a productive and law-abiding post-conviction life, including by contributing to the community in a meaningful way. For the commutation recipient, it is the story of an individual who has made the most of his or her time in prison, by participating in educational courses, vocational training, and drug treatment. These are the stories that demonstrate the successes that can be achieved — by both individuals and society — in a nation of second chances.
Today’s grants signify the President’s continued commitment to exercising his clemency authority through the remainder of his time in office. In 2016 alone, the President has granted clemency to more than 1,000 deserving individuals. The President continues to review clemency applications on an individualized basis to determine whether a particular applicant has demonstrated a readiness to make use of his or her second chance, and I expect that the President will issue more grants of both commutations and pardons before he leaves office. The mercy that the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients is remarkable, but we must remember that clemency is a tool of last resort and that only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure over the long run that our criminal justice system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.
This news is sure to bring holiday cheer to all those advocating for Prez Obama to go big on this front before he heads home. These grants now have me thinking Obama may end his time in office with more than 2000 clemency grants.
Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:
- How many veterans are among Prez Obama's 944 federal prison commutations? How many more veterans are clemency worthy?
- "Advocates Look To Obama For 'Unprecedented' Action On Federal Prison Sentences"
- Prez Obama grants 79 move commutations, taking his total over 1000 for his administration
- Terrific content and context for Prez Obama's clemency work at Pardon Power
- Will Prez Obama break out of his "clemency rut" and really go bold his last few weeks in the Oval Office?
- At 11th hour, more advocacy for Prez Obama to make big 11th-hour clemency push
- Clemency recipients join chorus urging Prez Obama to go big on clemencies before he goes home
- Anyone eager to predict how many last-month clemencies Prez Obama will grant?
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Anyone eager to predict how many last-month clemencies Prez Obama will grant?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Barack Obama Weighs Final Requests for Clemency: President has cut short the sentences of 1,023 inmates, more than the previous 11 presidents combined." Here are excerpts:
Barack Obama, who has granted clemency more often than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, is expected to perform more acts of mercy during his final weeks in office....
Mr. Obama’s critics, including the incoming attorney general, say his use of clemency for a large class of convicts has been a disturbing power grab. But supporters say a law that reduced drug penalties six years ago created severe injustices for those sentenced before it. They also note that Mr. Obama has granted clemency for a relatively small percentage of the large number of people who have sought it.
These trends are a centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s legacy on criminal justice reform. Legislation that would have further reduced sentences for less-serious drug offenders foundered in this fall’s highly charged political climate. But as with other parts of the president’s agenda that were snubbed by Congress—including immigration, gun control and climate policies — Mr. Obama has turned to his executive authority in the absence of more sweeping and durable legislative action. “He’s essentially rejuvenated clemency as a presidential power,” said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. “But he has never seen it as a replacement for criminal justice reform.”...
Mr. Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has described Mr. Obama’s clemency record as an “alarming abuse of the pardon power.” The former prosecutor views the rollback of tough drug sentences as a threat to public safety. Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, sees long, mandatory sentences as damaging excesses from the war on drugs, particularly in the African-American community.
In 2016, Mr. Obama has cut short the sentences of 839 inmates, the most commutations ever granted in a single year, according to the Justice Department, with more possibly on the way. That brings his total to 1,023, or more than the previous 11 presidents combined. Adding Mr. Obama’s 70 pardons, which go further than commutations by wiping out convictions and restoring civil liberties, puts his clemency record just behind Mr. Johnson’s 1,187 grants.
Civil-rights advocates are demanding a more sweeping review that would dent the prison population much faster than the current case-by-case analysis. “We do not know whether the next president will support clemency efforts or criminal justice reform,’ says a late November appeal to President Obama from dozens of groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Sentencing Project, JustLeadershipUSA and the Brennan Center for Justice. “But we do know that until Jan. 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it.”...
Mr. Obama has received more requests for clemency than any other president, in part because of efforts to encourage inmates to petition for one if they were sentenced before a 2010 law that reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine offenses. Mr. Sessions spearheaded that legislation, which lightened penalties for crack users, but he opposes applying it to inmates retroactively. So does the nation’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Mr. Trump.
But in one indicator that Mr. Obama is more cautious than some critics suggest, he has granted 3% of nearly 35,000 requests; only George W. Bush granted a smaller percentage, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Obama also has offered fewer pardons than any president in the past century, though more are expected before he leaves office.
I am tempted to predict that Prez Obama will grant at least a few hundred more prison commutations and also a few hundred pardons before leaving the Oval Office on January 20, 2017. This is a nothing but a blind guess and I have absolutely no insider knowledge here. What I do have is a deep disappointment that Prez Obama did not make any apparent effort to change the structure of the modern federal clemency process, which so many commentators (myself included) have rightly criticized as dysfunctional.
Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:
- How many veterans are among Prez Obama's 944 federal prison commutations? How many more veterans are clemency worthy?
- "Advocates Look To Obama For 'Unprecedented' Action On Federal Prison Sentences"
- Prez Obama grants 79 move commutations, taking his total over 1000 for his administration
- Terrific content and context for Prez Obama's clemency work at Pardon Power
- Will Prez Obama break out of his "clemency rut" and really go bold his last few weeks in the Oval Office?
- At 11th hour, more advocacy for Prez Obama to make big 11th-hour clemency push
- Clemency recipients join chorus urging Prez Obama to go big on clemencies before he goes home
UPDATE: In the comments to this post and also in an email to me, sentencing and clemency guru Mark Osler expressed justified frustration over the fact that the WSJ article and its chart fail to give respect to the large number of clemencies that Prez Gerald Ford granted in response to offenses related to evasion of the draft during the Vietnam war. (This Fusion article from May provides an effective review of this oft-forgotten clemency story and its continued relevance in a drug war era.) Mark sent me this update comment of criticism, along with the additional chart here produced by Pardon Power papa P.S. Ruckman.
Complains Prof Osler: "No, Obama has NOT 'granted clemency more often than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.' And the chart the WSJ used (and you reprinted) is wrong. Neither include the Ford clemency grants. That matters, too --- the streamlined Ford process outside of DOJ, which was successful, was the one Obama rejected in favor of the bureaucracy-laden CP14."
Thursday, December 15, 2016
Post-Hurst hydra chews up all death sentences in Delaware via new retroactivity ruling
Regularly readers know I use the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the aftermath litigation in various courts in various states as judges sort ought what Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida must mean for past, present and future capital cases. Today the post-Hurst hydra took another big bite out the the death penalty in the First State as reported in this AP article:
A Delaware Supreme Court ruling earlier this year declaring the state's death penalty law unconstitutional is retroactive, meaning an inmate convicted of killing a police officer must be resentenced to life in prison, the justices said in a follow-up decision Thursday.
The ruling came in an appeal by Derrick Powell, who was convicted of killing Georgetown police Officer Chad Spicer in 2009, but it likely means that 11 other former death-row inmates also will be spared from execution.
In August, a majority of the justices said Delaware's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it allowed judges too much discretion in sentencing and did not require that a jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant deserves execution.
That ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court said Florida's death sentencing law, which also gave judges the final say, was unconstitutional. Alabama is the only other state that allows judges to override jury decisions on whether an offender should get life in prison or the death penalty.
In its 15-page decision Thursday, the Delaware court said its August ruling invalidating the state's death penalty law was a "watershed procedural ruling" that must be applied retroactively.
The full opinion in Powell v. Delaware is available at this link.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
SCOTUS adds a few more criminal cases to its current merits docket
Via this post at SCOTUSblog, I see that the Supreme Court today added a handful of cases to its docket. Here is the SCOTUSblog description of the criminal cases in the bunch:
Two of the cases that the justices agreed to review today, Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States, arise out of the brutal 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller, a District of Columbia mother. The petitioners in the case are a group of D.C. men who were convicted of the crime, based in large part on testimony from alleged eyewitnesses. Decades later, a reporter learned that defense attorneys had not received a statement suggesting that someone else had committed the crime; additional discovery then revealed that prosecutors had failed to turn over other evidence that could have aided the defendants. The men sought to vacate their convictions, but were unsuccessful in the lower courts.
Today the Supreme Court agreed to review both cases. Overton had asked the court to weigh in on the standard that the lower court used to evaluate his claim that prosecutors had not complied with their obligations under Brady v. Maryland, which requires the government to turn over information that could exonerate the defendant. Turner and his co-defendants had asked the court to consider whether, when determining the significance of suppressed evidence, courts can consider information that comes to light after trial. But the court today announced that it would review a more straightforward question in both cases: whether the men’s convictions must be set aside under Brady....
In Lee v. United States, the justices return to a familiar topic: the case of a non-citizen who gets into trouble with the law and then receives poor legal advice, jeopardizing his stay in the United States. The petitioner in the case, Jae Lee, is a Tennessee man who came to the U.S. from South Korea in 1982 and eventually became a successful restauranteur. In 2009, he was charged with possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute. After seeing the evidence against Lee, Lee’s attorney recommended that Lee plead guilty, so that he would receive a shorter sentence. But, and despite Lee’s attorney’s assurances to the contrary, a guilty plea would result in Lee’s permanent and mandatory deportation.
Lee then sought to vacate his conviction, arguing that he had been deprived of his constitutional right to have adequate assistance from his attorney. The government agreed that Lee could satisfy the first prong of the test to determine whether an attorney’s representation violated the Constitution: The attorney had indeed provided deficient advice when he told Lee that a guilty plea would not expose him to deportation. But the lower courts ruled that Lee could not show, as required by the second prong of the test, that he was prejudiced by that bad advice, because the evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming that he would have been convicted and deported anyway. That is the question that the court agreed to review today.
Today’s cases will likely be argued in late winter or early spring. The justices’ next regularly scheduled conference is January 6.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Federal District Judge says federal death penalty "operates in an arbitrary manner" but still rejects broadside constitutional challenge
United States District Judge Geoffrey Crawford issued a lengthy opinion today in the long-running federal capital case of US v. Fell, No. 5:01-cr-12-01 (D. Vt. Dec. 13, 2016). A helpful reader sent me the full 57-page opinion, which I have uploaded below and which gets started this way:
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726. The case concerned challenges under the Eighth Amendment to execution by lethal injection of four defendants sentenced to die by state courts in Oklahoma.
Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued a dissent calling "for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution." Id. at 2755. The dissent identified a series of systemic shortcomings in the administration of the death penalty in the United States, especially as it is applied by the states. It divided these into four categories: "(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty's penological purpose [and] (4) most places in the United States have abandoned its use." Id. at 2756.
In response, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas wrote two strongly worded concurring opinions which defended the death penalty as the legitimate exercise of democratic authority. Both justices pointed to the shocking cruelty of the crimes which led to the death sentences in these and other death penalty cases. Both questioned the authority of the judiciary to interpose its own philosophical concerns about the death penalty. And both identified utilitarian purposes such as deterrence which may justify executions.
The dissent and concurring opinions in Glossip offer a particularly vivid account of the long-running dispute over the constitutionality of the death penalty within the Supreme Court. A federal trial judge is without authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court. The current state of the law is that the death penalty is a constitutional punishment for murder committed by adults not disqualified for reasons of intellectual disability who have received a trial which meets the standards set by Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) and Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). Changing forty years of decisional law raises questions that can only be settled by the Supreme Court itself.
But a trial court has its own contribution to make to the debate. The court can hold a hearing and permit witnesses to testify. In Glossip, Justice Breyer raised a series of questions about whether the death penalty is imposed fairly or in an incurably arbitrary manner. The questions he raised are troubling. They are essentially empirical. They require consideration of what has actually happened in the United States since the restoration of the death penalty following the Gregg decision.
Over the course of two weeks last summer this court sought to develop a factual record based on live testimony and supporting exhibits sufficient to answer the question of whether the constitutional requirements for a death penalty statute set out in Gregg have been met in practice. As the court's findings indicate, the Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591, et seq. ("FDPA"), falls short of the standard required in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and in Gregg for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty. Like the state statutes enacted after Furman, the FDPA operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles.
The trial court's obligation does not end with a review of the facts. The court is required to address the legal issues raised by the parties. That resolution may be no more than an acknowledgment that the law has been settled on a particular question. Alternatively, the new factual record may require a fresh look at the manner in which existing principles are applied to a factual record which continues to develop. The court has sought to undertake this new look in a manner consistent with existing authority which comes principally from the Supreme Court.
To get right to the point, the court has sought to follow the method expressed in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) in considering the proportionality of the death penalty. The court has also considered the separate argument that application of the death penalty has become arbitrary.
The disproportionality challenge falls short because of the absence of proof of a national consensus to abolish the death penalty. As the law stands now, proof of consensus is a prerequisite for finding the death penalty unconstitutional as applied to particular crimes or particular types of defendants. By assessing public opinion, especially as it is expressed through legislation in the states, the Supreme Court finds a basis for determining evolving standards of decency for the nation as a whole. If the requirement of consensus applies to the limited challenges brought in cases like Atkins, then it must also apply to the claim of disproportionality which the defense levels against the imposition of the death penalty in all cases.
The court has also considered the problem of arbitrary application of the death penalty to small numbers of defendants whose crimes are indistinguishable from the far greater number who receive life sentences. The court has followed existing law in declining to rule that "arbitrariness" is an independent constitutional violation.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Clemency recipients join chorus urging Prez Obama to go big on clemencies before he goes home
This new Business Insider article, headlined "Prisoners set free by President Obama are urging him to expand his clemency program before he leaves office," reports on the latest interesting pitch to Prez Obama concerning his clemency work. Here are the basics:
The day Ramona Brant walked out of prison after serving 21 years of what was supposed to be a life sentence, she felt an overwhelming mixture of emotions — elation and gratitude for her freedom, and sadness for the inmates she was leaving behind. Many of them had stories like hers. They had in one way or another gotten involved in selling drugs, often through boyfriends or husbands who would eventually testify against them in conspiracy trials. L
ike Brant, many were there to serve decades, or even life sentences without the possibility of parole. “I was not comfortable being free knowing that there were so many people who weren’t free to experience the same opportunities that I was experiencing,” Brant told Business Insider. “I’m not saying I want to go back to prison — what I’m saying is my heart is still with my sisters that I left behind, and my brothers.”
Brant was granted a sentence commutation by President Obama last February, as part of an unprecedented clemency initiative that has now reduced more than 1,000 federal inmates’ sentences. She is one of more than 40 clemency recipients who signed an open letter sent to the president on Monday pleading for mercy for nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy sentences who have demonstrated clear conduct in prison. “We ask for your immediate intervention for thousands more prisoners who will continue to suffer needlessly unless a broader clemency plan is implemented,” the letter said.
“We have remained largely silent in appreciation of your compassion to many suffering under draconian sentencing laws passed during the crack hysteria of the late 1980s and 1990s. But with only six weeks of your presidency left, we must speak out.”
The letter, also signed by dozens of clemency advocates and former inmates, recommends the president adopt a broad amnesty program in place of the current case-by-case review of inmates’ petitions. It suggests that all nonviolent drug offenders with clear conduct have their sentences reduced to five, 10, or 15 years for first-, second-, and third-time offenders, respectively. It also specifically asks that clemency be granted to female inmates, who the letter argues are more likely than men to be serving lengthy sentences because of drugs their partners or spouses sold, and who make up less than 10% of the inmates to whom Obama has granted clemency....
The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which reviews clemency applications and recommends them to the president, the White House, and the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment on the letter....
Although Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has previously said “every single drug petition” received before Aug. 31 will be reviewed by the Obama administration, activists and clemency advocates have been urging the president for months to quicken the pace of approvals.
Last month’s presidential election, too, has only added to the pressure. President-elect Donald Trump, who has previously called the inmates released by Obama “bad dudes,” has not expressed interest in continuing his clemency initiative. Nor has Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, who supports harsh drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.
It is estimated that at least 2,000 federal prisoners serving nonviolent drug offenses were eligible for sentence reductions under the requirements laid out under Obama’s program, which stipulate that inmates have served at least 10 years of their sentences. Even more could be eligible should the Obama administration consider inmates who have served less than a decade, as it has already done in some cases.
Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:
- How many veterans are among Prez Obama's 944 federal prison commutations? How many more veterans are clemency worthy?
- "Advocates Look To Obama For 'Unprecedented' Action On Federal Prison Sentences"
- Prez Obama grants 79 move commutations, taking his total over 1000 for his administration
- Terrific content and context for Prez Obama's clemency work at Pardon Power
- Will Prez Obama break out of his "clemency rut" and really go bold his last few weeks in the Oval Office?
- At 11th hour, more advocacy for Prez Obama to make big 11th-hour clemency push
With only two dissenters, SCOTUS refuses to hear Ohio death row defendant's arguments against a second execution attempt
I am somewhat surprised to see Rommell Broom's case, recently discussed here and here, on the cert denied list on this morning's Supreme Court order list. Interestingly, this denial of cert came with two dissenters: Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan. And Justice Breyer mentioned the Broom case and others is a broader three-page dissent from the denial of cert in another capital case at the end of the order list. Here are excerpts from that dissent:
Henry Sireci, the petitioner, was tried, convicted ofmurder, and first sentenced to death in 1976. He has lived in prison under threat of execution for 40 years. When he was first sentenced to death, the Berlin Wall stood firmly in place. Saigon had just fallen. Few Americans knew of the personal computer or the Internet. And over half of all Americans now alive had not yet been born....
Forty years is more time than an average person could expect to live his entire life when America constitutionally forbade the “inflict[ion]” of “cruel and unusual punishments.” Amdt. 8; see 5 Dictionary of American History 104 (S. Kutler ed., 3d ed. 2003). This Court, speaking of a period of four weeks, not 40 years, once said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is “one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.” In re Medley, 134 U. S. 160, 172 (1890). I should hope that this kind of delay would arise only on the rarest of occasions. But in the ever diminishing universe of actual executions, I fear that delays of this kind have become more common....
<P> Nor is this case the only case during the last few months in which the Court has received, but then rejected, a petition to review an execution taking place in what I would consider especially cruel and unusual circumstances. On September 15, 2009, the State of Ohio attempted to execute Romell Broom by lethal injection. State v. Broom, 146 Ohio St. 3d 60, 61–62, 2016-Ohio-1028, 51 N. E. 3d 620, 623. Medical team members tried for over two hours to find a useable vein, repeatedly injecting him with needlesand striking bone in the process, all causing “a great deal of pain.” Id., at 62, 51 N. E. 2d, at 624. The State now wishes to try to execute Broom once again. Given its first failure, does its second attempt amount to a “cruel and unusual” punishment? See In re Kemmler, 136 U. S. 436, 447 (1890) (“Punishments are cruel when they involve . . . a lingering death”). I would have heard Broom’s claim.
As I and other Justices have previously pointed out, individuals who are executed are not the “worst of the worst,” but, rather, are individuals chosen at random, on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race. See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S., ___, ___–___ (2015) (BREYER, J., joined by GINSBURG, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 9–17)... Cf. Smith v. Alabama, 580 U. S. ___, (Dec. 8, 2016) (judge overrode jury’s recommendation of a life sentence) (this Court, by an equally divided vote, denied a stay of execution).
I have elsewhere described these matters at greater length, and I have explained why the time has come for this Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty. Glossip, supra, at ___ (dissenting opinion); see also Knight v. Florida, 528 U. S. 990, 993 (1999) (opiniondissenting from denial of certiorari); Valle v. Florida, 564 U. S. 1067 (2011) (opinion dissenting from denial of stay); Boyer v. Davis, 578 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (opinion dissenting from denial of certiorari); Conner v. Sellers, 579 U. S. ___ (2016) (opinion dissenting from denial of certiorari and denial of stay). Cases such as the ones discussed here provide additional evidence that it is important for us to do so. See Lackey v. Texas, 514 U. S. 1045 (1995) (Stevens, J., memorandum respecting denial of certiorari). I would grant this petition for certiorari, as I would in Broom v. Ohio, No. 16–5580, and Smith, and include this question.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
U.S. Supreme Court adds federal drug-offense forfeiture case to its docket
As reported here at SCOTUSblog, on Friday afternoon "the justices issued orders from [their] private conference, adding one new case to their merits docket for the term." That new case concerns a criminal justice/sentencing issue, forfeiture, that has been a focal point of concerns for reform activists across the political spectrum. Here are the details from SCOTUSblog about the forfeiture case now before the Justices on the merits:
They agreed to review the case of Terry Honeycutt, who worked as a salaried employee at a hardware store owned by his brother, Tony. The two brothers were charged with federal drug crimes for the store’s sale of an iodine-based water disinfectant -- which can also be used to make methamphetamines. Tony pleaded guilty and forfeited $200,000 to account for the proceeds of the illegal sales. After Terry went to trial and was convicted, the government argued that he should have to forfeit the rest of the proceeds, approximately $70,000.
Terry countered that he should not have to forfeit the remaining proceeds because he did not own the store and therefore did not receive them. The district court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed. It ruled that Terry could be held independently liable for the store’s proceeds from the sales even if the funds never actually reached him.
The federal government acknowledged that the courts of appeals are divided on the question presented by Terry’s appeal. It nonetheless urged the justices to deny review, explaining that the split among the circuits is “lopsided and recent.” And in any event, it contended, Terry’s case is not a good one in which to consider that question, because he would also be liable for the forfeiture under the conflicting rule adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Despite the government’s objections, the justices granted certiorari [and] Honeycutt v. United States will likely be argued in the spring, with a decision by the end of June.
December 10, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 09, 2016
After split tied SCOTUS stay vote, Alabama completes last scheduled execution of 2016
As reported in this AP piece, the final scheduled execution in the United States in 2016 had a number of noteworthy events and elements for those who support and those who oppose capital punishment. The AP article is headlined "Alabama inmate coughs, heaves 13 minutes into execution," though I think the SCOTUS action that proceeded the actual execution should be of particular interest for law geeks. Here are some of the details:
A man who killed an Alabama convenience store clerk more than two decades ago was put to death Thursday night, an execution that required two consciousness tests as the inmate heaved and coughed 13 minutes into the lethal injection. Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m., about 30 minutes after the procedure began at the state prison in southwest Alabama. Smith was convicted of capital murder in the Nov. 8, 1994, fatal shooting of Huntsville store clerk Casey Wilson. A jury voted 7-5 to recommend a sentence of
life imprisonment, but a judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Smith to death. Smith heaved and coughed repeatedly, clenching his fists and raising his head at the beginning of the execution. A prison guard performed two consciousness checks before the final two lethal drugs were administered.
In a consciousness test, a prison officer says the inmate's name, brushes his eyelashes and then pinches his left arm. During the first one, Smith moved his arm. He slightly raised his right arm again after the second consciousness test. The meaning of those movements will likely be debated. One of Smith's attorneys whispered to another attorney, "He's reacting," and pointed out the inmate's repeated movements. The state prison commissioner said he did not see any reaction to the consciousness tests....
Alabama uses the sedative midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection combination. Smith and other inmates argued in a court case that the drug was an unreliable sedative and could cause them to feel pain, citing its use in problematic executions. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of the drug....
Wilson was pistol-whipped and then shot in the head during the robbery, court documents show. Surveillance video showed Smith entering the store and recovering spent shell casings from the bathroom where Wilson was shot, according to the record. In overriding the jury's recommendation at the 1995 trial, a judge likened the slaying to an execution, saying Wilson had already been pistol-whipped into submission and Smith ignored his pleas for mercy. Wilson had a newborn infant at the time of his death. "The trial court described Smith's acts as 'an execution style slaying.' Tonight, justice was finally served," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement after the execution.
U.S. Supreme Court justices twice paused the execution as Smith's attorneys argued for a delay, saying a judge shouldn't have been able to impose the death penalty when a jury recommended he receive life imprisonment. Four liberal justices said they would have halted the execution, but five were needed to do so.
Smith's attorneys had urged the nation's highest court to block the planned execution to review the judge's override. Smith's lawyers argued a January decision that struck down Florida's death penalty structure because it gave too much power to judges raises legal questions about Alabama's process. In Alabama, a jury can recommend a sentence of life without parole, but a judge can override that recommendation to impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state that allows judicial override, they argued. "Alabama is alone among the states in allowing a judge to sentence someone to death based on judicial fact finding contrary to a jury's verdict," attorneys for Smith wrote Wednesday.
Lawyers for the state argued in a court filing Tuesday that the sentence was legally sound, and that it is appropriate for judges to make the sentencing decision....
Alabama has been attempting to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation over the drugs used. The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating death of a woman. It was the state's first execution since 2013. Judges stayed two other executions that had been scheduled this year.
Wednesday, December 07, 2016
At 11th hour, more advocacy for Prez Obama to make big 11th-hour clemency push
As regular readers may recall, and as I cannot help but highlight these days, I was aggressively calling for Prez Obama to make significant use of his clemency power from literally his first day in office. This January 20, 2009 post was titled "Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?" and in 2010 I authored this article in the New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement under the title "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders."
I suppose I should be happy that, with Prez Obama on his way out the door, a lot of other folks are now finally joining this call for action with some urgency. This New York Times editorial, headlined "President Obama’s Last Chance to Show Mercy," is today's example of the clemency chorus now growing. Here are excerpts:
The Constitution gives presidents nearly unlimited authority to grant pardons and commute sentences — decisions that no future administration can reverse. Unfortunately, for most of his presidency, Barack Obama treated mercy as an afterthought. Even as thousands of men and women endured outrageously long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the nation’s misguided drug war, Mr. Obama granted relief to only a tiny handful.
In the last two years, however, Mr. Obama has changed course. In 2014 he directed the Justice Department to systematically review cases of people serving out sentences that would be far shorter had they been convicted under new, more lenient sentencing laws.
While that clemency process has moved far too slowly — beset by both administrative obstacles and bureaucratic resistance — grants have been accelerating throughout 2016. Mr. Obama has now shortened or ended the sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, and he will most likely be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to leave office with a smaller federal prison population than he inherited.
There are thousands more people deserving of release, but their prospects under the next administration don’t look good. President-elect Donald Trump ran on a “law and order” platform that sounded a lot like the punitive approach that led to exploding prison populations in the first place. His choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has fiercely opposed criminal sentencing reform and called Mr. Obama’s grants of clemency an abuse of power. In other words, for many federal inmates, their last hope lies in Mr. Obama’s hands.
Up to now, the president has reviewed clemency requests on a case-by-case basis. With only weeks left in office, Mr. Obama should consider a bolder approach: blanket commutations for those inmates still serving time under an old law that punished possession or sale of crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine — a meaningless distinction that sent disproportionate numbers of young black and Latino men to prison for decades....
The idea of blanket commutations is being pushed by a coalition of criminal-justice reform advocates, including former judges and prosecutors, who urged the president in a letter last week to use his clemency power aggressively while he still can. The group called for the release of thousands more nonviolent offenders in low-risk categories, including elderly inmates, who are the least likely of all to commit new crimes, and those with convictions for drugs other than crack. The coalition argues that it is possible to make these grants in the short time remaining, if the administration is committed to getting it done.
Mr. Trump may well dismantle a lot of Mr. Obama’s legacy, but he can’t touch grants of clemency. Mr. Obama has taken important steps toward unwinding the decades-long imprisonment binge. With much of that progress now at risk, he has only a few weeks left to ensure a measure of justice and mercy for thousands of people.
Oklahoma's top criminal court gives significant effect to Miller's limits on juve LWOP sentences
As reported in this local article, headlined "Resentencings ordered in two high-profile Oklahoma murder cases," the top criminal court in Oklahoma issues two big ruling about juve LWOP sentencing late last week. Here are the basics:
Oklahoma's youngest murderers can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless they are found to be "irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible." A divided Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals established the new restrictions in rulings made Friday in two high-profile murder cases.
The first ruling involved a murderer who was 16 at the time. The second involved a murderer who was 17 at the time. Both must be resentenced, the appeals court ruled. In both cases, the appeals court concluded the punishment of life without parole "is constitutionally infirm" because jurors were not presented evidence involving "important youth-related considerations."...
The appeals court came up with a new instruction to be given to juries in future murder cases involving a defendant who was under age 18 at the time of the crime. Jurors will be told "no person who committed a crime as a juvenile may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole unless you find beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible."
A murderer sentenced to a life term, with a chance at parole, is eligible for consideration under current law after spending 38 years and three months in prison.
I received an email about these rulings from The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and here is part of that email (with links to the decisions):
On Friday, Oklahoma’s highest criminal court applied Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana to discretionary juvenile life without parole, affording an opportunity for resentencing to more than 45 people in Oklahoma sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed as children.
In two decisions, the court affirmed United States Supreme Court limitations on sentencing children to life in prison. These decisions should dramatically limit, if not prevent, the imposition of life sentences for children in Oklahoma going forward....
Oklahoma has joined a growing number of states that apply Miller and Montgomery to sentences of juvenile life without parole where the judge had discretion whether or not to impose life without parole, including Connecticut, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals also required a finding of “irreparable corruption and permanent incorrigibility” beyond a reasonable doubt before life without parole can be imposed on children, consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Montgomery that life without parole is unconstitutional when imposed on the vast majority of children.
Monday, December 05, 2016
Is Georgia really "rushing" to execute a defendant convicted of murder in 1990?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times commentary authored by Norman Fletcher, who "served on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years and was its chief justice from 2001 to 2005." The NY Times gave this commentary the headline "Georgia’s Dangerous Rush to Execution," but the first sentence of the commentary states: "Tomorrow, the State of Georgia intends to execute William Sallie, who was convicted of killing a man in 1990." Though there could be many problems with Georgia's capital system, conducting an execution 26 years after a capital conviction does not seem to me like a "rush job." That lingo aside, here is what former Justice Fletcher goes on to explain in his commentary:
I served as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years. During that time I participated in dozens of death-penalty cases and affirmed many of them. That experience, though, exposed me to some of the significant flaws in the system — not just the injustice of the death penalty itself, but specific problems with the way capital cases are handled. Mr. Sallie’s case is a prime example.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Georgia’s system, and one of the reasons the state carries out so many executions, is that it often fails to provide people with lawyers. Mr. Sallie, for example, missed a filing deadline for a federal review of his case by eight days, in part because he didn’t have a lawyer at the time to help him. And this isn’t just a delay tactic; he has several strong claims about constitutional failings during his trial that, if proved, could require the reversal of his conviction. As things stand, he will be executed without review.
Fundamental fairness, due process and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment require the courts to provide an attorney throughout the entire legal process to review a death sentence. Virtually every capital-punishment state has this safeguard. Georgia is an outlier.
I saw this firsthand as the presiding justice on the State Supreme Court in 1999, in an appeal of a post-conviction hearing for a man named Exzavious Gibson, who was 17 at the time of his crime. It was a critical proceeding, where a lawyer should have raised important details about whether he received adequate representation during his trial — except that, ironically, no volunteer attorney was available. Mr. Gibson, who was poor and apparently, from the records, intellectually disabled and afflicted by acute mental health problems, was forced to represent himself.
That sham of a proceeding is one of the most deplorable vignettes in Georgia’s legal history. But a majority of my fellow justices were less moved, and the court decided, 4-3, that people with death-penalty convictions have no right to counsel at that critical post-conviction stage — a ruling still in force today.
As a result, a door that would have been open to Mr. Sallie in almost any other state was closed to him in Georgia. If it were open, he would be able to present the facts about his trial, which appear to show serious problems with juror bias.
Mr. Sallie’s lawyers amassed volumes of public records and witness statements showing that one of the jurors, despite having a known bias, apparently misled the trial judge and the parties in order to join the jury. (She omitted vital, likely disqualifying information, including striking similarities between her traumatic history of divorce and interstate child custody fights and the domestic strife at the center of Mr. Sallie’s case.) In 2012, after his conviction, she bragged to an investigator that she had persuaded the jury, which was evenly divided between life and death, to vote unanimously for death.
The problem is not just Georgia. The United States Supreme Court has not ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to an attorney during the critical post-conviction review stage in state courts. Georgia continues to deny counsel — and denies a man like William Sallie the opportunity to defend his life.
Anyone interested in SCOTUS speculating after Ohio repeat execution case again left in limbo?
The question in the title of this post emerges from the latest SCOTUS order list here, which does not mention in any way Broom v. Ohio. This accounting of Broom from SCOTUSblog's most recent Relist Watch will remind readers why I am paying (too?) much attention to this case:
Issues: (1) Whether the first attempt to execute the petitioner was cruel and unusual under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and if so, whether the appropriate remedy is to bar any further execution attempt on the petitioner; (2) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will be a cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (3) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will violate double jeopardy protections under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.
(relisted after the November 4, November 10 and November 22 conferences)
For the first few relists in early November, I was speculating that the Justices were waiting for one or more of them (e.g., Justices Breyer and Ginsberg and ____) to complete a dissent from the denial of certiorari. But now that this unique (and not-so-complicated) case has been in front of SCOTUS for well over a month, I am starting to think the Justices are inclined to hold on to this case until a replacement for Justice Scalia is named; once that new possible Justice is named, the current Justices can and will all have a better sense of whether and how the new Justice might break a possible 4-4 tie in this case.
Before urging readers to check out all the prior posts linked below (and others), I cannot help but flag a phrase in this post from Sept 2009 when Ohio first tried to move forward with a second execution attempt: "it is hard to predict if and when and how the US Supreme Court will be brought into this fray." It is perhaps worth recalling that this phrase was written when Justices Scalia, Souter and Stevens were all on SCOTUS. Now, a (lucky?) seven years later, we have Justices Kagan and Sotomayor and an open seat.
Related posts (most from 2009) on botched Broom execution attempt and its aftermath:
- Ohio struggling, legally and practically, with effort to execute offender
- Details on the botched Ohio execution attempt, issue spotting, and seeking predictions
- Notable reactions in national and local papers in response to Ohio's "unexecuted"
- Will (and when and how will) SCOTUS have to weigh in on Ohio's desire to try execution again?
- Latest litigation update surrounding Ohio's unexecuted and re-execution plans (UPDATED with stay details)
- Specifics and predictions concerning stay of Ohio's effort to re-execute Broom
- "Does failed execution attempt mean Ohio prisoner can avoid death penalty?"
- Split Ohio Supreme Court decides state allowed to try again to execute Rommell Broom after prior botched attempt
Shining spotlight on ugly dark racial realities of New York State's prison and parole systems
The New York Times has an important new series of articles examining biases in New York State's prison and parole systems. Here are links to and key passages from the first two articles:
A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.
In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found. They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations. At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.
A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.
The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order. In these cases, the officer has a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule is broken and does not need to produce physical evidence. The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband.
An analysis by The New York Times of thousands of parole decisions from the past several years found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.
It is a disparity that is particularly striking not for the most violent criminals, like rapists and murderers, but for small-time offenders who commit property crimes like stealing a television from a house or shoplifting from Duane Reade — precisely the people many states are now working to keep out of prison in the first place.
Since 2006, white inmates serving two to four years for a single count of third-degree burglary have been released after an average of 803 days, while black inmates served an average of 883 days for the same crime.
Sunday, December 04, 2016
Second Circuit hints that sentence reduction might well be justified whenever guideline range is increased "significantly by a loss enhancement"
I am grateful to Harry Sandick for alerting me to this seemingly little (and easily overlooked) opinion handed down by a unanimous Second Circuit panel late last week. Stephanie Teplin and Harry Sandick discuss the case in this thoughtful blog posting, and here are key passages from their coverage:
In United States v. Algahaim, No. 15-2024(L), the Second Circuit (Newman, Winters, Cabranes) upheld the conviction of two defendants for misconduct involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), but remanded to the district court for consideration of a below-Guidelines sentence. The Court, in an opinion by Judge Newman, held that the outsize effect of the loss amount enhancement on the defendant’s base offense level — a sentencing scheme for fraud that is “unknown to other sentencing systems” — required the district court to reconsider whether a non-Guidelines sentence was warranted....
Judge Newman acknowledged that it was within the Sentencing Commission’s authority to construct a sentencing scheme that “use[s] loss amount as the predominant determination of the adjusted offense level for monetary offenses.” However, he observed that “the Commission could have approached monetary offenses quite differently. For example, it could have started the Guidelines calculation for fraud offenses by selecting a base level that realistically reflected the seriousness of a typical fraud offense and then permitted adjustments up or down to reflect especially large or small amounts of loss.”
The “unusualness” of the Guidelines system, the Court held, can be considered by a sentencing judge under Kimbrough v. United States. “Where the Commission has assigned a rather low base offense level to a crime and then increased it significantly by a loss enhancement, that combination of circumstances entitles a sentencing judge to consider a non-Guidelines sentence.” The Court did not hold that the sentences were in error, but remanded for the district court’s reconsideration of the sentences....
Judge Newman has long been a skeptic of the Guidelines approach to sentencing. In this short opinion, he cites the pre-Booker decision in United States v. Lauersen, 348 F.2d 329 (2d Cir. 2003), an opinion he authored at a time when the Guidelines were mandatory, except for downward departures. Lauersen held that where the cumulative impact of overlapping Guidelines enhancements (in that case, for loss amount and for defrauding a financial institution of more than $1 million) resulted in an overly long sentence, the district court could downwardly depart....
In Algahaim, Judge Newman carries this concept forward to the more open-ended sentencing regime given to us by Booker, Gall and Kimbrough. Many judges have stated that the Guidelines are not helpful in white-collar cases and that their emphasis on loss can lead to results that are “patently unreasonable.” E.g., United States v. Adelson, 441 F. Supp. 2d 506, 509 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (Rakoff, J.). Practitioners have also advocated for shorter sentences in cases involving relatively low loss amounts or where the defendant had no prior record. See ABA Criminal Justice Section, “A Report on Behalf of the ABA Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes” (November 10, 2014) (last visited December 1, 2016). To the extent that district judges needed any further encouragement, Judge Newman’s decision lets district judges know that a Guidelines sentence need not be imposed where the “significant effect of the loss enhancement” leads to an unduly long sentence.
Because Judge Jon O. Newman was my very first boss as a lawyer (I served as his law clerk from 1993-94 starting just months after my graduation from law school), I am always partial to his opinions and especially as to his opinions about sentencing issues. And, as regular readers know, I am always partial to judicial opinions that thoughtfully explain whether and when the federal sentencing guidelines should or should not be followed. And so, perhaps my partiality is going to bubble over when I assert that Judge Newman is being especially astute and shrewd in his pro-discretion sentencing work in United States v. Algahaim, in part because the particulars of the loss enhancement in Algahaim are actually not all that major.
Specifically, in Algahaim, the two defendants who were appealing their convictions and sentences were subject to offense-level increases for loss of "only" 10 and 12 points under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1). Though such loss enhancements certainly appear significant when added to a base offense level of 6, in many other fraud cases the loss enhancement under 2B1.1(b) can commonly add 16 or 20 or 24 or even up to 30 points. Despite those realities, the Second Circuit in Algahaim has now called just a 10-level loss enhancement in a fraud case "significant" and also has said this enhancement is alone large enough to merit serious consideration of a below-guideline sentence. For that reason, I would now expect lots of astute and shrewd future white-collar defendants throughout New York and elsewhere to be citing to Algahaim to bolster arguments for below-guideline sentences whenever the guideline range is moved up a lot by loss calculations.
December 4, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Will more than just a handful of condemned murderers be impacted by latest SCOTUS review of capital punishment disability limits?
The question in the title of this post is my indirect effort to get a quantitative notion of the import and impact of the Texas case, Moore v. Texas, being heard by the US Supreme Court this morning. The folks at SCOTUSblog have this helpful round-up of some recent previews and commentaries on this case:
Today, the court will hear oral argument in Moore v. Texas, which asks whether Texas can rely on an outdated standard in determining whether a defendant’s intellectual disability precludes him from being executed. Amy Howe previewed the case for this blog. Another preview comes from Karen Ojeda and Nicholas Halliburton for Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.
Additional coverage of Moore comes from Nina Totenberg at NPR, who notes that “the state’s test is based on what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals called ‘a consensus of Texas citizens,’ that not all those who meet the ‘social services definition’ of ‘retardation’ should be exempt from the death penalty,” and from Steven Mazie in The Economist. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Carol and Jordan Steiker argue that rather than “relying on the same approach to intellectual disability that Texas uses in every other context (such as placement in special education or eligibility for disability benefits),” the state appeals “court sought to redefine the condition in the capital context so that only offenders who meet crude stereotypes about intellectual disability are shielded from execution.”
Efforts by Texas to execute intellectually disabled murderers strike very close to home for me because I was actively involved in representing and trying to prevent the execution of Terry Washington back in 1996-97 when there was not yet a constitutional restriction on application of the death penalty for those with certain intellectual disabilities. I got involved in the Washington case pro bono during my last few months as an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in NYC. I had the opportunity to help author a cert petition to SCOTUS and a clemency petition to then-Texas-Gov. George W. Bush in which we asserted on Terry's behalf that the ineffectiveness of trial counsel and his intellectually disabilities (which were then called mental retardation) justified sparing him from the ultimate punishment of death.
Terry Washington was sentenced to death for the stabbing murder of a co-worker at a restaurant in College Station, Texas. As the case was litigated through the federal habeas courts in Texas, there was no real dispute over Terry's mental disabilities because considerable evidence from his childhood indicated diminished mental capacities and in two IQ tests after his initial sentencing to death Terry scored 58 and 69. But Terry's case was tried in the 1980s when it was not considered ineffective for counsel to fail to investigate and present mitigating mental health and family background evidence. In the words of the Fifth Circuit rejecting a final habeas appeal in 1996, counsel made "a reasonable strategic decision not to investigate Washington's mental health by retaining a mental health expert or to present evidence of Washington's mental health and family background at the punishment stage of trial." Washington v. Johnson, 90 F.3d 945 (5th Cir. July 25, 1996) (available here).
I cannot help but think of Terry Washington today because I recall drafting sections of the cert petition and clemency petition making the case for a categorical ban on the execution of persons with (as called then) mental retardation. Unfortunately for Terry, the Supreme Court would not embrace the constitutional position we pushed on his behalf until 2002 when it ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of individuals who are intellectually disabled. (According to this DPIC accounting, 44 persons with intellectual disabilities were executed between 1976 and the SCOTUS Atkins ruling in 2002.) Based on the medical records and supporting evidence, I now believe that Terry would have indisputably been shielded from execution by Atkins even though Texas has been trying its best since Atkins to limit the number of condemned murderers who get shielded from execution by its holding.
Returning to the Moore case now before SCOTUS (with the Terry Washington case still on my mind), I sincerely wonder how many persons on death row in Texas or in other states are currently in the doctrinal/proof gray area that the Moore case occupies. My sense is that most defendants with obvious disabilities have had their sentences reduced based on Atkins, and this DPIC accounting hints that maybe as many as 100 condemned murderers have gotten off of death rows in many states thanks to Atkins. But in Moore it seems like evidence of disability is sufficiently equivocal and the legal standards sufficiently opaque that SCOTUS has to clean up some post-Atkins doctrinal mess. For Bobby James Moore, this is obviously now a matter of life and death. But can we know how many other of the roughly 2500 persons now under serious sentences of death nationwide will be potentially impacted by the Moore decision?
Monday, November 28, 2016
Guest posting from Prof Carissa Hessick on SCOTUS argument: "Beckles and the Continued Complexity of Post-Booker Federal Sentencing"
I am pleased to be able to reprint this original commentary concerning today's SCOTUS oral argument from LawProf Carissa Hessick:
Earlier today the Supreme Court heard argument in Beckles v. United States. Beckles raises two questions: (1) whether the now-advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, and (2) whether, assuming the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenge, a ruling that a Guideline is unconstitutionally vague is retroactive under the Teague framework. The Beckles case and today’s argument illustrate how complicated federal sentencing has become since the Supreme Court decided to treat the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as advisory in Booker v. United States.
In the decade since Booker was decided, the Supreme Court has clarified that, although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, they are also not entirely voluntary. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben did a fantastic job in his argument explaining the middle path that the Court has carved for the Guidelines since Booker. He not only described the anchoring effect of the Guidelines, but he also noted that the Court has adopted procedural mechanisms “designed to reinforce the primacy of the Guidelines.” The current advisory system, according to Dreeben, “injects law into the sentencing process.”
As the Beckles argument illustrates, the middle path that the Court has carved is complicated. The Court continues to struggle with how to regulate an advisory system in light of the fact that the purely discretionary system that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines replaced was essentially unregulated. Indeed, counsel for Beckles spent much of her argument fending off questions by various Justices about how a Guideline could be unconstitutionally vague if a purely discretionary system is permissible under the Constitution. Justices Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts all asked questions to this effect. Notably, later questions by Justice Breyer and the Chief Justice appeared to accept that a purely discretionary system might be subject to different rules than an advisory system.
The complexity of the middle path was on full display in today’s argument in part because the United States relied on the complexity of that path to take what Justice Kennedy and a court-appointed amicus characterized as inconsistent positions. The United States argued that the advisory Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges because of the important role that they continue to play in the post-Booker world. But the government argued that the advisory status of the Guidelines should prevent the Court from making any vagueness ruling retroactive. The government distinguished this case from a recent juvenile life-without-parole case, saying that juvenile LWOP cases require a particular finding in order for a defendant to be eligible for a life-without-parole sentence. In contrast, according to the government, the Guidelines affect only the likelihood that a defendant will receive a particular sentence. The government relied on the distinction between likelihood of a sentence and eligibility for a sentence as the reason it took different positions on the vagueness question and the retroactivity question. And while Justice Sotomayor pressed the government on this distinction, none of the attorneys or the Justices mentioned an important fact about this case: When Beckles was sentenced in a Florida district court, the prevailing law in the Eleventh Circuit actually required such a finding. (Because of the amount of time taken up by questions about vagueness, petitioner’s counsel addressed the likelihood/eligibility argument only in the single minute she had remaining for rebuttal. The argument was made in an amicus that Doug and I co-authored with Leah Litman, which is available here.)
Other odd aspects of the Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence were also on display during the Beckles argument. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito both raised the question whether the Court’s recent decisions about the quasi-legal status of the advisory Guidelines should endure in the face of changing sentencing patterns in the district courts. And Justice Breyer, who has often served as a champion for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, raised the possibility that the courts should be more indulgent of vague sentencing guidelines than vague statutes because the Commission is in a better position than Congress to refine the law.
Perhaps because this area of the law is so complex, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy appeared to cast about for an easy way to dispose of this case. At one point Justice Ginsburg said as much: “I thought . . . that if we decide the first issue, . . . the case is over. But -- so I was thinking, well, we could decide that issue and not reach either vagueness or retroactivity.” Much to his credit, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben discouraged the Court from taking that path, even though it would have meant a victory for the Government. Dreeben noted that there are many cases that raise the vagueness and the retroactivity questions that are currently pending in the lower courts. And he made an institutional appeal to the Justices to resolve the retroactivity issue even if they could decide this case based on some commentary in the Guidelines. I admire Dreeben for making this appeal to the Justices. But I don’t think that his appeal went far enough. There are a number of defendants in the Eleventh Circuit who have viable vagueness claims that are not claiming retroactivity. Because the Eleventh Circuit refused to recognize any vagueness challenges to the Guidelines, the Court should also rule on the vagueness issue even if it determines that its ruling will not be retroactive.
Although I was not at the argument this morning, it is hard to read the transcript of the Beckles argument and think that the defendant is likely to prevail. Only Justice Sotomayor seemed to be asking friendly questions of petitioner’s counsel, and only she seemed to resist the Government’s likelihood/eligibility argument.
But even if Beckles does not prevail, we may see another vagueness challenge to the Guidelines in the not-so-distant future. For one thing, Dreeben made clear in today’s argument that the Government has not taken a position on retroactivity for pre-Booker mandatory sentences. So if Beckles loses on the retroactivity question, then the courts of appeals will have to decide retroactivity in those pre-Booker cases, and if the courts split on that question, the Supreme Court may need to take another case. For another, the Court has granted cert in another statutory vagueness case, Lynch v. Dimaya. The statute at issue in Dimaya, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), has been incorporated into a Guideline, U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C). So if the Court decides that § 16(b) is unconstitutionally vague in Dimaya, and if the Court does not answer the vagueness question in Beckles, then the Court may need to take another Guidelines vagueness case.
Many SCOTUS Justices seems disinclined to find vagueness problems with sentencing guidelines given backdrop of unguided sentencing discretion
I have only just gotten started reading the transcript of the oral argument in Beckles v. United States (which is available here), and the first set of big questions suggests some Justices are not drawn to a basic sentencing vagueness claim. Consider these passages from early in the transcript, which I have tweaked stylistically for improved exposition:
JUSTICE ALITO: Let me ask you a more fundamental question. And I don't want to unduly shock the attorneys who are here from the Sentencing Commission, but imagine there were no sentencing guidelines. So you have a criminal provision that says that a person who's convicted of this offense may be imprisoned for not more than 20 years. That's all it says. Now, is that unconstitutionally vague?
MS. BERGMANN: No, Your Honor.
JUSTICE ALITO: Well, that seems to be a lot vaguer than what we have here. So how do you -- how do you reconcile those two propositions?
MS. BERGMANN: Well, Your Honor, we submit that arbitrary determinant sentencing such as with a vague guideline is not the same as an indeterminate sentencing scheme such as the Court described. Our position is that the use of a vague guideline, in fact, is worse than indeterminate sentencing because it systematically injects arbitrariness into the entire sentencing process.
JUSTICE BREYER: And there is more arbitrariness because of this guideline than there was before the Guidelines were passed? Is there any evidence of that? I have a lot of evidence it wasn't.
MS. BERGMANN: Well, I think, Your Honor, it's especially so here because --
JUSTICE BREYER: Especially so. Is it so at all? There was a system before the Guidelines exactly as Justice Alito said. Moreover, that system is existing today side by side with the Guidelines in any case in which the judge decides not to use the Guidelines. So I don't get it. I really don't. And you can be brief here, because it's really the government that has to answer this question for me. I don't understand where they're coming from on this, and you don't have to answer more than briefly, but I do have exactly the same question that Justice Alito had....
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, if the indeterminate sentencing is all right, it would seem to me that even the vaguest guideline would be an improvement and so difficult to argue that it's too vague to be applied....
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, but your argument applies to State systems as well, and you're telling us that the more specific a legislature or an agency tries to make guidance for the judge, the more chance there is for vagueness.... Your argument is sweeping. And you're saying the more specific guidance you give, the more dangers there is of unconstitutionality. That's very difficult to accept.
These statements notwithstanding, the extraordinary presentation by Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben (who has long been my all-time favorite SCOTUS advocate) may have helped move at least some of the Justices to better appreciate how the career offender guidelines could be deemed unconstitutionally vague in the wake of the Johnson ACCA ruling back in summer 2015.
Now that Prez Obama has granted commutations to more than 1000 federal prisoners (basics here), I suppose I should stop complaining that he has only "talked the talk" about significant sentencing reform. Having granted now a record number of commutations to federal defendants sentenced to decades of imprisonment for mostly nonviolent drug offenses, Prez Obama can and should retire to the golf course with some justified satisfaction that he has created a new clemency legacy over his final few years as Prez.
That said, a few basic numbers about the reality of federal drug prosecutions in the Obama era should temper any profound praise for Prez Obama here. Specifically, Prez Obama was in charge from Jan 2009 to Aug 2010 when the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio was still in place. During that period, using this US Sentencing Commission data as a guide, well over 5000 federal defendants were sentenced under the old crack laws while Prez Obama and his appointees were leading the Justice Department. So, during just Prez Obama's first 1.5 years in office, federal prosecutors sent five times as many drug offenders to federal prison under the old crack laws than Prez Obama has now commuted. Moreover, given that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only reduced the crack/powder unfairness, it is worth also noting that over another 20,000 federal defendants have been prosecuted and sentence under still-disparate/unfair crack sentencing laws from Aug 2010 to Nov 2016 (though crack prosecutions, as this USSC data shows, have declined considerably from 2010 to 2015).
I bring all this up because I will not consider Prez Obama to be a bold and courageous executive leader in the clemency arena unless and until he grants relief to more folks than just over-sentenced nonviolent drug offenders. Helpfully, this new Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Charles Renfrew and James Reynolds provides some distinct clemency fodder for Prez Obama to consider. The piece is headlined "Obama Should Pardon This Iowa Kosher-Food Executive: Prosecutors overstepped, interfered with the process of bankruptcy and then solicited false testimony." Because I have been an advocate for a reduced sentence for Sholom Rubashkin, whose 27-year federal prison sentence has long seemed grossly unfair and unjustified to me, I will not here make the clemency case for him in particular. But this WSJ commentary serves as a useful reminder that there are certainly hundreds — and likely thousands and perhaps tens of thousands — of federal prisoners currently serving excessive federal prison sentences who were involved in criminal activity other than nonviolent drug offenses.
Candidly, I am not optimistic that Prez Obama will use his last seven weeks to get out of the notable "clemency rut" of his Administration's own creation. I say this because I surmise that (1) (1) everyone involved in the Obama Administration's clemency push has been focused almost exclusively on low-level drug prisoners sentenced to a decade or longer, and (2) even the limited group of low-level drug offenders being actively considered still presents tens of thousands of clemency petitions to review. Meanwhile, I suspect and fear, reasonable clemency requests from thousands of other potentially worthy applications are seemingly being rejected out-of-hand or being left for the next Prez to deal with.
I hope Prez Obama proves me wrong in the next seven weeks by granting clemency to some other types of folks seeing executive relief (both in the form of commutations and pardons). But on most criminal justice reform issues, Prez Obama has left me deeply disappointed a lot more than he has pleasantly surprised me.
November 28, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Interesting and exciting sentencing week as SCOTUS gets back to work
For sentencing fans who pay special attention to the Supreme Court, November has been not all that interesting so far. But after a series of arguments on civil cases earlier in the month, the last few days of SCOTUS argument this November has all sort of intriguing issues for sentencing fans. Here are the basics and links to previews from SCOTUSblog of the exciting week to come:
Monday Nov 28: Beckles v. United States:
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.
Tuesday Nov 29: Moore v. Texas:
Issue: Whether it violates the Eighth Amendment and this Court’s decisions in Hall v. Florida and Atkins v. Virginia to prohibit the use of current medical standards on intellectual disability, and require the use of outdated medical standards, in determining whether an individual may be executed.
Wednesday Nov 30: Jennings v. Rodriguez:
Issue: (1) Whether aliens seeking admission to the United States who are subject to mandatory detention under 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release into the United States, if detention lasts six months; (2) whether criminal or terrorist aliens who are subject to mandatory detention under Section 1226(c) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release, if detention lasts six months; and (3) whether, in bond hearings for aliens detained for six months under Sections 1225(b), 1226(c), or 1226(a), the alien is entitled to release unless the government demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the alien is a flight risk or a danger to the community, whether the length of the alien’s detention must be weighed in favor of release, and whether new bond hearings must be afforded automatically every six months.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Terrific content and context for Prez Obama's clemency work at Pardon Power
Long-time readers know that the blog Pardon Power is a must-read for anyone who cares about clemency policies and practices. Of particular importance and value, P.S. Ruckman's work at Pardon Power consistently provides needed theoretical and historical context for better understanding recent clemency activities rather than falling prey to the the modern media tendency to follow and obsess over the latest "shiny object" of clemency. Great examples of why Pardon Power is a must-read these days as we move into the twilight of the Obama era are these recent posts of note over the holiday weekend:
Though I recommend highly all these posts, the last of the bunch has the most far-reaching and trenchant analysis. Here is how that piece starts and ends:
It seems more than likely that, before he leaves office, President Obama will break Woodrow Wilson's record for commutations of sentence. It is, however, more than a little amazing (if not highly informative) to compare the use of federal executive clemency in the two administrations.
By the time he left the White House, Wilson had granted 1,087 presidential pardons (as well as 226 respites and 148 remissions). Obama, however, has granted a mere 70 pardons, the lowest number granted by any president serving at least one full term since John Adams. It doesn't seem likely that Obama will pass out 1,000 plus pardons between now and the end of the term. But there appears to be little concern about it on any front. So, it is what it is.
Consequently, clemency, for Obama, has meant — for the most part — commutations of sentence, almost exclusively for those convicted of drug offenses. And these grants have — for the most part — been granted late in his second term. Indeed, the Obama administration already features the largest 4th-year clemency surge of any administration in history....
The federal prison population has boomed since Wilson's day. The Obama administration has been receiving record numbers of clemency applications, for years. On top of that, thousands remain in prison who were sentenced under drug laws which have been undone. The merciless neglect of the current clemency system needs to tanked. The process needs to be removed from career prosecutors in the DOJ who are unable / unwilling to process clemency applications in a timely fashion, with an eye toward mercy. The broken system has famously lacked transparency (since 1932) and, today, it even exempts itself FOIA law.
It is time to create a permanent clemency board / commission (a device often used in the states) in the Executive Office of the President of the United States. It is time for mercy to emerge once again as a regular feature of criminal justice. It's not just about numbers. It is about balance, fairness. It is about rehabilitation and restoration. It's about presidents using a power that was given to them ... to use ... not to abuse, or neglect.
So many marijuana reform developments and questions, with so many more on 2017 horizon
Though I blogged a bit in this space about marijuana reform right around the election (see here and here), over the last few weeks I have been content to cover this issues just over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform. But this new post about this new article about the thousands of Californians getting sentencing relief thanks to the state's passage of a major marijuana legalization proposition, Prop 64, reminded me that I should be reminding readers about the close links between marijuana reform in particular and sentencing reform in general.
The first post linked below tells the sentencing reform story, and some other postings from my other blog tell a whole lot of other interesting and dynamic stories about the current state and possible future of marijuana reform in the United States:
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Prez Obama grants 79 move commutations, taking his total over 1000 for his administration
As reported in this new Washington Post article, headlined "Obama grants 79 more commutations to federal inmates, pushing the total past 1,000," the outgoing President has decided to make some clemency news before turning torward Turkey Day festivities. Here are the basics from the start of this article:
President Obama granted commutations to another 79 federal drug offenders Tuesday, pushing the number of inmates he has granted clemency past 1,000.
Obama’s historic number of commutations was announced as administration officials are moving quickly to rule on all the pending clemency applications from inmates before the end of the year. The Trump administration is not expected to keep in place Obama’s initiative to provide relief to nonviolent drug offenders.
“The President’s gracious act of mercy today with his latest round of commutations is encouraging,” said Brittany Byrd, a Texas attorney who has represented several inmates who have received clemency since Obama’s initiative began in 2014. “He is taking historic steps under his groundbreaking clemency initiative to show the power of mercy and belief in redemption. Three hundred and forty two men and women were set to die in prison. The President literally saved their lives.”
The White House and the Justice Department were criticized by sentencing reform advocates earlier this year for moving too slowly in granting commutations to inmates serving harsh sentences who met the criteria for clemency. The administration has greatly picked up the pace, but advocates still want them to move faster before time runs out.
“At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we say, “thanks, but please hurry,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We know there are thousands more who received outdated and excessive mandatory sentences and we think they all deserve to have their petitions considered before the president leaves office. Petitioners are starting to get anxious because they know the president is, in prison parlance, a short-timer.”
On a press call this afternoon (which is available here), Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates delivered remarks that included these sentiments:
As of this morning, President Obama has granted clemency to over 1,000 men and women who were incarcerated under outdated sentencing laws.
The number 1,000 is significant, but it’s important to remember that this is more than a statistic. There are 1,000 lives behind that number, 1,000 people who had been sentenced under unnecessarily harsh and outdated sentencing laws that sent them to prison for 20, 30, 40 years, even life, for nonviolent drug offenses. It's part of my job to review the petitions for each of these individuals, and I've been struck by the common threads woven through many of them — lack of access to education or real economic opportunity, absence of parents, drug addiction, hopelessness. But in these petitions I've also seen something else — remarkable introspection, a real sense of responsibility for their conduct, and a dogged determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to ensure that they, and especially their children, chart another path.
The President has given these 1,000 individuals that opportunity. And while we are a nation of laws, and those who violate those laws must be held accountable, we are also a nation of second chances. The mission of the Justice Department not only supports but demands that we do everything in our power to ensure that our criminal justice system operates fairly. In this case, that means reducing disproportionate sentences imposed under out-of-date laws. And we are privileged to serve a President who has not only taken on this responsibility himself, but who has given us the chance to fulfill our core charge to seek justice....
And a lot of work has gone into the clemency initiative to get us to this historic announcement today. Since the initiative was announced in 2014, thousands of petitions have been submitted and reviewed by the hard working attorneys in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, my office, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, and the White House to identify nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences would be significantly lower if they were sentenced today. While we are proud of the progress we’ve made so far, as I have said before, our work is still not done. We will continue to make recommendations on clemency applications until the end of the Administration, fulfilling the goals we set more than two and a half years ago when we launched the clemency initiative.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
"Advocates Look To Obama For 'Unprecedented' Action On Federal Prison Sentences"
The title of this post is the headline of this astute new BuzzFeed News article that flags some issues and raises various questions that I have been thinking a lot about ever since last Wednesday around 2am. Here are highlights:
In recent months, President Obama has stepped up the pace of federal clemency — issuing three large batches of commutations in the month before the presidential election. The White House has regularly pushed those numbers as evidence that Obama has done more than his predecessors to address unfairness he has criticized in criminal sentencing.
But now that he is due to be replaced by Donald Trump, who ran in part by saying he would be a “law and order” president, leading advocates of the clemency process say it is the time for Obama to step up and do more. “[I]f President Obama believes these sentences are unjust, it is his constitutional responsibility to fix them,” Rachel Barkow, a member of the United States Sentencing Commission and NYU law professor, told BuzzFeed News this week....
To that end, the group, co-founded by Van Jones, will be in Washington this week, holding a series of events — including a vigil in front of the White House on Monday evening — urging Obama to take “unprecedented” action on clemency in the coming months.
Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, acknowledged that time is short. “I think there will be — and should be — a sense of urgency,” he said on Friday. “I think the clearest thing is to find efficiencies — find ways to look at more people over these last weeks in a way that’s consistent and effective, in terms of evaluation. And that means, probably, looking at categories of people and identifying them specifically.”
Specifically, he pointed to “people who did not get the benefit of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010” — which addressed cocaine-to-crack sentencing disparities in federal law, but was not retroactive. As such, Osler explained, many people “were stuck with a life sentence or the 10-year mandatory [minimum]” who could not receive that sentence today....
There has, though, been an election — one that likely will reflect at least somewhat different values on criminal justice issues, Osler acknowledged. “It’s fair to say that those people within this administration are very aware that the amount of care that they give to criminal law — and the excesses of criminal law — probably won’t be reflected in the next administration,” he said. Nonetheless, Osler said that Obama’s two elections more than suffice as a rationale for why Obama should continue pressing forward with the Clemency Project in his final months in office. “He’s the elected president until January 20, 2017,” he said. “I don’t think you sit back and don’t make full use of every day that you have.”
Barkow put it in similarly broad terms — but with a historical context. “Clemency is critical to an effective federal criminal justice system,” Barkow noted, pointing out that Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federal Papers about the important role clemency plays in the American system. “The President has only a couple months to reach everyone. The fate of these people and their loved ones rests in his hands, and one of his lasting legacies can be to reaffirm Hamilton’s view that both ‘humanity and good policy’ require the broad use of the pardon power.”
In addition to my adoration for Rachel Barkow's always-timely Hamilton reference (and how it made me think of one of my favorite songs), I especially like Mark Osler's discussion of both the challenges and justifications for Prez Obama going bold on clemency over the next two months. For reasons I have explained in this Veterans Day post, I would especially love to see Prez Obama go bold in granting clemency for any and all veterans serving distinctly long federal sentences or still burdened by a federal conviction long after any public safety rationales for continued punishment have been extinguished.
Sing along with me Prez Obama and fellow clemency fans (with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda):
Prez Washington:I wanna talk about [clemency righting]I want to warn against partisan fightingPick up a pen, start writingI wanna talk about what I have learnedThe hard-won wisdom I have earned...The people will hear from meOne last timeAnd if we get this rightWe’re gonna teach ‘em how to say GoodbyeYou and I—
Mr. President, they will say you’re weak
No, they will see we’re strong
Your position is so unique
So I’ll use it to move them along
Why do you have to say goodbye?
Prez Washington:If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move onIt outlives me when I’m goneLike the scripture says:“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig treeAnd no one shall make them afraid.”They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve madeI wanna sit under my own vine and fig treeA moment alone in the shadeAt home in this nation we’ve madeOne last time