Friday, December 05, 2014

District Judge pushes federal prosecutors to back off extreme trial penalty sentence

As reported in this Reuters article, headlined "Prosecutors rethink convict's sentence after judge cites Holder," a federal judge earlier this week put some bite into the Attorney General's advocacy for reducing reliance on extremely long prison term by urging local federal prosecutors to reconsider an extreme sentence driven by application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Here are the details of an interesting on-going sentencing story:

Prosecutors are reconsidering a 50-year sentence for a convicted robber and drug dealer, after a judge on Wednesday suggested they call Attorney General Eric Holder to ask him whether it was fair to "punish" a man for rejecting a plea deal and opting for a trial.

Randy Washington, 27, the Bronx man who faced the lengthy term after turning down a 10-year plea deal and getting convicted at trial, had been scheduled for sentencing in New York federal court on Wednesday.  But the hearing was adjourned so prosecutors could rework a deal carrying a shorter sentence, after U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan repeated his criticism that the 50-year mandatory minimum sentence appeared to "punish" Washington for going to trial.

Sullivan even suggested prosecutors call Holder himself to ask if their actions comport with his recent directive cautioning prosecutors against routinely using the threat of harsher sentences to induce defendants to plead guilty.  "He won't look with pride on what you're doing here today," Sullivan said....

In September, Holder issued a memo advising prosecutors to avoid employing the prospect of longer mandatory minimum prison terms in plea talks.  Sullivan cited the memo Wednesday in criticizing the sentence for Washington, who was convicted of robbery, narcotics and related charges.

In July, Sullivan said the potential 50-year term was legal but "unnecessary and unjust" and in a rare move pushed Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office to seek a reduced sentence. In response, prosecutors offered to drop a 10-year enhancement based on a prior felony conviction for Washington.

They separately offered Washington a new 25-year deal, which Washington rejected as it included an appellate waiver, a provision Sullivan questioned on Wednesday. "I'm not sure there's great consistency in the position that says, 'We agree that 50 years is too long, but it's too long only if you give up your appellate rights,'" he said.

After prosecutors consulted with Bharara himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney Telemachus Kasulis told Sullivan they would consider a 25-year deal without requiring Washington to waive all of his appellate rights. Sentencing was rescheduled for Dec. 12.

December 5, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 04, 2014

"The True Legacy of Atkins and Roper: The Unreliability Principle, Mentally Ill Defendants, and the Death Penalty's Unraveling"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by Scott Sundby now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In striking down the death penalty for intellectually disabled and juvenile defendants, Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons have been understandably heralded as important holdings under the Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence that has found the death penalty "disproportional" for certain types of defendants and crimes.  This Article argues, however, that the cases have a far more revolutionary reach than their conventional understanding.  In both cases the Court went one step beyond its usual two-step analysis of assessing whether imposing the death penalty violated "evolving standards of decency."  This extra step looked at why even though intellectual disability and youth were powerful mitigators, juries were not able to reliably use them in their decision making.

The Court thus articulated expressly for the first time what this Article calls the "unreliability principle:" if too great a risk exists that constitutionally protected mitigation cannot be reliably assessed, the unreliability means that the death penalty cannot be constitutionally imposed.  In recognizing the unreliability principle, the Court has called into serious question the death penalty for other offenders to whom the principle applies, such as mentally ill defendants.  And, unlike with the "evolving standards" analysis, the unreliability principle does not depend on whether a national consensus exists against the practice.

This Article identifies the six Atkins-Roper factors that bring the unreliability principle into play and shows why they make application of the death penalty to mentally ill defendants unconstitutional.  The principle, which finds its constitutional home in the cases of Woodson v. North Carolina and Lockett v. Ohio, has profound implications for the death penalty, and if taken to its logical endpoint calls into question the Court's core premise since Furman v. Georgia, that by providing individualized consideration of a defendant and his crime, the death penalty decision will be free of arbitrariness.

December 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Fourth Circuit find LWOP + 60 month sentence (!?!) for drug offenses substantively unreasonable

Thanks to a few helpful readers, I was alerted to a notable opinion from a Fourth Circuit panel today in US v. Howard, No. 13-4296 (4th Cir. Dec. 4, 2014) (available here).  Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy opinion:

In appeal No. 13-4296, a jury convicted Dennis Ray Howard on one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, phencyclidine (“PCP”), nine counts of distribution of PCP, and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.  The district court sentenced Howard to a term of life imprisonment plus 60 months....  For the reasons set forth within, we affirm the convictions, vacate the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and remand for resentencing....

The district court reached its life imprisonment sentence by making an upward departure based on Howard’s de facto career offender status, and by reasoning that the § 3553(a) factors supported a sentence at the top of the Guidelines range determined after the departure.  Because we are persuaded that the extent of the upward departure is unwarranted and amounts to an abuse of discretion, and because, in any event, a sentence of life in prison on this record is not justified by consideration of the § 3553(a) factors as articulated by the district court, we conclude that the sentence imposed is substantively unreasonable....

By declaring Howard a serial recidivist dedicated to dispensing “poison” with no hope of redemption, and by basing this judgment on stale criminal history, the bulk of which was non-violent and committed when Howard was a juvenile, the district court failed in its effort to comply with the aims of sentencing prescribed by § 3553(a)(2)....

The district court plainly sought to intone all of the principles underlying § 3553(a)(2) when it announced its sentence.  It stated the need for individual and general deterrence, incapacitation, and just punishment.   There is no doubt that the sentence sent a “message” of deterrence to the people of Wilson and the Eastern District of North Carolina.  The district court made those intentions clear. But we simply fail to see, on the whole record, how the life-plus-60-months sentence reasonably reflects the seriousness of the offense or just punishment.  Manifestly, it is a sentence “greater than necessary,” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to achieve the purposes of § 3553(a)(2).

December 4, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

"United States v. Erwin and the Folly of Intertwined Cooperation and Plea Agreements"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Kevin Bennardo and published in the online complement to the Washington and Lee Law Review. (The Erwin case referenced in the title is a recent Third Circuit ruling discussed in this blog post titled "Significant Third Circuit ruling on the consequences of a defendant's appeal despite an appeal waiver.")  Here is the abstract of this new article:

Cooperation agreements and plea agreements are separate and independent promises by criminal defendants to: (1) assist the Government in the prosecution of another person and (2) plead guilty.  A defendant’s breach of one should not affect the Government’s obligation to perform under the other.  All too often, however, these agreements are inappropriately intertwined so that a minor breach of the plea agreement relieves the Government of its obligation to move for a downward sentencing departure in recognition of the defendant’s substantial assistance.  This intertwining undermines sentencing policy as set forth in the federal sentencing statute.  Thus, a district court should continue to consider a defendant’s substantial assistance when imposing a criminal sentence even if a breach of the plea agreement alleviates the Government of its duty to move for a sentence reduction under an intertwined cooperation agreement.

December 2, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

SCOTUS hears argument on application of mandatory minimum sentencing provision in Whitfield

The Supreme Court has another notable criminal justice case on tap for oral argument this morning, and this effective SCOTUSblog preview, titled "Parsing “accompany” in the federal bank robbery statute," provides all the details and context.  Here is how the preview starts and ends: 

One part of the federal bank robbery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), provides that a bank robber who “forces another person to accompany him” will receive a minimum sentence of ten years in prison, with a life sentence as a maximum.  [Tuesday December 2] the Court will hear oral arguments on how broadly this provision should apply — and in particular, whether it should apply to a North Carolina man who, while attempting to elude capture after a failed bank robbery, required the elderly woman in whose home he was hiding to move with him from one part of her home to another.  [This] hearing could also tell us whether the Justices regard this case as a run-of-the-mill statutory interpretation case or instead — like last month’s Yates v. United States and last Term’s Bond v. United States  — as the latest in a series of criminal cases in which overzealous federal prosecutors have overstepped their authority....

At last month’s argument in Yates, Justice Samuel Alito — who is normally the government’s most reliable ally in criminal cases — suggested to the lawyer arguing on behalf of the United States that, although the federal government had a variety of good arguments, it was nonetheless asking the Justices to endorse too expansive an interpretation of a federal law targeting the destruction of evidence.  Whitfield and his lawyers no doubt hope that the Justices will be equally dubious of the government’s interpretation in this case.  On the other hand, although Whitfield ultimately proved to be a bumbling bank robber, his conduct was unquestionably far more grave than John Yates’s destruction of some undersized fish: even if he only intended to hide from police after the failed bank robbery and never meant to harm [his elderly victim], she did die.  And that may be enough to make several of the Justices less skeptical, and significantly more serious, at Tuesday’s oral argument.

UPDATE: Via SCOTUSblog, I see that the transcript in Whitfield v. United States is now avaiable here

December 2, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 01, 2014

"What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella now appearing at both The Marshall Project and The Huffington Post. Here are excerpts:

Opponents of the death penalty have had many occasions to celebrate in the new millennium.  Four states have abolished the practice in the past five years, while others have legally or effectively set moratoriums on executions.  Support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in four decades, and seems likely to fall further as the number of exonerations and gruesomely botched executions continues to grow.

But at what cost have these concessions been won?  The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's latest “Death Row U.S.A.” report found 3,049 individuals awaiting execution in the United States.  According to the Sentencing Project, at last count nearly 50,000 people were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole — a number that has more than tripled since the early 1990s.  Over 159,000 were serving life sentences — many of them ... with minimums so long that they might as well be doing life without parole, too.

In many states, the expansion — and the very existence — of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment.  Death penalty opponents often accept — and even zealously promote — life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world...

Complicating matters is the fact that life without parole rarely takes its place as simply a one-for-one alternative to the death penalty.  In New York State, for example, life without parole did not exist before the state’s brief reinstitution of capital punishment from 1995 to 2004.  During this period, there were never more than half a dozen men on New York’s death row, and no executions took place.  Yet today, nearly 250 people are doing life without parole in New York, and more than 1 in 6 of the state’s prisoners is serving a life sentence.

Connecticut, in abolishing its death penalty in 2012, legislated a punishment even more harsh than simple life without parole.  Thereafter, a new law decreed, those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would be condemned to live out their life without parole sentences in solitary confinement. The measure was reportedly backed as a way to win enough support for the repeal bill.

Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation. An unknown number of lifers have, like [New York lifer] William Blake, been placed in permanent or indefinite solitary confinement by prison officials, without benefit of any kind of due process.  So have most of the individuals on the nation’s death rows, including the supposedly fortunate ones who live in states that have instituted moratoriums, and are therefore unlikely to ever face execution.

Research has confirmed that even brief periods in solitary alter brain chemistry and produce psychiatric symptoms ranging from extreme depression to active psychosis. Some prisoners who have spent longer amounts of time in isolation describe it as a condition that slowly degrades both their humanity and sanity, turning them into blind animals given to interminable pacing, smearing their cells with feces, or engaging in self-mutilation....

William Blake has said that while he cannot bring himself to take his own life, he would have welcomed the death penalty 27 years ago had he known what a lifetime in solitary confinement would be like. Perhaps the time will come when people like Blake — and the American public — are not forced to choose among such monstrous alternatives.  In the meantime, it will be a shame if people who oppose state-sponsored death continue to advocate for state-sanctioned torture.

Long-time readers know that I largely share the perspective of these commentators. I find compelling the assertion that some (many?) LWOP sentences can often involve a fate worse than death, and I find moving the concern that too much of modern opposition to "state-sponsored death" in the United States tends to advocate, both formally and functionally, for a kind of "state-sanctioned torture."

December 1, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Justices issue cert statements expressing concerns about procedural issues in criminal appeals

Today's order list from the Supreme Court, in addition to including a few notable denials of cert in criminal cases as noted by Lyle Denniston in this new SCOTUSblog post, concluded with two notable statements by a few Justices explaining why they voted to deny certiorari review in a couple of criminal cases even though they were troubled by procedural issues arising in efforts by defendants to raise various appellate issues.

This statement in Joseph v. United States should be of special interest to federal practitioners.  In it, Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor indicated they voted to grant certiorari, while Justice Kagan (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer) explained how the Eleventh Circuit's application of rules about raising new claims in reply brief suggested that  "criminal defendants with unpreserved new claims may be treated differently within the Eleventh Circuit, just as they are as between the Eleventh Circuit and every other court of appeals."   Justice Kagan then, not too subtly, suggested that she was holding on granting cert in order to give the Eleventh Circuit a chance in the first instance to " clean up intra-circuit divisions" before SCOTUS took up the matter.  

This statement in Redd v. Chappell should be of special interest to capital punishment followers, especially in California.  In it, Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Breyer) laments that nearly two decades "after petitioner was first sentenced to death, and more than four years after his conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, petitioner has not received counsel to represent him in his state habeas corpus proceedings — counsel to which he is entitled as a matter of state law." Justice Sotomayor explains she is did not vote to grant cert in part because "the State represents that state habeas counsel will be appointed for petitioner in due course.” When counsel is appointed is obviously real important to this petitioner; even more important to lots of others is whether this statement is something of a signal concerning the on-going federal court litigation in Jones v. Chappell over the constitutional problems posed by seemingly arbitrary delays in appellate review for condemned California killer.

December 1, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"The Retroactivity of Substantive Rules to Cases on Collateral Review and the AEDPA, with a Special Focus on Miller v. Alabama"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper on SSRN authored by Jason Zarrow and William Milliken. Here is the abstract:

Teague v. Lane established a general bar on the retroactive application of criminal rules in habeas proceedings.  Substantive rules, however, are not subject to that bar.  In this Article, we consider whether a habeas petitioner may retroactively invoke a substantive rule notwithstanding 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), a provision of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that precludes federal courts from granting habeas relief to state prisoners unless the state-court adjudication was contrary to “clearly established Federal law.”

We answer this question through the lens of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, holding that sentencing schemes mandating life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.  By tracing the Court’s jurisprudence on substantive rules to its historical roots, we conclude that Miller, while not substantive in toto, contains a substantive component, and that § 2254(d)(1) does not bar habeas petitioners from relying on substantive rules announced after their convictions become final.

November 30, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nearly a year into clemency initiative, turkeys remain more likely to get Prez Obama pardon than people

MaccheeseAs detailed in this AP story, headlined "Obama Defends Legal Authority — to Pardon Turkeys," there was much jocularity at the White House today as President Obama continued the White House tradition of giving executive grace to a couple of feathered friends:

President Barack Obama has issued an executive action that some of his Republican opponents may be hard-pressed to disagree with — sparing Thanksgiving turkeys from the dinner table.

In the spirit of the holiday, Obama on Wednesday took "action fully within my legal authority, the same kind of action taken by Democrats and Republican presidents before me," to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey, a 49-pound bird named Cheese. He also spared an alternate turkey, a 47-pounder named Mac. Both came from Cooper Farms in Oakwood, Ohio.

"If you're a turkey, and you're named after a side dish, your chances of escaping Thanksgiving dinner are pretty low," Obama said at the annual event, which drew international media coverage. He was accompanied by his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who declined his invitation to pet the birds. "No," Malia said....

"So these guys are well ahead of the curve. They really beat the odds," he said of Mac and Cheese. Obama last week announced a series of highly anticipated executive actions immigration that have left Republicans crying "fowl."

Joking about his poultry action, Obama said: "I know some will call this amnesty. But don't worry. There's plenty of turkey to go around." Later Wednesday, Obama took his family to a neighborhood food pantry to donate a pair of turkeys "that didn't make the cut."...

At the pardoning ceremony, Obama referenced news reports that questioned the wisdom of the turkey pardon tradition and said "it is a little puzzling that I do this every year." But Obama said he enjoys the tradition because "with all the tough stuff that swirls around in this office, it's nice once in a while just to say 'Happy Thanksgiving,' and this is a great excuse to do it."

Presidents as far back as Abraham Lincoln spared turkeys, according to the White House. President George H.W. Bush granted the first turkey pardon in November 1989.

At the risk of being a holiday party pooper, I cannot help but note that it has now been a full 10 months since the Obama Administration publicly announced (as detailed here) that it was eager to identify low-level, nonviolent drug offenders for possible clemency relief. Since that time, however, the President has granted clemency to a grand total of one prisoner and now to two turkeys.  Thus, as I have said often in the past and will continue to say unless things change dramatically, President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.  

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 26, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Some unusual suspects working to stop Texas from executing mentally ill condemned murderer

Panetti003This new Mother Jones article reports on some of the interesting persons who are eager to prevent Texas from carrying out a notable death sentence next week.  The article is headlined "Can Ron Paul and Conservative Evangelicals Save a Texas Death-Row Inmate? A rightwing crusade aims to stop the execution of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill convicted murder." Here are excerpts:

When Scott Panetti represented himself in a Texas capital murder case in 1995, wearing a purple cowboy suit and calling himself "Sarge," he called as a witness a veterinarian who once lived across the street from him. Panetti questioned the vet about the time he euthanized Little Blue, Panetti's old dog. The episode had nothing to do with the case. Other witnesses Panetti tried to call to the stand: John F. Kennedy and Jesus.

Trial transcripts, medical records, and expert witness testimony have documented that Panetti suffers from severe schizophrenia. He believes Texas is going to execute him to stop him from preaching the gospel — not because he shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and shot and killed his in-laws in 1992. The Supreme Court has declared that executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, but several Texas and federal courts — including the US Supreme Court — have reviewed Panetti's case, and each one has ruled that the state can proceed with his lethal injection. Now, with Panetti’s execution scheduled for December 3, the only thing that might save him is a national campaign being mounted by conservatives, including former Texas Republican congressman and libertarian icon Ron Paul.

Panetti's lawyers have filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, which can recommend that Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison without parole. That petition has received an outpouring of support from conservatives and evangelicals. In addition to Paul, this group includes Jay Sekulow, an evangelical lawyer famous for pressing religious liberties cases on behalf of social conservatives.

Paul's involvement in the case is unusual. Last year, he publicly endorsed a new advocacy group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, saying, "I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism." This was the result of a years-long evolution....

It’s also unusual for conservative Christians to support a clemency petition like Panetti's. The last time evangelicals really rallied en masse to prevent a pending execution was in 1998, in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who converted to Christianity in prison and became a conservative cause celebre. Despite the pleadings of evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, the Texas governor at the time, George W. Bush, went ahead with the execution, and Tucker became the first woman executed in the state since 1863.

The Panetti case is different. His religious fervor is the product of a brain disorder, and the evangelicals' opposition to his execution is not related to his religious proclamations. It is more of a reflection of the shift in public attitudes regarding capital punishment that has been driven by the growing number of exonerations of death-row inmates, the high number of mentally ill and disabled people sentenced to die, and the inefficient and expensive administration of capital punishment. "A lot of conservatives are late to realize that the whole criminal justice system is part of the government," says Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative leader and an ardent opponent of the death penalty.

Religious conservatives are increasingly joining those who would like to see the end of the death penalty, citing their movement’s commitment to a "culture of life," which has traditionally focused primarily on restricting abortion. Conservative evangelicals, says Beaudoin, have been animated by the Panetti case over the past few weeks. Her outfit has opposed other executions, but, she says, the Panetti case has hit a nerve. She has been surprised by the number of influential Christians who have signed on to the clemency petition, especially Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition, who's on Time magazine's 2013 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who now runs a pro-life ministry for former abortion clinic employees, wrote an editorial in the Dallas News calling on Texas to spare Panetti.

"This is the largest outpouring of support on a death penalty case we've seen from evangelicals, and you can see why, given the ridiculous nature of this case," Beaudoin says. "A lot of folks who signed this [clemency] letter might have given pause about signing on to a letter opposing the death penalty generally, but they think we have no business executing Scott Panetti." She adds, "As Christians, we're called protect the most vulnerable. And there's just no question that Scott Panetti is in that number as someone who's suffered from severe mental illness. We all want to keep society safe, but I'm thankful there are other ways to do that than executing people."

November 26, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Will Texas Kill an Insane Man?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:

On Dec. 3, Texas plans to execute an inmate named Scott Panetti, who was convicted in 1995 for murdering his in-laws with a hunting rifle. There is no question that Mr. Panetti committed the murders. There is also no question that he is severely mentally ill, and has been for decades.

During his capital murder trial, at which he was inexplicably allowed to represent himself, Mr. Panetti dressed in a cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena, among others, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.  A standby lawyer said his behavior was “scary” and “trance-like,” and called the trial “a judicial farce.”

It was not an act.  Mr. Panetti, now 56, was first diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 20, and in the years before the murders he was hospitalized several times for delusions and psychotic episodes.  

In this respect, he is no different from the estimated 350,000 inmates around the country with mental illness — 10 times the number of people in state psychiatric hospitals.  But Mr. Panetti is not just another insane prisoner; his name is synonymous with the Supreme Court’s modern jurisprudence about mental illness on death row. In Panetti v. Quarterman, decided in 2007, the justices held that it is not enough for a defendant simply to be aware that he is going to be executed and why — the previous standard the court had used in permitting the execution of the mentally ill....

But the justices refused to set precise guidelines for determining whether someone is competent enough to be executed, and they did not overturn Mr. Panetti’s sentence. Instead, they sent the case back to the lower courts for a fuller reconsideration of his current mental state.

By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent. But Texas, along with several other stubborn states, has a long history of finding the loopholes in Supreme Court rulings restricting the death penalty.  The state has continued to argue that Mr. Panetti is exaggerating the extent of his illness, and that he understands enough to be put to death — a position a federal appeals court accepted last year, even though it agreed that he was “seriously mentally ill.”

Mr. Panetti has not had a mental-health evaluation since 2007.  In a motion hastily filed this month, his volunteer lawyers requested that his execution be stayed, that a lawyer be appointed for him, and that he receive funding for a new mental-health assessment, saying his functioning has only gotten worse.  For instance, he now claims that a prison dentist implanted a transmitter in his tooth.

The lawyers would have made this motion weeks earlier, immediately after a Texas judge set Mr. Panetti’s execution date. But since no one — not the judge, not the district attorney, not the attorney general — notified them (or even Mr. Panetti himself), they had no idea their client was scheduled to be killed until they read about it in a newspaper. State officials explained that the law did not require them to provide notification.

On Nov. 19, a Texas court denied the lawyers’ motion. A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti.

November 24, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interesting look at California's Proposition 47 and undoing collateral consequences

I just noticed, over at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, that California Federal Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron has this new posting exploring the impact of his state's approval of Proposition 47 which downgraded various felonies to misdemeanors.  Here are excerpts:

Significantly, Proposition 47 applies not only to persons who are currently “serving a sentence,” but also to those who have already fully served their sentences.  This means that thousands of people with California felony convictions can under certain circumstances petition to have their case recalled, the crime re-designated a misdemeanor, and be resentenced.  Once reduced to misdemeanors, qualifying crimes can be set aside under California Penal Code § 1203.4 (felony or misdemeanor cases sentenced to probation) or 1203.4a (misdemeanor cases sentenced to prison).  These provisions allow a defendant to withdraw his plea of guilty, enter a not guilty plea, and have the judge dismiss the case.  The record can then be expunged.

The importance of this retroactive effect of the new law cannot be over-estimated.  While Proposition 47 gained popular support as a way of reducing California’s prison population, its broadest and most significant long-term effect may be to reduce the impact of collateral consequences on people in the community.  For criminal defense lawyers, Proposition 47 offers a significant way to reduce a client’s exposure in subsequent prosecutions.

It is amazing that just a few months ago, a defendant with two prior felony drug possessions in state court, and currently charged with drug distribution in federal court, faced a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.  Now he can have those California priors reduced to misdemeanors, and then dismissed, so that, under certain circumstances, they can no longer be used to enhance the federal sentence.  Generally, convictions that are set-aside for reasons not involving innocence or errors of law will still result in criminal history points.  Counsel might argue in resentencing that the reduction from felony to misdemeanor supports a finding that the conviction over-represents the defendant’s criminal history....

The Proposition provides relief to anyone convicted in the past of a wide range of property and drug crimes, as long as the person does not have a “disqualifying prior.”   Disqualifying priors include offenses requiring sex offender registration, and specified violent offenses....

Simply by going to court to have their felony charges converted to misdemeanors, people can end up with a criminal record that looks very different, and has a very different effect.

 

November 22, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 21, 2014

Unpacking why DOJ is so concerned about federal prison populations and its costs

As highlighted in this effective piece by Andrew Cohen published by The Marshall Project, earlier this month Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (and a former member of the US Sentencing Commission), authored this memorandum describing DOJ's concerns with federal prison overcrowding and costs. These excerpts from Cohen's piece highlight some of the Horowitz memo's most notable messages:

The Bureau of Prison’s budget now ($6.9 billion) is nearly twice what it was ($3.8 billion) in 2000, Horowitz tells us, an increase at “almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department.” Worse, he writes, even though federal prison officials have been warned that their part of the budget is draining funding away from other Justice Department programs (like those that support victims groups) they asked for more money this past budget cycle....

Horowitz didn’t mince words, either, about what is costing so much. The federal prison population is aging at a fast pace. “From FY 2009 to FY 2013, the population of sentenced inmates age 50 and over in BOP-managed facilities increased 25 percent, while the population of sentenced inmates under the age of 30 decreased by 16 percent,” he notes. As a result, “the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013.”...

If you think the facts and figures above are disconcerting, the numbers Horowitz offers about conditions within our federal prisons are even more dire. Prison overcrowding, he asserts, is “the most significant threat to the safety and security of Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates”.... When it comes to easing overcrowding it’s clear that Horowitz believes we are headed in the wrong direction, which is another reason why he keeps calling current conditions at the Bureau of Prisons “a crisis.”

To bring the ratio of inmate to space available to appropriate levels, to eliminate the overcrowding “without expending additional funds to build more federal prison space or to contract for additional non-federal bed space,” Horowitz says that the Justice Department “would have to achieve a net reduction of about 23,400 federal prisoners from the June 2014 prison population...” That’s more than ten percent of the current population. Can you imagine? I can’t.

November 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Death, Desuetude, and Original Meaning"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Stinneford now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

One of the most common objections to originalism is that it cannot cope with cultural change. One of the most commonly invoked examples of this claimed weakness is the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, whose original meaning would (it is argued) authorize barbaric punishment practices like flogging and branding, and disproportionate punishments like the death penalty for relatively minor offenses. This Article shows that this objection to originalism is inapt, at least with respect to the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. As I have shown in prior articles, the original meaning of “cruel and unusual” is “cruel and contrary to long usage,” or “cruel and new.” The primary purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is to prevent legislatures and courts from imposing new punishments that are unduly harsh in light of the long usage of the common law.

This Article demonstrates that the Clause also incorporates the common law doctrine of desuetude, which holds that a once traditional punishment can become “unusual” if it falls out of usage long enough to show a stable multigenerational consensus against it. State courts and the Supreme Court of the United States employed this doctrine in decisions prior to 1958 to determine whether punishments such as ducking of a common scold, execution accompanied by torture, and imprisonment at hard labor for a minor offense were cruel and unusual. Under the original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the death penalty could become unconstitutional if it fell out of usage long enough to show a stable, multigenerational consensus against it. This process already occurred with respect to flogging, branding, and execution for relatively minor crimes like theft, and under the constitutions of states that abolished the death penalty several generations ago.

November 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Massachusetts special commission urges repeal of all drug mandatory minimums

DownloadAs reported in this local article, "a special commission studying the state's criminal justice system recommended eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses in Massachusetts."  Here is more about the commission's work and recommendations to date:

The commission also voted to recommend parole eligibility for all state prison sentences after an inmate has served at least two-thirds of the lower end of their sentence, except in cases of murder or manslaughter, and to maintain the current parole eligibility standards in houses of correction of half-time served on sentences of 60 days or more.

The commission, formed over two years ago, is trying to produce an in-progress report before the end of the year to inform Governor-elect Charlie Baker's administration. Baker, during his campaign for governor, voiced support for striking mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses as part of a broader approach to combat substance abuse.

The Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth's Criminal Justice System on Tuesday began debating legislative recommendations members plan to make to strengthen post-release supervision, improve prisoner reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism, and address overcrowding in the state's jails and prisons.

"Drug offenses are a huge reason we have so much overcrowding in the prison system," said Patty Garin, a criminal defense attorney and co-director of the Northeastern University Law School Prisoners Assistance Program. Garin and other commission members argued judges should be able to practice evidence-based sentencing, and suggested mandatory minimums disproportionately impact poorer communities and communities of color.

The 9-2 vote, with Attorney General Martha Coakley's representative abstaining, came over the objections of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who sits on the commission. O'Keefe did not attend Tuesday's meeting, but submitted a letter expressing his opposition and later told the News Service that mandatory minimums are a tool prosecutors "use and use very effectively to stem the flow of drugs into communities."

"We utterly reject this notion that the criminal justice system is warehousing these non-violent drug offenders. That simply is not the case. People have to work extremely hard to get themselves into jail here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," O'Keefe said.

The commission was formed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature in 2012, and Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Sandra McCroom said she hopes to publish a report by the end of the year, though she acknowledged that all of the commission's work likely won't be completed by then. Patrick has also reconstituted the Sentencing Commission, which has met twice over the past two months and whose work could coincide with the criminal justice commission's recommendations....

Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral, who does not have a vote on the commission, said she would have carved out an exception from the mandatory minimum recommendation for trafficking crimes. While supporting enhanced drug treatment options, she said not all people convicted of drug offenses are struggling with addiction, and some are driven by money. "I think there should be a line drawn on trafficking," Cabral said.

Others on the commission, including Garin and Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, argued that judges should be given discretion even in trafficking cases, expressing confidence that harsh sentences will be issues for those who deserve them. Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, a Republican, and a staff member representing Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Chris Markey (D-Dartmouth) voted against the recommendation to do away with mandatory minimum sentences. "To me it's overreaching and too broad," said Evangelidis, a former state representative....

O'Keefe, the recent past president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, expressed concern that if the Legislature were to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences, the courts would see defendants shopping for more lenient judges to avoid prison time. "Mandatory minimum sentences came into being in the first place to ensure relative uniformity in the sentencing of individuals distributing drugs," O'Keefe said....

Attorney General-elect Maura Healey has also backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and during her campaign called for expanding the use of drug courts.

November 19, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ninth Circuit upholds injunction, on First Amendment grounds, blocking California law requiring sex offenders to report report online activities

As reported in this Bloomberg story, "California can’t enforce a law to combat sex trafficking because it tramples on free speech rights of sex offenders by requiring them to report online activities, such as their Twitter, e-mail and chatroom accounts, a U.S. appeals court ruled." Here are more of the ruling's basics via the press:

The San Francisco-based court today upheld a judge’s decision to block enforcement of a voter-approved law that was backed by former Facebook Inc. (FB) executive Chris Kelly and garnered support from more than 80 percent of California voters in 2012.

The measure, known as Proposition 35, isn’t clear about what accounts or Internet service providers offenders are required to report and targets online speech that could include blogging about politics and posting comments on news articles, the appeals court’s three-judge panel said today.

The law also harms sex offenders’ ability to engage in anonymous speech because it allegedly allows police to disclose their online identities to the public, the court said. Failure to report on Internet activity can lead to criminal sanctions.

A requirement that registered sex-offenders notify police within 24 hours of using a new Internet identity chills activity protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, U.S. Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee wrote in the unanimous ruling.

The ruling in Doe v. Harris, No. 13-15263 (9th Cir. Nov. 18, 2014) (available here), officially gets started this way:

California law has long required registered sex offenders to report identifying information, such as their address and current photograph, to law enforcement.  Cal. Penal Code §§ 290.012, 290.015.  The Californians Against Sexual Exploitation (“CASE”) Act sought to supplement and modernize these reporting obligations by requiring sex offenders to provide “[a] list of any and all Internet identifiers established or used by the person” and “[a] list of any and all Internet service providers used by the person.” Id. § 290.015(a)(4)–(5).  The Act also requires registered sex offenders to send written notice to law enforcement within 24 hours of adding or changing an Internet identifier or an account with an Internet service provider (“ISP”). Id. § 290.014(b). 
Appellees Doe, Roe, and the nonprofit organization California Reform Sex Offender Laws filed a complaint alleging that the CASE Act infringes their freedom of speech in violation of the First Amendment.  Appellees filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which the district court granted.  Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, and Intervenors, the proponents of the CASE Act, appeal.  We hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion by enjoining the CASE Act. Accordingly, we affirm.

November 18, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

"Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"

Thanks to this post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, I see that the Federalist Society recent National Convention included a panel discussion on sentencing reform, which can now be watched in full via YouTube at this link.  Here is how the discussion is described along with its participants:

Although prison populations at the federal level have very recently declined for the first time in decades, prisoner population at the state level rose.  The cost of crime, some that can be measured and some that are impossible to measure, is undoubtedly high, but so too is the cost of incarceration.  Are we striking the right balance in length of sentences?  And what is the proper balance between latitude and sentencing guidelines for judges?  Do the answers to these questions differ for the state versus the federal criminal justice system?

The Federalist Society's Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group presented this panel on "Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives" on Friday, November 14, during the 2014 National Lawyers Convention.

For a host of reasons, I am very pleased and impressed that the Federalist Society brought together a bunch of leading conservatives with various viewpoints to discuss these issues at their National Lawyers Convention. (It would have been nice to have had more than a single panelist who was not a former senior official with the Bush Administration's Justice Department, but I suspect it might be hard to find many conservatives who know a lot about sentencing who were not part of the Bush Administration's Justice Department.)

November 18, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Marshall Project investigation, "Death by Deadline," looks at capital appeals impact of AEDPA

As noted here yesterday, The Marshall Project, an important new reporting outlet focused on criminal justice issues, is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. And the big first feature from The Marshall Project is a lengthy two-part investigative report titled "Death by Deadline" focused on the legal and practical impact of the capital appeal restriction in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty ACt (AEDPA).  Below are links and key passages from each part of the report.

Part One: How bad lawyering and an unforgiving law cost condemned men their last appeal:

An investigation by The Marshall Project shows that since President Bill Clinton signed the one-year statute of limitations into law — enacting a tough-on-crime provision that emerged in the Republicans' Contract with America — the deadline has been missed at least 80 times in capital cases. Sixteen of those inmates have since been executed — the most recent on Thursday, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida.

Part Two: When lawyers stumble, only their clients fall:

[A]n investigation by The Marshall Project has found that in at least 80 capital cases in which lawyers have missed the deadline — sometimes through remarkable incompetence or neglect — it is almost always the prisoner alone who suffers the consequences.

Among the dozens of attorneys who have borne some responsibility for those mistakes, only one has been sanctioned for missing the deadline by a professional disciplinary body, the investigation found.  And that attorney was given a simple censure, one of the profession's lowest forms of punishment. The lack of oversight or accountability has left many of the lawyers who missed the habeas deadlines free to seek appointment by the federal courts to new death-penalty appeals.

November 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 14, 2014

Over lengthy dissents, en banc Eleventh Circuit shuts 2255 door to claims based on advisory guideline misapplication

The Eleventh Circuit has today provided some special weekend reading for hard-core federal sentencing fans with a special interest in finality issues (which, I realize, might be a small group).  Specifically, the en banc ruling together with dissents in Spencer v. US, No. 10-10676 (11th Cir. Nov. 14, 2014) (available here), runs more than 100 pages. More than three-quarters of those pages come from the dissents to a majority opinion (per Judge William Pryor) that begins this way:

This appeal concerns whether a federal prisoner may relitigate an alleged misapplication of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines in a collateral attack on a final sentence.  After he pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and we affirmed the judgment against him, Kevin Spencer moved to vacate his sentence of imprisonment, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for an alleged error in the application of the advisory guidelines. Spencer argues that an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008), makes clear that the district court and this Court erroneously classified him as a “career offender” based on a prior conviction for felony child abuse, which he argues is not a “crime of violence.”  United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (Nov. 2006).  Spencer maintains that this alleged error represents a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S. Ct. 468, 471 (1962), that can be revisited on collateral review.  We disagree.

Spencer cannot collaterally attack his sentence based on a misapplication of the advisory guidelines.  Spencer’s sentence falls below the statutory maximum, and his prior conviction for felony child abuse has not been vacated. Spencer’s sentence was and remains lawful.  We affirm the denial of Spencer’s motion to vacate his sentence.

At the very end of a very long week, I cannot do justice to the majority opinios or the dissents in this space, so I will close by quoting from the start of one of the dissents (per Judge Jordan) to highlight the human story at the center of the legal debate in Spencer:

At the end of the day, what constitutes a fundamental defect resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice comes down to a matter of considered judgment.  In my judgment, having an individual serve an additional 81 months in prison due to an erroneous career offender designation under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines constitutes such a miscarriage of justice, and for that reason I respectfully dissent.

Kevin Spencer is serving more than 12 years in prison (151 months to be exact) for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine.  The panel found, see Spencer v. United States, 727 F.3d 1076, 1100 (11th Cir. 2013), the government now concedes, see En Banc Brief for the United States at 57-58, and the majority does not dispute, that Mr. Spencer’s mistaken career offender designation more than doubled his advisory sentencing range from 70-87 months to 151-188 months.  For those of us familiar with — and sometimes numbed by — the ranges produced by application of the Sentencing Guidelines, it may be easy to overlook the dramatic increase resulting from the error.  To put it in perspective, the 81-month increase is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school.

Mr. Spencer timely and consistently objected to the career offender designation, only to be told he was wrong.  As it turns out, he was right.  Unfortunately, the majority now rules that Mr. Spencer cannot use 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to correct the error.

November 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Notable new AG Holder comments on reducing crime rates and incarceration levels

Last night Attorney General Eric Holder gave this speech at the Southern Center for Human Rights and had a lot to say about crime and punishment.  Here are some passages that caught my eye (with one particular phrase emphasized):

Over the years, we’ve seen that over-incarceration doesn’t just crush individual opportunity.  At a more fundamental level, it challenges our nation’s commitment to our highest ideals.  And it threatens to undermine our pursuit of equal justice for all.

Fortunately, we come together this evening at a pivotal moment — when sweeping criminal justice reforms, and an emerging national consensus, are bringing about nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way our country addresses issues of crime and incarceration, particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.

For the first time in many decades, it’s clear that we’re on the right track, and poised to realize dramatic reductions in criminal activity and incarceration.  In fact, the rate of violent crime that was reported to the FBI in 2012 was about half the rate reported in 1993.  This rate has declined by more than 11 percent just since President Obama took office.  And the overall incarceration rate has gone down by more than 8 percent over the same brief period.

This marks the very first time that these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And the Justice Department’s current projections suggest that the federal prison population will continue to go down in the years ahead.  As a result of the commonsense, evidence-based changes that my colleagues and I have implemented – under the landmark “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched last year — I’m hopeful that we’re witnessing the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate as new policies and initiatives fully take hold.

Our Smart on Crime approach is predicated on the notion that the criminal justice system must be continually improved — and strengthened — by the most effective and efficient strategies available. That’s why we’re increasing our focus on proven diversion and reentry programs – like drug courts, veterans’ courts, and job training initiatives – that can help keep people out of prison in appropriate cases, and enable those who have served their time to rejoin their communities as productive citizens. It’s why we are closely examining the shameful racial and ethnic disparities that too often plague the criminal justice process  — and working to mitigate any unwarranted inequities.  And it’s why I have mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies — so that sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case and not on a one size fits all mandate from Washington....

Equal justice is not a Democratic value or a Republican value.  It’s an American value — and a solemn pursuit – that speaks to the ideals that have always defined this great country.  It goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, as a people. And it will always drive leaders of principle from across the political spectrum — including those in this room and others throughout the nation — to keep moving us forward along the path to transformative justice.

The phrases I highlighted should be of interest to all SCOTUS followers because the term "emerging national consensus" has great meaning and significance in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I think it is quite right to say that there is now a constitutionally significant "emerging national consensus" concerning the use of mandatory long terms of imprisonment "particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses." And it is quite exciting to hear this legally-important phrase coming from the US Attorney General, especially because I think statements like this might lay the foundation for overturning, sooner rather than later, troublesome Eighth Amendment precedents like Harmelin v. Michigan (and maybe even also Ewing v. California).

November 14, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack