Thursday, July 25, 2013

On-line petition for law professors to "Save Federal Defenders Services"

Professor Fredrick Vars via this post at PrawfsBlawg has started this valuable on-line petition:

Petition: Save Federal Defender Services

Sequestration imperils the constitutional right of criminal defendants to adequate legal representation.  About 90% of federal criminal defendants require court-appointed counsel. In FY 2013, sequestration resulted in a $52 million cut to Federal Defender Services, bringing massive layoffs and furloughs.  It is estimated that in FY 2014, if nothing is done, FDS will be forced to terminate as many as one-third to one-half of employees.

Funding for prosecutors is apparently headed in the opposite direction. The Senate Appropriations Committee last week announced a $79 million increase to the FY 2014 budget for U.S. Attorneys’ offices for the express purpose of bringing more criminal cases in federal court.   This radical imbalance threatens the fundamental right to counsel.

Please join me in urging Congress and the President to restore adequate funding for Federal Defender Services.  Just add a comment with your name, institutional affiliation (if applicable), and city of residence.

I have added my name to this effort, and a helpful reader sent me a link to this informative fact-sheet providing background for why everyone concerning with a fair and effective (including cost-effective) criminal justice system ought also join in.

Related posts on the criminal justice impacts of sequestration:

July 25, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (58) | TrackBack

Waaaaay below federal guideline prison sentences (but big fines) for UBS bid-riggers

As reported in this Wall Street Journal, headlined "US set back on bid-rig sentencing," a federal district judge in NYC yesterday handed down a set of white-collar sentences that were far below calculated guideline ranges and far below the sentences being sought by federal prosecutors.  Here are the details:

US District Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York handed Peter Ghavami, the former co-head of UBS' municipal-bond reinvestment and derivatives desk, an 18-month sentence. Prosecutors had sought at least 17½ years and as long as 21 years, 10 months for Ghavami, who also served as the Swiss bank's head of commodities at one point.

The much harsher sentence proposed by the government would have been longer than the 11-year term given in 2011 to Galleon hedge-fund founder Raj Rajaratnam for his insider-trading conviction.

But Judge Wood, a one-time nominee to become US attorney general who also sentenced former Drexel Burnham Lambert executive Michael Milken to 10 years in prison, raised questions about the government's method of calculating losses in the case, which it had pegged at about $25 million.

She also praised Ghavami's "admirable history" and noted that he faces other penalties including a $1 million fine and deportation to Belgium, where he is a citizen. Because Ghavami, 45 years old, is not a US citizen, he also has to serve in a "low security" prison instead of a "miminum security" camp.

One of Ghavami's former colleagues, Gary Heinz, 40, a former vice president on UBS' municipal-bond reinvestment desk, was given a 27-month sentence Wednesday, while Michael Welty, 49, another former vice president, got 16 months. Prosecutors had asked for at least 19½ years for Heinz and about 11 years or more for Welty.

Last summer, a New York jury found the three former UBS employees guilty of leading a scheme that caused municipalities to pay millions of dollars more for bond deals than they needed to pay. The case dealt with an obscure corner of the bond market in which local governments raise money from investors through bond deals, then invest the proceeds in investment products that banks and others are supposed to sell in a competitive process....

In the UBS bond-rigging case however, prosecutors sought stiff penalties for actions that took place before the financial crisis, from 2001 to 2006.  The three former UBS employees caused cities, states and other municipalities to lose $25 million, the government alleged. "For years, these executives corrupted the competitive bidding process and defrauded municipalities," said Scott D. Hammond, deputy assistant attorney general in the Antitrust Division's criminal-enforcement program, in a statement.....

"We're extremely pleased with the sentence," said Charles Stillman, a lawyer for Ghavami. Ghavami intends to start serving his sentence as soon as possible, instead of waiting to see how his appeal of the case turns out, Stillman added.  Ghavami's fine of $1 million was five times greater than the maximum suggested by the government.

Heinz and Welty were fined $400,000 and $300,000, respectively, both more than the government suggested.  Marc Mukasey, Heinz's lawyer, said "We're happy that the government's outrageous sentencing request was soundly rejected."  Welty's lawyer, Gregory Poe, said that the jury acquitted Welty of wire fraud and said he will appeal the conspiracy convictions, and "we hope to clear his name."  He added that his client is grateful that Judge Wood rejected the government's sentencing position.

Over the past half-decade, the Justice Department has pursued the muni-bond cases as part of an effort to punish Wall Street banks for shortchanging cities and states. Prosecutors have enjoyed some victories, so far gathering six convictions and 13 guilty pleas.  Several were sentenced before Wednesday, with prison terms ranging from six months to four years.  Firms affected by the investigation have paid $745 million in restitution, penalties and disgorgement....

It remains to be seen whether this week's sentencing setback will affect the government's strategy in the other pending sentencing hearings.  Two former JP Morgan Chase. employees, two former Bank of America employees and three others involved with the case await sentencing.  One case remains pending and awaiting trial.

Last year, three former employees of General Electric were convicted for their roles in conspiracies related to bidding for municipal-bond-proceeds reinvestment. Two were sentenced in October to three years in prison and the third received a four-year term.

At the hearing Wednesday, prosecutors argued that the former UBS officials deserved more prison time than the former GE employees, while Judge Wood said she didn't see the cases as that different.  She also expressed doubt that anyone could accurately quantify losses in cases where the bidding process had been corrupted. In the case of the three UBS officials sentenced Wednesday, federal prosecutors also sought fines of $20,000 to $250,000 in the case.  Prosecutors called their actions a "sophisticated financial fraud" that went on for years and "victimised municipalities and other bond issuers".

There are obviously lots of interesting aspects to this sentencing story.  I am especially eager to praise Judge Wood for using big financial penalties — which make the government money and seem especially fitting for crimes of greed — while refusing to use big imprisonment terms — which cost the government money and seem unlikely to impact public safety for non-violent white-collar criminals. Relatedly, given that this article suggests that all other comparable big-rigging defendants have received sentences ranging from 6 to 48 months, I find stunning and deeply troubling that federal prosecutors were advocating in these cases for sentences ranging from more than 130 months to 260 months. Nice effort to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities via your advocacy here, DOJ. (Not!)

July 25, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Should (and can) Alaska really be precluding plea deals with sentence reductions?

ALASKAThe (cumbersome) question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this notable local criminal justice story coming out of Alaska, which is headlined "State puts an end to sentencing deals in serious crimes." Here are the fascinating details:

State prosecutors will no longer negotiate plea deals for lesser sentences for Alaskans accused of serious crimes and domestic violence, the Alaska Department of Law said Tuesday.

The change of policy, which took effect Tuesday, bars plea bargains involving sentences for the most serious classes of felony cases, as well as all cases involving sexual assault, sexual abuse of a minor and domestic violence, said deputy attorney general Richard Svobodny. A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge or a more lenient sentence, avoiding a trial. Nationally, between 90 and 95 percent of all criminal cases are settled through such agreements, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice study. Attorneys say the statistic is roughly the same in Anchorage.

Under the new policy, prosecutors can offer defendants the opportunity to be charged with a less serious crime. But they can't offer a deal that changes the length of a sentence. Only a judge can do that. The idea is that judges should be the ones determining sentences, not prosecutors or defense attorneys, Svobodny said.

Attorneys say the policy could flood already-stretched courts with criminal defendants exercising their right to trial and generate huge new costs for prosecution and incarceration, which would eventually be borne by the public. "It's a major decision that's going to affect system-wide daily business in Anchorage courts," said Chester Gilmore, an Anchorage defense attorney. "Our model of criminal justice initially started with judges making those sentencing decisions and it should be handed back to them," he said.

The change comes in the wake of a state review that shows prosecutors botched a 2009 plea deal involving accused killer Jerry Active. Active is the 24-year-old Togiak man accused of killing an elderly Cambodian couple -- Touch Chea and Sorn Sreap -- in their Mountain View apartment in May. He also is accused of sexually assaulting three generations of the family, including Sorn, a toddler and a 90-year-old woman. Active had spent much of his adult life in the correctional system before the killings, which took place on the same day he was released from his latest stint in jail.

A state review found that prosecutors made an inappropriately soft plea agreement with Active in a 2009 case after failing to recognize that he had already been convicted of a felony, Attorney General Michael Geraghty said in June. A judge and the Department of Corrections both failed to recognize the plea agreement mistake. The Active case became "part of the mix" in the decision to announce the new policy now, Svobodny said, although a change had been under discussion in the law department for more than a year....

Another influence was Gov. Sean Parnell's "Choose Respect" campaign. Parnell's office "worked closely" with the Department of Law on the change, said a spokeswoman.The "Choose Respect" campaign has emphasized the prosecution of sexual offenders and domestic violence perpetrators. "We feel the policy will better protect victims and ensure perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes," Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys say the rule will inevitably lead to more trials. Plea bargains aren't always appropriate but in many cases prosecutors and defendants agree they are the best way to resolve a case quickly and fairly, Gilmore said. The policy "takes away a lot of the reason anyone would have for not going to trial," he said....

In 1975, Alaska's then-attorney general banned all forms of plea bargaining. Dire predictions of system overload didn't pan out, though misdemeanor trials increased substantially in the immediate aftermath of the ban, a 1977 Alaska Judicial Council study found. A 1990 judicial council study found that the ban had eroded and the practice was again commonplace.

I suspect resourceful Alaskan prosecutors and defense attorneys will still find a way to strike sentence-impacting plea deals even in the wake of this fascinating new prosecutorial policy. Ergo, I am not sure that the state can, as a functional matter, really put an end to all sentencing deals in serious cases. More broadly, as the question in the title of my post suggests, I wonder if others question (as I do) whether this is a wise policy even if it could be practically sustained. Will rape victims and other victims of serious crimes in Alaska really be pleased to have to endure more trials and the extra burdens such trials might place on them? Will the resources the state will now likely have to devote to more trials to resolve criminal charges reduce the resources needed to fight crime in other ways in the state?

I could go on and on with philosophical and practical questions concerning what Alaska seems to be trying to do hear, but for now I will stop to hear others' reactions and thoughts about a criminal justice development that justifies watching closely in the months and years to come.  Is Alaska on the verge of becoming the Last Frontier State for plea bargaining?

July 24, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mixed DC Circuit ruling in suit against FDA allowing execution drug importation

As reported in this AP piece, the DC Circuit "ruled Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration violated its duty by allowing a misbranded and unapproved new drug to be imported for use in executions by lethal injection."  But the ruling also "reversed another part of the lower court’s order and allowed state correctional departments to keep stocks of the drug they currently have."  Here is the concluding paragraph of the unanimous panel ruling today in Cook v. FDA, No. 12-5176 (DC Cir. July 23, 2013) (available here):

The FDCA imposes mandatory duties upon the agency charged with its enforcement. The FDA acted in derogation of those duties by permitting the importation of thiopental, a concededly misbranded and unapproved new drug, and by declaring that it would not in the future sample and examine foreign shipments of the drug despite knowing they may have been prepared in an unregistered establishment. The district court could not remedy the FDA’s unlawful actions, however, by imposing upon the interests of nonparties to this suit. The order of the district court pertaining to the thiopental already in the possession of the states, quoted in the paragraph above, is therefore vacated, but the underlying judgment of the district court is Affirmed.

July 23, 2013 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Second Circuit finds stat max white-collar sentences procedurally unreasonable

The Second Circuit panel has today handed down a significant reasonableness ruling in US v. Juncal, No. 10-1800 (2d Cir. July 23, 2013) (available here), which should be of special interest to all white-collar sentencing practitioners. The last seven pages of the per curiam panel opinion and the entire nine pages of the concurrence by Distict Judge Underhill (sitting by designation) are must reads for sentencing fans, and the few paragraphs I will reprint here help highlight why.

The per curiam panel opinion find procedurally unreasonable 20-year sentences given to defendants who were part of a conspiracy "which involved a scheme to obtain a three billion dollar loan supposedly intended to finance construction of a pipeline across Siberia [that] resulted in no actual loss." Here is part of the panel opinion's explanation for why these sentences were procedurally unreasonable:

Here, appellants’ lawyers highlighted significant issues with the intended loss calculation both in their briefs and at sentencing. Given the low risk that any actual loss would result — what hedge fund would fall prey to a purported coalition of Buryatian nationals and Yamasee tribesmen using AOL email accounts to offer five billion dollars in collateral for a loan to build a pipeline across Siberia? — counsel argued that a 30 point mega-enhancement vastly overstated both the seriousness of the offense, and the danger of appellants to their community.  The Guidelines acknowledge that potentiality; application note 3(C) to U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 indicates that a downward departure may be warranted where the offense level resulting from a loss calculation overstates the seriousness of an offense.  But the sentencing court never resolved appellants’ significant arguments.  At Sampson’s hearing the District Court did draw a comparison between other financial crimes and this case, but it never resolved the question raised by the appellants — whether treating intended loss like actual loss under all the circumstances of this case leads to a sentence consistent with the dictates of section 3553(a).

The concurring opinion by Judge Underhill is even more potent as it advocates for a broader ruling that the sentences here are substantively unreasonable, and here is how it gets started

In my view, the loss guideline is fundamentally flawed, and those flaws are magnified where, as here, the entire loss amount consists of intended loss.  Even if it were perfect, the loss guideline would prove valueless in this case, because the conduct underlying these convictions is more farcical than dangerous. If substantive review of sentences actually exists other than in theory, it must be undertaken at least occasionally.  This would have been an appropriate case in which to do so, because it raises so starkly the problems with the loss guideline. Until this Court weighs in on the merits of the loss guideline, sentences in high-loss cases will remain wildly divergent as some district judges apply the loss guideline unquestioningly while others essentially ignore it.  The widespread perception that the loss guideline is broken leaves district judges without meaningful guidance in high-loss cases; that void can only be filled through the common law, which requires that we reach the substantive reasonableness of these sentences.

July 23, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Is an execution-free, state death penalty system better or worse than no death penalty at all?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article from Pennsylvania, which carries the headline "Darisabel Baez's killer, like others with death warrants, has many appeals possible; And, there have been no executions in Pennsylvania since 1999."  Here is a brief excerpt from the piece:

No one has been executed in Pennsylvania since July 6, 1999.  There are 190 men and three women on death row, according to the Department of Corrections.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille went on record in 2011, criticizing what he described as the delay tactics and frivolous filings used by the Federal Defenders office, which also represents some of York County's death row inmates.

[Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim] Barker said that avenues of appeals for condemned inmates can "stretch out the process until it becomes frivolous."

"It's unfair to the victims (and their families) and society in general," he said.

The follow-up question I would like to ask Deputy Prosecutor Barker (and others who are strong advocates for the death penalty) is whether the way Pennsylvania operates its system of capital punishment is worse than having do death penalty at all. Not only have there been no executions in Pennsylvania for almost 15 years, I sense that it is unlikely there will be a resumption of executions in the state any time soon. Given this persistent reality, I wonder if even death penalty supporters would urge the Keystone State to abolish formally what is now functionally a legal fiction of a purported punishment.

(One might arguably view the 2012 death penalty abolition vote in California as something of a referendum on this question. But California completed three executions in 2005 and 2006, and voters in that state at least had a reasonable basis to hope and believe that executions might resume at some point in the not too distant future.)

July 21, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Clemency Reform: We're Still Waiting"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent commentary by Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), appearing at The Huffington Post.  Here are excerpts:

A year ago, The Washington Post and ProPublica reported that the Obama administration was set to reverse its poor record on clemency. At the time, President Obama was coming under growing pressure from sentencing law experts, sentencing reform groups, and civil rights organizations for granting fewer commutations and pardons than any president in modern history. Frustration was high because, in 2008, then-candidate Obama had railed against lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, a growing population within the federal prison system.

In an apparent attempt to address this frustration as Election Day 2012 approached, an unnamed administration official told the Post-ProPublica, "There will be 76 days between the election and inauguration for the president to exercise his [clemency] power." Advisers said he planned to act whether he won or lost the election.

It didn't happen. Since winning reelection, President Obama has not commuted a single sentence. Instead, during the first nine months of fiscal year 2013, the president has denied 2,232 requests for commutation, more than any other president in history denied in a single year.

Last week, the Justice Department sent a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission warning that the growing federal prison population was causing severe budgetary problems. The Department said policymakers were confronted with a stark choice: either "reduce the prison population and prison spending" or be prepared for "fewer prosecutors to bring charges, fewer agents to investigate federal crimes, less support to state and local criminal justice partners, less support for treatment, prevention and intervention programs, and cuts along a range of other criminal justice priorities."

Rather than jeopardize public safety by cutting investigators and prosecutors, the Department recommended that the Sentencing Commission (and Congress) reduce drug penalties for low-level offenders and "focus severe penalties on serious and repeat drug traffickers." The question our country faces, the Department wrote, is "how will those involved in crime policy ensure that every dollar invested in public safety is spent in the most productive way possible?"

If the administration wants to make certain every dollar of our nation's public safety budget is spent productively, as it should, President Obama should begin to exercise his executive clemency authority. For starters, he might look at the 2,000 individuals serving sentences of life without parole for drug crimes. He also should look at the 8,800 individuals serving lengthy crack cocaine sentences that were based on a formula that was repudiated by Congress when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010....

The pardon power can't fix 30 years of flawed policy, but it can provide meaningful -- and best of all, immediate -- relief to thousands who have already served long sentences and who pose no threat to public safety. It has been a year since the White House said it would get moving on clemency. We're still waiting.

I believe Julie wrote this commentary before the President made his remarks about the Martin/Zimmerman case on Friday.  But Prez Obama said just days ago that the "African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws." Rather than simply talk about what he views as "history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws," perhaps Prez Obama might think about actually doing something about them by, for example, granting at least a few commutations to at least a few federal prisoners still serving extreme crack sentences under the pre-FSA 100-1 drug quantity sentencing ratio.

Sadly, it seems yet again that our nation's first African-American President (as well as its first African-American Attorney General) are far more eager to talk the talk than to walk the walk when it comes to criminal justice reform.

UPDATE:  I have just seen that Mark Osler has forcefully argued that the Obama Administration should be getting to work on crack clemencies rather than fly-speck the Zimmerman case in this commentary at MSNBC headlined "The speck in Florida’s eye, and the log in DOJ’s."  Here is one key paragraph from Mark's commentary:

For this administration to re-open the Zimmerman case, with all the resources that will take, would be the equivalent of pointing at the speck in Florida’s eye while ignoring the log in its own. While the Trayvon Martin case involved one tragedy, more than 5,000 African-Americans remain in prison under lengthy federal sentences under a sentencing regime which has now been rejected by all three branches of government. That scheme — which sentenced defendants to the same mandatory minimum term for either 500 grams of powder cocaine or just 5 grams of crack — was rejected by the administration, by the courts, and finally in 2010 by Congress, which reduced the ratio from 100-1 to 18-1.

July 21, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lots of notable support for work of federal Over-Criminalization Task Force

As detailed at this official website, yesterday the House of Representatives Over-Criminalization Task Force had its second hearing on the topic of "Mens Rea: The Need for a Meaningful Intent Requirement in Federal Criminal Law." This report from Main Justice discusses the discussion at the hearing.

Notable, there appears to be a lot of support from a lot of quarters for this Task Force's work, as these pieces reveal:

July 20, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"A Perfect Prosecution: The People of the State of New York v. Dominique Strauss-Kahn"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article about a non-prosecution by JaneAnne Murray now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The presumption of innocence may be the foundational principle of the American criminal justice system, but the presumption of guilt is its operational force. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this reality in two notable criminal law decisions in 2012, Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye, when it described the criminal process as “a system of pleas, not a system of trials”.

People v. Strauss-Kahn is an ideal lens through which to examine this process. It is both an excellent example of a transparent and objective invocation of the criminal sanction, and a sharp counterpoint to the vast majority of cases where law enforcement conclusions are trusted and rarely second-guessed. Stage by stage, the Strauss-Kahn case illustrates how to counterbalance the presumption of guilt and give expression to the presumption of innocence in the pretrial period through vigilantly-invoked and enforced due process protections.

Drawing from this examination, the paper will then explore how to approach this model process in the more standard cases, which typically see a fraction of the judicial, law enforcement, and defense resources afforded Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The Strauss-Kahn prosecution offers several insights, three of which will be sketched at the paper’s conclusion: a requirement that prosecutorial decision-making be subject to a reasonable doubt standard; early enforcement of the prosecutor’s obligation to disclose information that is favorable to the accused; and finally, a requirement that a prosecutor explain in writing any decision to dismiss the felony charges in indicted felony cases, so that the factual, legal and policy bases of these decisions (numbering almost one quarter of New York’s superior court felony cases annually) can be aggregated, analyzed and publicized.

July 20, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, July 19, 2013

Are folks eager to comment on the President's comments on Martin/Zimmerman case?

I have a feeling the answer to the question in the title of this post is yes, and that is why I provide this post and also this link to Politico's list of "Obama's 10 most important lines" in his comments this afternoon. Here are the top three of the top 10 that struck me as most blog-worthy for the SL&P readership:

"The fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain."

"I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?"

"At least you ask yourself your own questions about, ‘Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?’ That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."

And, as I too often fear I need to say on this topic and others, let's try to keep it civil (and relatively novel) in the comments, folks.

July 19, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

ECHR on LWOP: thoughts on Vinter and possible US impact

As noted in this recent blog posting, a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights earlier this month involving UK nationals declared that LWOP sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners.  As I mentioned in that post, I know very little about how ECHR rulings can impact domestic laws even in countries that have adopted the applicable convention.  

But as my title for this post hints, I am especially intrigued by what the decision in Case of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom (available via this link) could mean for sentencing law and practices in the US.  I suspect the simple answer is just "not much," but I am eager to cover any potential domestic post-Vinter storylines and will be posting soon some thoughts from my of my OSU colleagues on this front. 

Before getting into implications, though, I thought it worthwhile to reprint this effective summary of the Vinter ruling from the heart of a brief concurring opinion by Judge Power-Forde:

[W]hat tipped the balance for me in voting with the majority was the Court’s confirmation, in this judgment, that Article 3 encompasses what might be described as “the right to hope”.  It goes no further than that.  The judgment recognises, implicitly, that hope is an important and constitutive aspect of the human person. Those who commit the most abhorrent and egregious of acts and who inflict untold suffering upon others, nevertheless retain their fundamental humanity and carry within themselves the capacity to change.  Long and deserved though their prison sentences may be, they retain the right to hope that, someday, they may have atoned for the wrongs which they have committed. They ought not to be deprived entirely of such hope.  To deny them the experience of hope would be to deny a fundamental aspect of their humanity and, to do that, would be degrading.

In addition to capturing what seems to me to be the essence of the lengthy opinions in Vinter, I think this sentiment indirectly reflects what has been moving the US Supreme Court in its recent Graham and Miller Eighth Amendment rulings.  Do other agree?  And do others expect, as I do, that Vinter is very likely to be cited a fair amount in the briefing (and perhaps even in some opinions) the next time SCOTUS takes up some follow-up issues raised in Graham and Miller?

Recent related post:

July 19, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Local judge gives poll worker five-year prison term for voter fraud

A colleague alerted me to this notable sentencing story from the Cincinnati area about a woman who received what seems to be a quite severe sentence for voter fraud.  The piece is headlined "Illegal voter gets 5-year prison term," and here are the details:

Calling her a common criminal who abused her authority as a poll worker by violating the principle of “one person, one vote,” a judge sent Melowese Richardson to prison Wednesday for five years following her illegal voting conviction.

“This is not a little thing. It’s not a minor thing. This is what our country’s based on – free elections,” Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman told Richardson.

In a case watched around the country, Richardson was a Hamilton County poll worker from 1998 until her arrest earlier this year when she was charged with eight counts of illegal voting. In May, she accepted a plea deal and was convicted of four counts in exchange for the other four being dismissed.

She was convicted of voting twice in the 2012 election and voting three times – in 2008, 2011 and 2012 – for her sister, Montez Richardson, who has been in a coma since 2003.... Richardson told the judge she was bothered that Amy Searcy, the Board of Elections director, had criticized her moments before the sentencing....

The conservative, outspoken judge responded with scathing comments, blasting Richardson for suggesting she was being prosecuted because she was a black Democrat helping a black Democratic presidential candidate. “It has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with disrespecting you. You did this to yourself,” Ruehlman told her.

“You’re very selfish, self-centered. I really believe President Obama, if he were asked about this today, he would be appalled. He would not want anybody to cheat to get elected.”

Ruehlman noted that two others convicted of illegal voting before Richardson got much lighter sentences but stressed their cases were different. The judge noted Richardson deserved a prison sentence, which was one year less than the maximum possible, because she has a lengthy criminal record, schemed repeatedly over five years to cast several illegal votes and used her training and expertise as a poll worker to try to evade detection.

“‘I’m Melowese Richardson. I can take the law into my own hands,’” the judge said, mocking what he believes is Richardson’s attitude.

Richardson previously was convicted of threatening to kill a witness in a criminal case against her brother, of stealing, of drunken driving and of beating someone in a bar fight.

Anything short of a prison sentence, Assistant Prosecutor Bill Anderson told the judge, would be an attack on the voting system. As a poll worker, “her job is actually to protect the integrity and sanctity of the voting system,” Anderson said. “(She) is an ideologue who was hell bent on stuffing the ballot box with as many Obama votes as possible.”

Bill Gallagher, Richardson’s lawyer, suspected she would be sent to prison but was surprised by the sentence. “I thought prison was a real possibility because of her record of 25 years ago,” Gallagher said. “I don’t think that the length of it was any where near what we expected.”

July 19, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"U.S. reviewing 27 death penalty convictions for FBI forensic testimony errors"

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post article, which gets started this way:

An unprecedented federal review of old criminal cases has uncovered as many as 27 death penalty convictions in which FBI forensic experts may have mistakenly linked defendants to crimes with exaggerated scientific testimony, U.S. officials said.

The review led to an 11th-hour stay of execution in Mississippi in May.   It is not known how many of the cases involve errors, how many led to wrongful convictions or how many mistakes may now jeopardize valid convictions.  Those questions will be explored as the review continues.

The discovery of the more than two dozen capital cases promises that the examination could become a factor in the debate over the death penalty.  Some opponents have long held that the execution of a person confirmed to be innocent would crystallize doubts about capital punishment.  But if DNA or other testing confirms all convictions, it would strengthen proponents’ arguments that the system works.

FBI officials discussed the review’s scope as they prepare to disclose its first results later this summer.  The death row cases are among the first 120 convictions identified as potentially problematic among more than 21,700 FBI Laboratory files being examined.  The review was announced last July by the FBI and the Justice Department, in consultation with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

The unusual collaboration came after The Washington Post reported last year that authorities had known for years that flawed forensic work by FBI hair examiners may have led to convictions of potentially innocent people, but officials had not aggressively investigated problems or notified defendants.

At issue is a once-widespread practice by which some FBI experts exaggerated the significance of “matches” drawn from microscopic analysis of hair found at crime scenes. Since at least the 1970s, written FBI Laboratory reports typically stated that a hair association could not be used as positive identification.  However, on the witness stand, several agents for years went beyond the science and testified that their hair analysis was a near-certain match.

The new review listed examples of scientifically invalid testimony, including claiming to associate a hair with a single person “to the exclusion of all others,” or to state or suggest a probability for such a match from past casework.

Whatever the findings of the review, the initiative is pushing state and local labs to take similar measures.  For instance, the Texas Forensic Science Commission on Friday directed all labs under its jurisdiction to take the first step to scrutinize hair cases, in a state that has executed more defendants than any other since 1982.

Separately, FBI officials said their intention is to review and disclose problems in capital cases even after a defendant has been executed.

July 18, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

With a new execution date set, must the Supreme Court now take up the Hill case from Georgia?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this local news that "State officials have rescheduled the execution of Georgia death row inmate Warren Lee Hill for Friday," and this interesting commentary up at MSNBC by LawProf Stephen Vladick, which makes these points about the case:

Hill is not an innocent man. His capital sentence arises from his 1990 killing of a fellow prisoner while serving a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend. In a country in which 32 states (and the federal government) still allow capital punishment, Hill might seem an unlikely candidate to become anything other than a statistic....

But if Hill’s execution is eventually carried out, it will set a very dangerous precedent — even for those who are not generally opposed to capital punishment. Hill is, by all accounts, mentally retarded (the pejorative term still in vogue in legal analysis). The Supreme Court held more than a decade ago that the execution of such defendants is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment — because “there is a serious question as to whether either justification that [the Court has] recognized as a basis for the death penalty applies to mentally retarded offenders,” and because “[m]entally retarded defendants may be less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel and are typically poor witnesses, and their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes.”...

The reasons why Hill is nevertheless facing lethal injection have been well-documented. Part of it is because Georgia makes it harder to prove mental retardation than any other state in the country (although Hill even meets Georgia’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard). Part of it is because the government mental health professionals who examined Hill changed their mind — and their diagnosis — about Hill’s mental capacity only after initially declaring him eligible for capital punishment. (They now agree that he should not be executed.)

Part of it is also because of the various procedural obstacles that Georgia law, federal law, and the Supreme Court have imposed in cases like Hill’s, where defendants aren’t able to raise a meritorious constitutional claim until after they’ve exhausted their direct appeal and their first round of post-conviction review. (In an amicus brief I co-authored, a group of habeas corpus experts explained why the Supreme Court nevertheless has the power to grant relief in Hill’s case, should it desire to do so.)...

Hill’s case is ultimately a test of a proposition far more fundamental than what is typically at stake in capital cases: Can the Constitution abide the execution of a prisoner, who the state’s own experts agree is categorically ineligible for the death penalty, entirely because of procedural flaws in his claims?  The Supreme Court has never held that the answer is yes, and has hinted rather strongly to the contrary in the context of “actual innocence” cases — including as recently as two months ago.

The time for hinting is running out — for Hill, for the Court, and for the country.

July 17, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

"Former Federal Prosecutors Endorse Safety Valve: Support Grows for Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the heading of this new press release from the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Here are excerpts:

A group of more than 50 former federal prosecutors and judges today sent a letter to Capitol Hill endorsing the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, legislation that authorizes judges to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence in cases where the minimum is not necessary to protect public safety and would be unjust given the facts and circumstances of the crime and defendant. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619) in the U.S. Senate, and Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the companion bill (H.R. 1695) in the U.S. House.

“The men and women who endorsed the bill today helped to make our country safer by prosecuting and sentencing dangerous criminals,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart. “They know that to improve public safety we must focus our scarce anti-crime resources on violent and repeat offenders.”

In their letters [available here and here] addressed to the Justice Safety Valve Act sponsors in the Senate and House, the former prosecutors and judges wrote:

As Congress looks for ways to improve upon recent gains in public safety, we believe that the reform in S. 619 would prove very valuable. … Under your legislation, dangerous criminals will continue to receive lengthy prison sentences.  For lower-level offenders facing a mandatory minimum sentence, however, courts will be given the power to impose a shorter sentence.  For example, a nonviolent drug seller facing a 10-year mandatory minimum might instead receive a sentence of seven or eight years if a court determines, after considering all the relevant facts, that the ten-year sentence is inappropriate and would punish the street seller more harshly than his more culpable codefendants.  In drug cases, for example, a court might determine that a shorter prison term combined with mandatory drug treatment would be more likely to prevent an individual from re-offending. …

We also support your bill because we believe that the money wasted on keeping nonviolent and nonthreatening offenders locked behind bars for years longer than necessary could be better spent on anti-crime programs that actually will enhance public safety.  This is especially true in the current budget climate.  We think public safety will be improved if limited government resources are targeted on prosecuting and incarcerating violent and repeat criminals.

Some recent and older related posts:

July 17, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notable comments on self-defense laws by Attorney General Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at great length today about the Zimmerman case in this speech to the NAACP National Convention.  Here is the heart of an interesting legal discussion about self-defense laws that most caught my attention as a criminal law professor who will be teaching a group of brand new new law students about these topics only a few months from now:

Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the “if” is important — no safe retreat is available.

But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.  By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.  The list of resulting tragedies is long and — unfortunately — has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation — we must stand our ground — to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.

We must also seek a dialogue on attitudes about violence and disparities that are too commonly swept under the rug — by honoring the finest traditions established by generations of NAACP leaders and other nonviolent advocates throughout history; and by paying tribute to the young man who lost his life here last year — and so many others whose futures have been cut short in other incidents of gun violence that pass, too often unnoticed, in our streets: by engaging with one another in a way that is at once peaceful, inclusive, respectful — and strong.

As we move forward together, I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law.  We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that — in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community — justice must be done.

July 16, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought after seeing this post by Nate Silver at his 538 blog headlined "Senate Control in 2014 Increasingly Looks Like a Tossup." I am not counting any Senate chickens at least until this time next summer, but I also do not think it is crazy for folks who favor significant federal sentencing reforms to actually believe such reforms might actually become more politically viable if the Senate were to change political hands while Barack Obama is still the President.

A lot would depend, of course, on the circumstances and results of the 2014 election cycle and especially on who would play leadership roles in a GOP-led Senate. But if, for example, Senator Rand Paul and other libertarian-leaning Senator were to become chairs of key Senate Judiciary subcommittees, I think the odds of significant federal criminal justice reforms getting through Congress might actually go up.

I fear that some commentors will ask what I am smoking when raising this notion, and I do fear that this post may be just some serious wishful thinking on my part. But, hey, if folks are going to start predicting election outcomes for 2014, why not have some fun speculating on what those outcomes could mean for sentencing law and policy?

Some recent and older related posts:

July 16, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Marathon bomb suspect asks judge for addition to death-penalty team"

The title of this post is this local report on what would appear to be a sensible and shrwed move by the defense team in the Boston boming case.  Here is how the article starts:

Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wants to add another taxpayer-financed death-penalty specialist to his legal team — this time, a veteran attorney who helped spare a plane hijacker and a former member of al-Qaeda from execution.

In court papers filed today, Tsarnaev, through his lawyers, repeats an earlier request to appoint David Bruck, a Virginia lawyer whose past clients include Zayd Safarini, serving life for his role in the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi, Pakistan; and Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, one of four men serving life for the 1998 bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi.

Tsarnaev’s legal team already includes Judy Clarke, who helped negotiate life sentences for Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph.

“If this case did not present ‘exceptional circumstances’ justifying appointment of an additioanl lawyer learned in the law applicable to capital cases ... no case would,” Clarke wrote in her motion. “Media reports have described the global scope of the investigation, involving hundreds of agents and witness interviews. Counsel expect that the amount of discovery that this investigation will produce will be truly massive. Thus even were this not a potentially capital case, the magnitude of the task confronting Mr. Tsarnaev’s attorneys would be daunting.”

Tsarnaev, 19, pleaded not guilty in federal court last week to 30 charges, 17 of which carry the death penalty. His legal team tried to add Bruck to its ranks back in April. At that time, a judge denied the request but promised to review it after his indictment.

July 15, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 14, 2013

European Court of Human Rights finds UK use of LWOP sentences violated human rights convention

ECHRAs reported in this piece from The Guardian, last week brought a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.  The article's headlined provide the basics: "Whole-life jail terms without review breach human rights — European court; Three murderers, including Jeremy Bamber, have right to review of sentence, but ECHR judgment doesn't make release imminent."   Here is more about the ruling and early reaction thereto:

Whole-life jail sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, the European court of human rights has ruled. The landmark judgment will set the ECHR on a fresh collision course with the UK government but does not mean that any of the applicants — the convicted murderers Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter — are likely to be released soon.

In its decision, the Strasbourg court said there had been a violation of article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment. The judgment said: "For a life sentence to remain compatible with article 3 there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review."

The court emphasised, however, that "the finding of a violation in the applicants' cases should not be understood as giving them any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue."

The appeal was brought by Vinter, who murdered a colleague in 1996 and after being released stabbed his wife in 2008; Bamber, now 51, who killed his parents, his sister Sheila Cafell and her two young children in 1985; and Moore, who killed four gay men for his sexual gratification in 1995.

The judges in the grand chamber at Strasbourg, the appeal court above the ECHR, found by a majority of 16 to one that there had been a violation of human rights....

Their decision means that the government will now be under pressure to introduce a formal review of whole-life sentences after 25 years. The current law governing release of life prisoners in England and Wales was unclear, the judges said. Those on a whole-life term can be freed only by the justice secretary, who can give discretion on compassionate grounds when the prisoner is terminally ill or seriously incapacitated....

In its judgment, the grand chamber said: "The need for independent judges to determine whether a whole-life order may be imposed is quite separate from the need for such whole-life orders to be reviewed at a later stage so as to ensure that they remain justified on legitimate penological grounds."...

The new British judge on the court, Paul Mahoney, pointed out in his comments that the UK government was "of course free to choose the means whereby they will fulfil their international treaty obligation" to abide by the judgment....

During the original hearing in Strasbourg, Pete Weatherby QC, who represented the three claimants, told the court: "The imposition of a whole-life sentence crushes human dignity from the outset, as it removes any chance and therefore any hope of release in the future.  The individual is left in a position of hopelessness whereby he cannot progress whatever occurs."

Commenting on the decision, Rebecca Niblock, a criminal law solicitor at Kingsley Napley LLP, said: "No doubt there will be renewed calls to pull out of the European convention on human rights and repeal the Human Rights Act.  Yet Theresa May would do well to keep a sense of proportion: a right to have the sentence reviewed is quite different from a right to be released, and the number of prisoners affected is tiny — 49."

"England and Wales lag behind other European countries in the use of the whole-life sentence — the only other EU country which uses it is Holland.  The repeated calls to withdraw from the European convention carry a huge risk of undermining the UK's reputation abroad.  There is only so much the UK can say to other countries about their human rights records when they show disdain for judgments which go against them at Strasbourg."

I am unsure about how ECHR rulings impact domestic laws and procedures either in the nation brought before the ECHR or other nations who have adopted the applicable convention.   But I am sure, as evidenced by local press stories and commentaries here and here and elsewhere, that this ruling is not being celebrated within the UK.  Further, because the decision in Case of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom  (available via this link) is long and full of nuance, its actual impact may end up somewhat more muted than might be predicted or feared.

That all said, this ruling to me serves as another important reminder that lots of judges when given an opportunity to consider human rights rather than just politics ultimately conclude that a true LWOP sentence is a horrific punishment even for the most horrific of crimes.  The US Supreme Court rulings in Graham and Miller, though far more limited and far more divided that this ECHR ruling in Vinter, are in the same vein.  And I suspect over time other courts in various other settings will come to similar rulings about true LWOP sentences.

July 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Though he was found not guilty by the jury, are sentencing stories in the Zimmerman prosecution and verdict?

The question in the title of my post is my effort to provide a (final?) place for discussion of the high-profile state acquittal in Florida which a jury handed down late last night.  I suspect lots of folks are eager to talk about the substance of the prosecution and verdict, but I want to stress (and praise) the procedures in this post.  

I find quite notable and important the seemingly wide-spread acceptance by so many of the jury-based decision-making process and the use of a beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof at Zimmerman's criminal trial.  And, as regular readers might guess, I wish to tie this reality back to my perception of the profound and enduring wisdom to be found in the Apprendi and Blakely line of cases (as for the Booker remedy, er... not so much).

Though perhaps we will see some future criticisms of the trial procedures in the Zimmerman case, my observation of early media and public reactions suggests a general acceptance of the process even among those who might profoundly disapprove of the outcome.  Indeed, I will be quite surprised if anyone — even those most bothered by the jury acquittal here such as the Martin family — will respond to the acquittal outcome by arguing that the result shows we should have professional judges rather than lay jurors resolving these kinds of cases or by advocating the use of a lesser proof standard than guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal trials.  I surmise that this reality highlights just how deeply all Americans believe adjudication by lay jurors using a high standard or proof is fundamental to a fair and  criminal justice system.

And yet in sentencing in hundreds of courtrooms nationwide every day, once a guilty verdict has be entered by plea or conviction on any count, we still have what Judge Gerry Lynch once astutely called "our administrative system of criminal justice."  A lone state employee in the form of a judge uses informal and often hurried and cursory procedures to decide whether a convicted defendant will get a lenient of harsh sentence.  And the underlying facts in the Graham case (which made it to the Supreme Court for other issues) showed starkly how some judicial bureaucrats may often respond much too leniently at first and then much too harshly thereafter when administrating sentencing justice.

I do not mean this post to be a formal pitch for jury sentencing in all cases or an effort to assail the challenging and couragous decisions that federal and state sentencing judges must make every day.  Rather, I just want to highlight my belief that the apparent acceptance of the Zimmerman verdict even by those who dislike the outcome is a sign of the procedural wisdom of the Constitution's embrace of a unique and uniquely valuable set of procedures — procedures that cases like Apprendi and Blakely (and now Southern Union and Allenye) wisely seek to extend to even more and more criminal justice adjudications.

Prior posts on Zimmerman prosecution:

July 14, 2013 in Blakely Commentary and News, Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack