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November 20, 2004

Brief (and compelling) weekend reading about mandatories

In this post, I criticized Utah US District Judge Paul Cassell's decision in the Angelos mandatory minimum case for its summary Eighth Amendment analysis.  In addition, I wonder if Judge Cassell considered whether Angelos arguably had a claim based in Due Process and/or the Sixth Amendment stemming from prosecutors' apparent (and successful) efforts to penalize Weldon Angelos for initially seeking to exercise his constitutional right to a trial. 

Consider this description from Judge Cassell's Angelos opinion of exactly why Angelos ended up with a mandated 55-year sentence:

[T]he government told Mr. Angelos, through counsel, that if he pled guilty to the drug distribution count and the § 924(c) count, the government would agree to drop all other charges, not supersede the indictment with additional counts, and recommend a prison sentence of 15 years. The government made clear to Mr. Angelos that if he rejected the offer, the government would obtain a new superseding indictment adding several § 924(c) counts that could lead to Mr. Angelos facing more than 100 years of mandatory prison time. In short, Mr. Angelos faced the choice of accepting 15 years in prison or insisting on a trial by jury at the risk of a life sentence. [He] rejected the offer and decided to go to trial. The government then obtained two superseding indictments, eventually charging twenty total counts, including five § 924(c) counts which alone carried a potential minimum mandatory sentence of 105 years....

Perhaps recognizing the gravity of the situation, Mr. Angelos tried to reopen plea negotiations, offering to plea to one count of drug distribution, one § 924(c) count, and one money laundering count. The government refused his offer, and the case proceeded to trial.

Though perhaps the issue was not fully briefed, I think these facts make out at least a colorable claim that prosecutors violated Due Process and/or the Sixth Amendment by penalizing Weldon Angelos for initially seeking to exercise his constitutional right to a trial.  I know these claims are at least arguable because I was recently sent a compelling brief from a Pennsylvania case in which exactly these claims are argued.

The case is US v. Hernandez, and the brief you can download below provides another moving example of the power and discretion that federal prosecutors possess due to long, mandatory sentencing provisions.

Download penn_brief_assailing_mm.doc

November 20, 2004 at 12:55 PM | Permalink


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Prof B.,

As disturbing as the PA case is, you don't really think that this argument has a chance under the current law, do you? With Harris on the books, the only claim that isn't laughable is the prosecutorial vindictiveness argument and the defendant does not even push that angle fully.

The defendant's argument against punishments with no judicial discretion may be sound policy, but it has no real traction under the law, does it? Even after Blakely, we could return to legislatively imposed tarrifs, right?

Why do we keep holding out hope that judges can/should save us from the ill-advised policies of our legislators?

Posted by: what | Nov 20, 2004 2:24:42 PM

I have the greatest respect for my friend Jules, who teaches at Delaware-Widener Law School, and is the co-signer of that E.D.Pa. brief. I have to wonder, however, whether the first argument can be considered "compelling," as you say, Doug, when it does not distinguish, or even cite, the Supreme Court decision in Bordenkircher v. Hayes (1978).

Posted by: Peter G | Nov 20, 2004 8:04:11 PM

Good points, all, though I still find the brief compelling on the facts -- especially pp. 15-18, where the brief highlights that the mandatory life sentence the law seems to demand forbids the court "from considering the seventeen attached testimonials from family members, friends, and colleagues which demonstrate Mr. Hernandez' devotion to family, hard work, and helping others."

Existing precedents may suggest nothing can be done. But reform of the death penalty came when courts appreciated that this historically over-used punishment needed to be more rigorously regulated by courts. And if a death sentence cannot be imposed without the sentencer having a chance to consider mitigating facts (and also cannot be mandatory), I do not think it is a big leap to say that the law also ought not permit a life sentence without the sentencer having a chance to consider mitigating facts (and also cannot be mandatory).

Posted by: Doug B. | Nov 21, 2004 9:04:54 AM

Thanks for the great idea! :)

Posted by: Nikole Jolie | Nov 30, 2004 4:34:10 AM

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