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January 24, 2006

Eighth Circuit cracks up

The Eighth Circuit today issued interesting opinions in two crack sentencing cases: US v. Denton, No. 05-1978 (8th Cir. Jan. 24, 2006) (available here) and US v. Feemster, No. 05-1995 (8th Cir. Jan. 24, 2006) (available here).  Both include important discussions of appellate review for reasonableness, and Denton affirms a (within guideline) life sentence, while Feemster remands for resentencing to require the district judge to explain more fully a decision to impose a (below guideline) 10-year sentence.

There are lots of stories to draw from these cases, and I hope to comment further as time permits later today.  But one fact in the Denton case jumped off the page:  "Denton was offered a plea agreement with an anticipated sentence of 18 to 36 months, but he rejected it and went to trial."  Consequently, Denton's decision to put the government to its proof functionally increased his sentence from 18 to 36 months to life imprisonment.  Ouch.

UPDATE: A review of Denton and Feemster reinforces not only that the guidelines remain the gold standard for reasonableness review, but also that the circuit courts continue to ignore Congress's commands in section 3553(a) of the Sentencing Reform Act that courts are to impose sentence "sufficient, but not greater than necessary," to comply with the purposes of punishment. 

In Denton, a prosecutor obviously at some point thought a sentence in the range of 18 to 36 months was adequate.  Nevertheless, the district judge apparently decided to impose a sentence of life imprisonment, and the Eighth Circuit declares this sentence "not unreasonable" in two sentences of summary analysis.   Meanwhile, in Feemster, the district court twice explained why it thought the 30-year sentence suggested by the career-offender guidelines was greater than necessary, but the Eighth Circuit is now requiring the district court to provide a "more explicit and thorough consideration of all the factors" in 3553(a).

January 24, 2006 at 12:03 PM | Permalink


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I looked into the case a little more and it is discussed at my blog. Most notably, Denton was 70 years old at the time of sentencing. The minimum sentence would have been ten years.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jan 24, 2006 1:18:00 PM

I agree that most district and appellate courts seem to be ignoring the requirement that the sentence be "sufficient, but not greater than necessary." Under that requirement, it's hard to deny that Denton's life sentence is more than necessary.

But I am not so sure that an 18-36 month sentence is adequate per se, just because at some stage the government would have been willing to settle for that. The government's offer, naturally, incorporated an assessment of the risk that Denton might ultimately be acquitted on some or all of the charges. When he put the government to the test, and lost, a more severe sentence was to be expected. I do agree that a life sentence takes that reasoning farther than I am comfortable with.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jan 24, 2006 3:03:40 PM

“Booker requires courts to fashion an appropriate sentence, considering: the nature and circumstances of the offense; the history and characteristics of the defendant; the need for the sentence imposed to advance institutional integrity, provide deterrence, protect the public, and rehabilitate the defendant; and the kinds of sentences available, including the guidelines range. Booker, 125 S. Ct. at 757; see also 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).” U.S. v. Feemster (05-1995 8th Cir. 2006)
Feemster is a 24 year-old, career offender Criminal History Category VI, while Denton, (05-1978 8th Cir. 2006) is a 70 year old, first time offender, Criminal History Category I. Both were convicted of drug trafficking offenses, both were sentenced to prison to protect the public, and while Feemster may be rehabilitated, although not by prison rehabilitation for there is none, Denton will die in prison. The kinds of sentences available, one would think are a matter left to the discretion of the district court judge after Booker, but the Eighth Circuit maintains reasonableness must contain Guidelines in its definition. Ten years is a long time in prison for a twenty-four year old and 36 months in prison can be a lifetime for a 70 year old, both can and should be considered reasonable. I spent more than 15 years in federal prison and believe me it is a long time.
“Punishment is meant to reform, not exterminate Mankind” New Hampshire Constitution, Pt.I Art. XVIII (1784).

Posted by: Barry Ward | Jan 24, 2006 3:44:19 PM

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