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October 13, 2006

Ninth Circuit upholds 159-year mandatory term of imprisonment

With thanks to Howard for the tip, I see the Ninth Circuit has today upheld in US v. Hungerford, No. 05-30500 (9th Cir. Oct. 13, 2006) (available here), a woman's 159-year federal sentence for various robbery convictions.  The facts suggest that the defendant was a lesser "Bonnie" who helped her "Clyde" carry out numerous armed robberies.  In a concurring opinion, Judge Stephen Reinhardt notes that the the defendant is a "mentally disturbed woman with no prior criminal record" who "never touched a gun." 

Judge Reinhardt's opinion is a fascinating attack on mandatory minimum sentencing, with many notable passages.  Here is one such passage:

[I]t is difficult to escape the conclusion that the current mandatory sentencing laws have imposed an immensely cruel, if not barbaric, 159-year sentence on a severely mentally disturbed person who played a limited and fairly passive role in several robberies during which no one was physically harmed.

Too bad for the defendant that she was not also required to wear a sign in public saying "I am a thief," since then there might be sustained opposition from others in the legal academy.

October 13, 2006 at 01:18 PM | Permalink


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Whew! It's a good thing they didn't use any shaming punishments.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 13, 2006 1:29:35 PM

I'm not sure your characterization of the defendant as the "lesser 'Bonnie'" is correct. If "Clyde" is telling the truth (an admittedly dubious assumption), then "Bonnie" was the instigator of a long string of armed robberies. IMHO, a person who causes another to wield a gun is every bit as culpable as the wielder. Those who wish to make the case that mandatory minimums can result in grossly excessive sentences can find a much better poster child.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 13, 2006 2:09:22 PM

I'm with Kent - compared to the guy from Utah who got the back-to-back (etc.) mandatory minimums because (1) he refused to plead guilty and (2) the Govt made several controlled buys over time rather than charging him after just one (thus the multiple counts), this Bonnie seems much more deserving of the sentence (which is still, in my mind, too long).

Posted by: JDB | Oct 13, 2006 3:51:14 PM

I'm so tired of the liberal judges, academics and others of their ilk whining about mandatory sentences. A 159-year mandatory sentence (that is, life imprisonment without parole) is pefectly appropriate for a mentally ill woman who never held a gun in a series of robberies but who stayed at home. As Kent points out, this Lady Macbeth was no doubt every bit as culpable as her rat boyfriend. Justifably he only received 33 years because he helped and snuggled up to the prosecution--a patriotic thing to do in this time of war on crime. I understand she daily challenged his manhood until he robbed another and was also heard to say something like "Unsex me now."

The truth is that Congress should not eliminate but mandatory minimums, but should impose mandatory life sentences for ALL crimes. (Not the whimpy Sensenbrenner version--of mandatory low-end guideline sentence--). Mandatory life sentences for all crimes would eliminate the crocodile tears over "disparity" because all would be sentenced alike. It would ensure uniformity, the ultimate goal of sentencing. An added advantage: mandatory life sentences would eliminate the ridiculous Sentencing Commission, the handmaiden to the liberasl that is always prescribing creative new "downward departures" or suggesting that sentences be lowered for certain crimes. Prison officals too would welcome the economic prosperity that would come from the vast construction required to house the new inmates eager to serve their sentences and receive thee hot meals a day. Prisoners would no longer feel envious about "short-timers," and peace would once again prevail in our correctional institutions. IMPEACH REINHARDT.

Posted by: Michael Levine | Oct 13, 2006 5:42:36 PM

The opinion makes no sense. How was the Defendant convicted for aiding and abetting a 924(c) when there was no evidence she in any way aid or abetted the use of the guns in the bank robberies? Merely taking part in an armed bank robbery and getting the proceeds from the robbery doesn't support aiding and abetting the use of the gun in the bank robbery. Why wasn't this discussed? What am I missing?

Posted by: Confused | Oct 13, 2006 11:57:46 PM

As a matter of sensibility and fairness this 159 year sentence should be automatically reversed under the our guarantee of no cruel punishment. Law Student.

Posted by: | Oct 16, 2006 11:17:41 PM

The single most important observation made by Reinhardt is the farcical use of plea bargaining. Prosecutorial discretion is wholely unfettered while judges have no discretion in sentencing. There is a great amount of disparity in terms of accountability and transparency. The is no requirement for prosecutors to defend their plea bargaining arrangements. In Australia a case like this would NOT result in Hungerford going to jail, more likely she would be treated at a psyciatric institution, where it quite obvious she really belongs. It seems that the lack of any type of social safety net is the primary cause of mentallly ill people being involved in criminal activity. An adequate social safety net would of perhaps taken account of Hungerford plight and been able to assist her in a far more apppropriate way than the US criminal injustice system. The idea of jailing someone for the use of a gun in a crime in the US is ridiculous, it is probably easier for most Americans to find a gun rather than a screwdriver! Sending people to jail for using guns is required, but the real requirement is tougher guns laws, no handguns, no machine guns. How do you put up with such appalling injustices?

Posted by: Andrew | Oct 18, 2006 10:51:27 PM

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