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January 28, 2009

Seventh Circuit finds top-of-range guideline sentence procedurally(?) unreasonable

Tucked into the back of a long opinion from the Seventh Circuit yesterday is a little sentencing talk that shows that at least one circuit is not always going to rubber-stamp district court rulings when conducting reasonableness review.  The opinion in US v. Williams, No. 07-1573 (7th Cir. Jan. 27, 2009) (available here), rejects lots of arguments from lots of co-defendants, but "vacate[s] Clinton Williams’s sentence because the record does not demonstrate that the district court considered his mental disability as a mitigating factor."  Here are some snippets from the panel's sentencing discussion (with cites omitted):

Section 3553(a) directs a district court to consider the history and characteristics of the defendant among the factors it weighs in determining a reasonable sentence.  We have held that while a "district court may pass over in silence frivolous arguments for leniency,” where a defendant presents an argument that is “not so weak as not to merit discussion,” a court is required to explain its reason for rejecting that argument....

There are two problems with the district court’s analysis.... [First,] the court’s observation that Clinton Williams was exaggerating his mental and intellectual disabilities is not dispositive of whether he was mentally disabled or whether his actual disability justified a lower sentence....

Second, the district court did not take into account the combination of Clinton Williams’s diminished capacity along with the fact that the ringleader was his brother, and the exacerbating effect that might have on his ability to think for himself.  We remand Williams’s case and on remand, the district court should consider his actual disability and the combination of his disability with his susceptibility to manipulation by his brother Brad.

Though styled as a conclusion that the district court erred procedurally by failing to explain how it considered the defendants arguments for a lower sentence, the panel decision here feel more like a reversal based on substantive unreasonableness.  Thanks to applicable mandatory minimums, the defendant faced a guideline range of roughly 43 to 46 years(!) in prison, and the sentencing judge impose a top-of-the-range sentence of 46 years. In its discussion, the panel notes at length the extent of Clinton Williams's disability history and indirectly suggests that 46 years seems extreme under the circumstances. 

Though we have had four years of reasonableness review since Booker was handed down, there still has been just a single sentence reversed as substantively unreasonable.  This Williams rulings gets close, but does not quite make number two.  Still, it is nice to see a circuit enforcing seriously the duty of explanation that should be inherent in reasonableness review.

January 28, 2009 at 05:33 PM | Permalink


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Reminds of a Third Circuit case from a while ago. United States v. Ausburn, 502 F.3d 313 (3d Cir. 2007). A double-the-guidelines sentence was reversed on grounds of procedural unreasonableness because the record didn't reflect that the district court had considered one of the defendant's non-frivolous arguments, but you got the feeling the real issue was one of substance, not procedure.

Posted by: Observer | Jan 28, 2009 10:09:05 PM

"Though we have had four years of reasonableness review since Booker was handed down, there still has been just a single sentence reversed as substantively unreasonable."

It's nice to see you come right out and acknowledge the real problem.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 29, 2009 12:10:35 PM

And even the single case Prof. Berman talks about I think can be read just as fairly as a procedural unreasonableness reversal rather tahn a substantive one.

Posted by: AFPD | Jan 29, 2009 1:31:13 PM

There have been plenty of sentences reversed as substantively unreasonable. They were all below the guidelines.

Posted by: RW | Jan 30, 2009 10:25:38 AM

RW: I think Prof. Berman was talking about within-guidelines sentences in this post (as was I in my comment). But your point is well-taken.

Posted by: AFPD | Jan 30, 2009 2:41:48 PM

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