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November 21, 2018

Notable account of Acting AG Matt Whitaker's sentencing work as US Attorney in Iowa

The Washington Post has this interesting new piece about the current Acting US Attorney General's sentencing record as a chief federal prosecutor in Iowa. The lengthy piece is headlined, "As U.S. attorney, Whitaker imposed longer-than-usual drug sentences," and merits a full read. Here are snippets:

Raeanna Woody’s crimes hardly seemed like they would add up to a life sentence in prison. She had two nonviolent drug convictions, for possessing marijuana and delivering 12 grams of methamphetamine. But when she was arrested in a third drug case, she said, the office of U.S. Attorney Matthew G. Whitaker decided to make an example of her.

Under Whitaker, who is now acting attorney general, Woody was given a choice: spend the rest of her life in jail, or accept a plea bargain sentence of 21 to 27 years, according to court records. She took the deal.

Federal Judge Robert W. Pratt in the Southern District of Iowa later accused prosecutors of having “misused” their authority in her nonviolent case. He urged President Barack Obama to commute her sentence — and Obama did shorten her term , after she had served 11 years.

Woody’s case highlights one of the most controversial if little-known aspects of Whitaker’s career: his efforts to obtain unusually stiff sentences for people accused of drug crimes. Whitaker spent nearly five years as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. His office was more likely than all but one other district in the United States to use its authority to impose the harshest sentences on drug offenders, according to a finding by a different Iowa federal judge, Mark W. Bennett, who it called a “deeply troubling disparity.”

“If the president can look at my case and he can see that what I had done wasn’t severe enough to warrant that many years, then why was I given that many years to begin with, why was that much of my life taken from me?” Woody, a 57-year-old mother of five, said in an interview. “I blame Whitaker’s office and everybody underneath him.”...

The rate at which Whitaker’s office and another one in Iowa imposed the harshest possible sentence was a “jaw-dropping and deeply troubling disparity compared to the vast majority of federal courts in the nation,” Bennett said in a statement to The Washington Post. Whitaker never appeared before him, and he declined to comment about Whitaker’s term as U.S. attorney.

Whitaker’s Southern District of Iowa used enhanced sentences in 84 percent of relevant cases, compared with 26 percent nationwide, Bennett’s finding said. Bennett concluded that a defendant in the Northern District of Iowa — which had a rate of filings similar to Whitaker’s district — was 2,532 percent more likely to be subjected to an enhanced sentence compared with someone convicted of a similar offense in a Nebraska district. “I found their harshness in filing 851 notices inexplicable,” Bennett said....

In Raeanna Woody’s case, the filing was used as leverage by Whitaker’s office. Woody, whose last name at the time was Paxton, appeared before Judge Pratt in the Southern District on July 10, 2008. Her previous drug convictions resulted in little or no jail time. Her third offense occurred when authorities determined that she drove a car in which another individual was pursuing a drug deal.

Woody said a prosecutor from Whitaker’s office, Jason T. Griess, had informed her that, as a third-time offender, her sentence could be “enhanced” to mandatory life in prison under an 851 filing. She said she had no choice but to make a plea bargain that resulted in the sentence of 21 to 27 years. “I remember them saying through Jason that he wouldn’t budge, and ‘me and my office are going to make an example out of you.’ ”...

Pratt [later] then wrote a letter to Obama’s pardon attorney expressing his displeasure with how the case had been handled by Whitaker’s office. Pratt wrote in the May 13, 2016, letter that he was forced to impose a sentence that “was entirely disproportionate” to her crime.

The “most compelling reason” that the president should grant clemency, Pratt wrote, was that Whitaker’s office “misused” its power by threatening Woody with a life sentence by using the 851 filing, “effectively removing my discretion” to give Woody “a fair sentence.” Pratt stressed that Woody “was and is a nonviolent offender. She was not a significant player in the overall ‘conspiracy’ in this case. . . . This was not a conspiracy that involved ‘drug kingpins.’ It was a situation where methamphetamine-addicted individuals resorted to selling the drug to support their own addictions.”

For me, this story is not as much about the work of a particular US Attorney as it is yet another tale about the need to reform federal sentencing laws to reduce the sentencing powers now given to federal prosecutors rather than to federal judges.

November 21, 2018 at 09:54 AM | Permalink

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