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January 14, 2022

Illinois judge decides to acquit teen in sexual assault case to avoid four-year mandatory minimum term

The New York Times has this interesting new article about a troubling example of how mandatory minimum sentences can (and often do) end up distorting the operation of our justices systems.  The full headline of the article provides the essentials: "Judge Tosses Teen’s Sexual Assault Conviction, Drawing Outrage; Drew Clinton, 18, faced four years in prison under Illinois sentencing guidelines. But the judge, Robert Adrian, overturned his conviction this month, saying the sentence was “not just." Here are the details:

Last October, a judge in western Illinois convicted an 18-year-old man of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl while she was unconscious at a graduation party.

The man, Drew Clinton, faced a mandatory minimum sentence of four years in prison, but at a hearing earlier this month, Judge Robert Adrian reversed his own decision and threw out the conviction.  The nearly five months Mr. Clinton had served in jail, the judge said, was “plenty of punishment.”

The decision, which was reported by the Herald-Whig of Quincy, Ill., has dismayed organizations that help survivors of sexual assault, the Adams County state’s attorney’s office and the girl who reported the assault, who told a local television station that she was present when Judge Adrian overturned Mr. Clinton’s conviction. “He made me seem like I fought for nothing and that I put my word out there for no reason,” she told WGEM-TV. “I immediately had to leave the courtroom and go to the bathroom. I was crying.”...

Mr. Clinton was charged with criminal sexual assault on June 1, 2021.  The girl reported that he sexually assaulted her after she became intoxicated at a party on May 30, according to court records.  During the bench trial, she testified that she was unconscious and woke up to find a pillow covering her face and Mr. Clinton assaulting her....

Mr. Schnack [a lawyer for Mr. Clinton] argued that mandatory sentences take away a judge’s discretion. “Every individual should be judged by the court in doing its sentence and not by a legislator years and hundreds of miles removed,” he said, according to the transcript.

He also said that prosecutors had not proved their case against Mr. Clinton and that the girl was able to consent.  Mr. Schnack said that she made many decisions that night, including drinking and stripping down to her underwear to go swimming. “They weren’t the best decisions,” he said. “She did know what was going on.”

Judge Adrian said he knew that, by law, Mr. Clinton was supposed to serve time in prison, but in this case, the sentence was unfair, partly because Mr. Clinton turned 18 just two weeks before the party and, until his arrest, had no criminal record.  “That is not just,” Judge Adrian said during the Jan. 3 hearing, according to the transcript. “There is no way for what happened in this case that this teenager should go to the Department of Corrections. I will not do that.”

He said that if he ruled that the sentence was unconstitutional, his decision would be reversed on appeal.  Instead, he said, what he could do was “find that the people failed to prove their case.” Judge Adrian chastised the parents and other adults who he said provided liquor to the teenagers at the party and failed “to exercise their parental responsibilities.”...

Carrie Ward, the chief executive of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the judge’s comments and his decision to throw out Mr. Clinton’s conviction were “a clean and clear example of victim blaming.” By highlighting the girl’s clothing and chastising the hosts of the party, the judge shifted “100 percent of the blame from the perpetrator, from the actual person who committed the sexual assault, to everyone else, including the victim,” Ms. Ward said.

I am troubled that the judge here felt compelled to nullify guilt because he was unable or unwilling to develop an argument that a four-year prison term would be unjust and possibly illegal. I do not know Illinois law well enough to know if state constitutional jurisprudence or other doctrines could have provided a basis for the judge to rule that he had to be able to give effect to the defendant's youth and other mitigating factors. But if the judge made a compelling case for a more just sentence, perhaps prosecutors would not have appealed or perhaps appellate courts would have embraced the analysis. Instead, we have a case in which a judge seems to want to believe that two legal wrongs make a right.

January 14, 2022 at 01:09 PM | Permalink


Same. If the judge's real MO was to actually just make criminal justice reformers look bad, at the cost of throwing himself under the bus, he would be a brilliant conservative political strategist.

Posted by: Rory Fleming | Jan 14, 2022 1:15:38 PM

Doug --

"The New York Times has this interesting new article about a troubling example of how mandatory minimum sentences can (and often do) end up distorting the operation of our justices systems."

Nope, it's not about that at all. It's about how willful judges, in defiance of their oath and the rule of law, distort (and stain) our justice system (and in the process tell victims of child rape that, hey sweetie, you'll get over it).

The decision should be appealed, and if it is, it will get reversed. The prosecution cannot appeal a true acquittal, but this was something entirely different. No matter what it's called, it was a dismissal because the judge did not like the law. A dismissal (i.e., a judgment favorable to be accused for a reason other than that the government's factual case was deficient) can be appealed. I will volunteer to write the brief at no charge.

As is now well established, MMs are constitutional. The only question that really gets debated is whether, in one instance or another, they're too long. The one in this case -- four years for raping an underage person -- might conceivably be harsh, although I don't think so, but there is just no sane argument that it's unconstitutionally excessive under the Eighth Amendment. That being the case, an appeal here is the closest thing to a sure winner that you get in litigation.

But appealing won't be enough. The judge should be removed (as the judge in the somewhat similar Stanford rape case in fact was removed). Unless the sentencing statute is unconstitutional -- and the judge correctly conceded that it isn't -- it is still the law and therefore MUST be applied by the court. Our friend (then) Judge Paul Cassell knew this and did the right thing where there was a far more onerous sentence (55 years for selling dope) the law required him to impose. He imposed it and then wrote to Pres. Obama suggesting clemency. See: https://unews.utah.edu/university-of-utah-law-professor-paul-cassell-asks-president-obama-to-commute-sentence-in-weldon-angelos-case/. The judge here could and should have done something analogous if he felt this strongly.

Law is for the legislature. Clemency is for the executive. Discipline is for the judiciary, and this judge showed none. Instead, he blew past the obligations and limits of his office and abused his power to create a result he personally preferred. That is the definition of what a judge CANNOT do.

The problem here is not the mandatory minimum (which is actually quite modest). It's judicial arrogance and indiscipline. And that problem should be remedied by removal.

P.S. One really easy way to see how wrong this judge was is to consider what we'd all think if the statutory limits were, say, minimum of four years and maximum of ten, and the judge's personal opinion was that ten wasn't enough, so he simply ignored the statute and imposed fifteen. Would anyone doubt that such a judge should be removed from office?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 14, 2022 2:24:01 PM

The judge was correct in all respects. The girl was not a victim. 4 years is cruel and unusual punishment. Congratulations to the judge. He did the right thing. We can only hope that this starts a movement of judges unwilling to go with the insanity around "crimes" of this sort.

Posted by: restless94110 | Jan 14, 2022 6:59:58 PM

If this judge had any brains at all, he would have just held the evidence insufficient without opining on the sentence.

Posted by: hgd | Jan 14, 2022 8:22:42 PM

hgd --

So the judge should lie? Say the evidence is lacking when he know's it isn't?

Not sure where that version of judging leads us. Should hardline judges also feel free to lie to get to a result they want? Are litigants going to be confident of a fair an impartial shake when they know the judge will lie to reach a favored result? Should lawyers also feel free to lie? Jurors? Witnesses? What are the limits here?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 15, 2022 12:32:08 AM

No, that's not what I'm saying. I disagree with most of what you post, but I actually agree with you here: what the judge did here was totally inappropriate and inconsistent with his judicial oath.

What I'm saying is that judges with brains know how to reach the results they want in facially proper (and appeal-proof) ways and do so every day. The only reason this case is a story is that this judge said the quiet part out loud. Discretion-stripping mechanisms such as MMs prompt judges to do this more and more, encouraging what the SCT in Spears criticized as "institutionalized subterfuge." I suppose my larger point is, we have a system (for better or worse) that affords judges a great deal of discretion. We ought to have framework rules that encourage the transparent exercise of that discretion.

Posted by: hgd | Jan 15, 2022 11:32:14 AM

hgd --

When he "said the quiet part out loud," he was being honest. That's the one commendable thing he did in this case, and a part of what you say seems to agree with that (applauding rules "that encourage the transparent exercise of that discretion.").

The job of judging is just that -- a job. It's not an anointment. The job specifications are not to do justice as you, an individual, see it. They are to follow the law whether you like it or not (just as the litigants are required to). So this case is easy. As a judge, you either find the MM sentence unconstitutionally excessive (which can't be done and would get reversed in a heartbeat) or you follow the Paul Cassell model, i.e., do what the statute requires and then urge the executive branch to grant clemency, giving your reasons. A fake acquittal when the government had proved the elements was his worst option.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 15, 2022 2:33:57 PM

Of course, if this had been a jury trial instead of a bench trial, the jury would never have been informed about the mandatory minimum, thus denying them the opportunity to exercise the same discretion. How is that fair?

Posted by: Mike | Jan 18, 2022 8:48:13 AM

Judge nullification!

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Jan 19, 2022 9:07:45 AM

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