« Notable new grant of sentence reduction for California medical marijuana operator given nearly 22 years in federal prison back in 2008 | Main | US Representatives create new "Bipartisan Second Chance Task Force" »

February 4, 2023

Federal judge gives cocaine trafficker time served ... and a requirement that she complete her JD program

Here is another notable sentencing story that might keep the comments buzzing  This one comes from the ABA Journal under the headline "Federal sentence includes law school, and attorneys wonder why."  Here are the basics (with links from the original):

Based on federal sentencing guidelines, people found guilty of trafficking large amounts of cocaine usually face lengthy sentences.  However, a Texas defendant received what many say is an unusual punishment: five days in prison with credit for time served and direction from the judge to complete her JD.

Chelsea Nichole Madill was accused of trafficking 28.5 kilos of cocaine in a 2018 criminal complaint.  She was charged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, and in 2019, Madill pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute a Schedule II drug.

Federal sentencing experts say the average penalty for that crime is around five years.  In addition to the law school piece and no prison time, Madill was sentenced to three years of supervised release.  The 2023 sentencing judgment was written by Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Randy Crane.

Much of the record is sealed, and whether Madill attended or completed law school is not disclosed. There is someone with that name listed as a 2L Florida A&M University College of Law student bar association board member.  A 2019 order authorized travel expenses for Madill, directing the U.S. marshal to obtain the cheapest means of noncustodial transportation possible between her Florida residence and the McAllen, Texas, courthouse....

Madill did not respond to an ABA Journal interview request sent through LinkedIn, and her phone number listed in court records was disconnected. FAMU Law also did not respond to ABA Journal interview requests....

Jesse Salazar, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, referred an ABA Journal interview request to a public affairs officer.  The PAO said the office did not object to the sentence. Richard Gould, a federal public defender, represented Madill.  A receptionist at the Southern District of Texas Federal Public Defender’s Office told the ABA Journal Gould does not speak to reporters....

The sentence is unique, says Michael Heiskell, a Texas attorney and president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Indeed, being a law student could have resulted in a longer sentence if the court was persuaded a defendant’s legal education helped them commit the crime, he adds.

“Kudos to her and her counsel for being able to convince the court to do this. Hopefully, this gives her the motivation to complete her JD. Maybe her story resonated with the judge since he is obviously an attorney,” says Heiskell, a former state and federal prosecutor who does criminal defense work.

According to Heiskell, credit for time served is unusual in drug cases involving delivery, and the sentencing range for Madill’s conviction is between 87 and 108 months.  He adds that a purpose of the federal sentencing guidelines is to avoid disparities, so Madill’s sentence may be useful for defendants with cases similar to hers.  “You would want to make the argument of the courts being consistent in its sentencing for cases such as this. If I had a situation where my client was learning to be a plumber, electrician, etc., I would cite this case,” Heiskell says.

The ABA Journal reporter called me about this  case; I mentioned that, given that the plea was entered in 2019 and then the sentence was not imposed until 2023, it seems quite likely the defendant provided some cooperation in exchange for a reduced sentence. The article does not quote me on that point, but does highlight some of my other speculations for the very special law-school-completion condition of supervision.

For those so interested, here is the exact language in the sentencing entry from Chief Judge Crane: "You must continue to participate and complete an educational program designed to receive a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree." I joked to the ABA Journal reporter that, in some quarters, this condition might be viewed as "cruel and unusual punishment." That quote also did not make the article,  But now that the piece is published, I am eager to hear reactions to this very lawyerly federal sentence.

February 4, 2023 at 09:16 PM | Permalink


Seriously? For a woman who indirectly has probably killed people, or could have, if she wasn’t caught?

It’s hilarious how people claim being a felon is a lifelong punishment because you are held back from getting gainful employment, yet she can enter the bar.

Under the right governor or President, she will become a judge.

I’m sure she will be getting speaking fees and job offers from law schools around the country. You know, because she is a “hero.”

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Feb 5, 2023 2:10:13 AM

This gives me hope. A young relative of mine made the biggest mistake of his life and got into drug trafficking, and of course started using harder drugs - the same ones he was distributing. He was a college student at the time, and school was super hard for him because of learning disabilities. Plus, he couldn't navigate the social scene and make friends because he's on the autism spectrum. He was arrested, and is now expecting sentencing. It's been almost a year since his arrest, and he's been out on bail the whole time during which he's gone to two residential rehabs and continued his college studies. Now that he is sober, he realized the gravity of his prior actions. He is deeply remorseful and regrets what he's done to others and to himself. It would be such a shame to imprison him now that he's actually a law abiding and most importantly sober person. I hope his lawyers see this case and bring it up to the judge, and that the judge exercises the authority to allow him complete his degree.

Posted by: Anna | Feb 5, 2023 3:38:06 AM

20+ years ago when I practiced law in Atlanta, there was an interesting case involving a young woman who had been involved in her teens with her then-boyfriend in committing two bank robberies. She did her time and then became a star law school student (top 5 G.P.A. in her class). With knowledge of her background, she was hired as a summer associate by one of Atlanta's largest law firms, and then received a permanent job offer from them. There was much controversy and disagreement about whether she should be permitted to sit for the Georgia Bar exam because of her prior felony conviction. Ultimately, she took the Georgia Bar exam, passed it, and was admitted to practice. The facts working in her favor were how young she was at the time she committed the crimes, and how she had clearly turned her entire life around since then. America can and should remain a country where people receive second chances. The alternative is to throw away people's lives, which is just cruel. How much punishment is enough? Why should people work to turn their lives around, if they receive no reward for it? If we want former felons to become productive members of society, we must give them incentives to improve.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Feb 5, 2023 7:44:50 AM

Jim, your comments reminded me that it was nearly 20 years ago that Prez GW Bush said this in his 2004 State of the Union Address: "America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."

Notably, President George W. Bush appointed Chief Judge Randy Crane to the federal bench back in 2002.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 5, 2023 9:48:49 AM

Tarls, bear in mind what Justice Rehnquist said some years ago: "it has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue.” Koon v. U.S., 518 U.S. 81, 113 (1996), that

Posted by: Anon | Feb 5, 2023 6:20:54 PM

That was Justice Kennedy writing the opinion for the Court in Koon. CJ Rehnquist did join the opinion.

Posted by: Doug B | Feb 6, 2023 12:13:10 AM

Truth be told, I was involved in a similar case during my career as a USPO - defendant was facing 120 mand min for a meth conspiracy, but she cooperated and was looking at closer to 4-5 years - she was young, gainfully employed at a large company who not only knew of her pending charges when they hired her, but fully supported her during the sentencing phase. I initially recommended a prison sentence, but sentencing was delayed for close to a year because of her pending cooperation. When others in the conspiracy pled out knowing she was scheduled to testify in their trial, I changed my rec in chambers with the Judge. It certainly helped that she was gainfully employed and had successfully completed drug treatment too. Fortunately, the Judge agreed and she too was given a time served sentence and a short TSR term. You have to sentence the individual and really look hard at the 3553(a) factors.

Posted by: atomicfrog | Feb 6, 2023 7:40:57 AM

Sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me.

Posted by: A | Feb 6, 2023 10:55:37 AM


His sentence fair?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 6, 2023 3:21:23 PM

Not sure what "fair" means here. I can recall cases involving more extreme conduct producing much longer sentences. And google got me to a florida case with seemingly somewhat similar facts producing a somewhat similar outcome: https://www.local10.com/news/2015/02/12/jonathan-bleiweiss-gets-plea-deal-after-victims-refuse-to-testify/

Maybe that all need to be sentenced to law school!!

Posted by: Doug B | Feb 6, 2023 4:13:39 PM


The specifics of this case are this.

If someone willingly sold or was trafficking baby food that may be laced with arsenic, he would go to prison and likely never see the light of day.

This woman was trafficking a substance she knew damn well might be (very likely) laced with Fentanyl, if the cocaine isn’t bad enough.

We aren’t talking about a kid selling pot out of his trunk.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Feb 7, 2023 1:38:35 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB