Monday, January 27, 2020

Sixth Circuit panel declares one-day prison sentence (plus 10 years on supervised release) for large child porn possession substantively unreasonable

In a series of rulings in recent years, most notably United States v. Bistline, the Sixth Circuit has found sentences for child porn possession that lacked some significant prison time to be unreasonable.  Another such ruling was handed down this past on Friday in United States v. Demma, No. 18-4143 (6th Cir. Jan 24, 2020) (available here).  The 15-page panel ruling, authored by Judge Gilman, gets started this way: "This is yet another case raising the issue of whether a one-day sentence for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography is reasonable. For the reasons set forth below, we determine that it is not."  The full opinion is worth a read, and here are some key passages:

At the sentencing hearing, the district court focused almost entirely on Demma’s individual characteristics in deciding not to impose a term of incarceration. It relied, in particular, on the testimony of Dr. Peterson and Dr. Tennenbaum, both of whom opined that Demma’s use of child pornography was directly caused by his service in the military and his resulting PTSD.

To be sure, the district court did not err by recognizing Demma’s military service and PTSD diagnosis under § 3553(a)(1) as considerations relevant to his sentence.  See United States v. Reilly, 662 F.3d 754, 760 (6th Cir. 2011) (explaining that the defendant’s military service and lack of criminal history were “permissible considerations in the ‘variance’ determination under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)”).  But the court in the present case gave these considerations unreasonable weight in deciding to vary downwards to an essentially noncustodial sentence....

Moreover, in focusing on the role of Demma’s military service as purportedly causing his crimes, the district court cast Demma more as the victim than the perpetrator, stating that Demma’s crimes were “the result of his voluntary service to his community and his country” and “an unintended consequence” of his decision to serve in the Army.  This court has explained, however, that “[k]nowing possession of child pornography . . . is not a crime that happens to a defendant.”  Bistline I, 665 F.3d 758, 765 (6th Cir. 2012)....

Our overall conclusion is that, based on the totality of the circumstances, the district court weighed some factors under § 3553(a) too heavily and gave insufficient weight to others in determining Demma’s sentence.  This is not to say that some other defendant possessing far fewer and less offensive images over a much shorter period of time might justify such an extreme downward variance, but that is not Demma’s case.  As this court noted in United States v. Elmore, 743 F.3d 1068 (6th Cir. 2014), a United States Sentencing Commission report states that “fully 96.6 percent of first-time child-pornography-possession convictions led to at least some prison time.” Id. at 1076 (emphasis in original).  We find no basis in the record for Demma to not become part of this overwhelming statistic.  

January 27, 2020 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS dismisses Walker ACCA case after death of petitioner (and after robust amicus efforts)

As noted in this post, back in November the Supreme Court granted cert in Walker v. United States to consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed with only a reckless mens rea can qualify as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Even more than the average ACCA case, the Walker case caught my attention because it involved an elderly man, James Walker, who received 15 years in prison under ACCA based on his possession of 13 bullets that he had found while cleaning a house.

Though the cert grant in Walker involved ACCA statutory interpretation concerning predicate prior offenses, I have long been troubled by any application of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term to simple possession of a small amount of ammunition.  (Indeed, long-time readers may recall I helped file an amicus brief in the Sixth Circuit and another amicus brief in support of a cert petition in a similar case, US v. Young, a few years ago.)  After seeing the cert grant in Walker, I reached out to some law professor colleagues and we filed earlier this month this SCOTUS amicus brief in US v. Walker, and here is part of the brief's Summary of Argument:

This Court’s interpretation of the reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), if properly informed by constitutional principles, must avoid application to Petitioner of the ACCA’s fifteen-year mandatory minimum prison term based on his possession of thirteen bullets in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Because mere possession of ammunition is the most passive of crimes — in fact, most States do not even criminalize this behavior and it almost never results in severe punishment — a mandatory fifteen-year prison term is arguably disproportionately harsh.  That Petitioner possessed a small amount of ammunition, that he lacked any vicious or menacing mens rea, and that his prior convictions are decades old serve as additional factors suggesting that a mandatory minimum fifteen-year federal sentence for Petitioner’s offense is constitutionally suspect under any and all jurisprudential approaches to the Eighth Amendment.

As this Court has explained, the “canon of constitutional avoidance is an interpretive tool, counseling that ambiguous statutory language be construed to avoid serious constitutional doubts.” F.C.C. v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 556 U.S. 502, 516 (2009)....  Given extensive litigation over what predicate offenses qualify for ACCA’s enhanced penalties, there is little question that this Court confronts ambiguous statutory language in this case.  In turn, because any sound approach to the Eighth Amendment suggests serious constitutional doubts about the application of a fifteen-year mandatory sentence for “one of the most passive felonies a person could commit.”  Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 296 (1983), the canon of constitutional avoidance provides support for the narrower interpretation of ACCA advanced by Petitioner.  Further, the absence of a modern Court application of the Eighth Amendment to a federal non-capital adult sentence suggests that this constitutional right is precisely the kind of constitutional norm that cautions judicial restraint when interpreting an ambiguous statute.

As this case highlights, broad interpretations of ACCA present a heightened risk of constitutionally questionable mandatory minimum sentences.  This Court should limit that risk by adopting the ACCA interpretation put forward by the Petitioner.

Notably, though I believe our amicus brief was the only one to raise Eighth Amendment issues, another half dozen amicus briefs were filed earlier this month supporting the petitioner.

But, sadly, petitioner's counsel filed this notice last week reporting that James Walker passed away on January 22, 2020.  In accord with its practice, the Supreme Court via this morning's order list, dismissed the writ of certiorari in this case.  I suspect that SCOTUS will before too long take up a replacement case to address the ACCA statutory issue, though I sincerely hope there are not a lot of other cases in the pipeline that also involve application of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term to simple possession of a small amount of ammunition.  If there are, I surely will continue to complain about this extreme sentencing provision.

January 27, 2020 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 24, 2020

Reversing state precedent, Florida Supreme Court cuts back on reach of SCOTUS Sixth Amendment capital ruling in Hurst

A little more than four years ago, the US Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Florida's death penalty procedure in Hurst v. Florida, No. 14–7505 (S. Ct. Jan. 12, 2016) (available here), and that ruling raised a host of tough questions about what Hurst meant for roughly 400 persons then on death row in Florida.  I have not been able to follow closely all the Florida state rulings seeking to apply Hurst over the last four years, but a helpful reader made sure I did not miss the latest consequential ruling from the Florida Supreme Court, Florida v. Poole, No. SC18-245 (Fla. Jan. 23, 2020) (available here), which was handed down yesterday.  This local press article, headlined "Florida Supreme Court says unanimous jury not needed for death penalty in major reversal," provides some of the details and context:

In a stunning reversal of a previous decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a unanimous jury should not be required to sentence someone to death. Federal law, and every state that has the death penalty except Alabama, require unanimous juries for the death penalty, rather than a simple majority.

Florida law used to only require that a majority of the jury make a recommendation to the judge on whether to sentence a defendant to die. The judge then issues a final ruling based on that recommendation. But after a decision by the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 struck down that model in a case called Hurst v. State, the Legislature changed its law to mandate a unanimous jury.

But Thursday’s ruling opens the door for state lawmakers, if they wish, to return Florida to one of the few states that don’t require a unanimous jury to impose the death penalty. “It is no small matter for one Court to conclude that a predecessor Court has clearly erred,” the majority opinion of four justices states. But, “in this case we cannot escape the conclusion that ... our Court in Hurst v. State got it wrong.”

In the majority opinion, the justices wrote that their own court’s prior decision was made in error, because the justices at the time had misinterpreted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found Florida’s death sentencing process unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling did not, in fact, mean that a jury had to unanimously sentence a person to death, they wrote. Rather, that court only said that a jury had to unanimously find that a defendant was eligible for the death penalty, because of so-called “aggravating factors,” such as if the crime was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” or was committed against a child under 12. But the final decision of whether a defendant should be sentenced to die does not require unanimity, Florida’s highest court said.

What does this decision mean? For one, it means the man, Mark Anthony Poole, who brought this case to the Supreme Court after he was sentenced to death with only the majority of a jury, will once again get the death penalty, after his sentence was previously vacated. He has been convicted of first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, sexual battery, armed burglary and armed robbery.

There are 157 death row cases where the person was eligible for a new sentence under the 2016 ruling. Since then, those cases have been going through various stages of re-sentencing, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center....

In a blistering dissent, Justice Jorge Labarga said the decision by the majority will return Florida to its status as “an absolute outlier." He was the lone dissent. There are currently only five justices on Florida’s Supreme Court, because two of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ three appointments were recently promoted to federal courts.

“In the strongest possible terms, I dissent,” Labarga wrote. “Death is indeed different. When the government metes out the ultimate sanction, it must do so narrowly and in response to the most aggravated and least mitigated of murders. ... this Court has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida."

Labarga also noted that Florida “holds the shameful national title as the state with the most death row exonerations” — all the more reason to keep the unanimous jury safeguard in place. Twenty-nine people on death row in Florida have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Responding to Labarga’s dissent, Justice Alan Lawson wrote that this decision does not change Florida’s state law, which requires the unanimous jury. “The majority today decides constitutional questions, not political ones,” Lawson wrote. “If the Florida Legislature considers changing (the law) to eliminate the requirement for a unanimous jury recommendation before a sentence of death can be imposed, the fact that this legislative change would make Florida an ‘outlier’ will surely be considered in the ensuing political debate.”

I presume the capital defendant here, Anthony Poole, will appeal this ruling to the US Supreme Court.  Notably, SCOTUS is actively considering jury unanimity issues this term in Ramos v. Louisiana and capital sentencing procedure in McKinney v. Arizona.  So, stay tuned.

January 24, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 20, 2020

SCOTUS to contemplate yet another level of ACCA jurisprudential hell with Shular oral argument

In this post a few years ago, I asked "At just what level of Dante's Inferno does modern ACCA jurisprudence reside?".   That post and that question was prompted by the headaches I get when trying to make sense of the the modern federal court jurisprudence over application of the Armed Career Criminal Act as it relates to whether a defendant's prior conviction qualities as a "violent felony."  But the US Supreme Court is due to hear oral argument tomorrow in Shular v. United States wherein the petitioner is presenting this question:

Whether the determination of a “serious drug offense” under the Armed Career Criminal Act requires the same categorical approach used in the determination of a “violent felony” under the Act.

Over at SCOTUSblog in this post titled "Argument preview: Category is: the categorical approach," Leah Litman sorts through the arguments made by the petitioner and the government.  Here are parts of the start and the end of her intricate discussion:

Most of the Supreme Court’s ACCA cases address the meaning of ACCA’s various definitions of “violent felony.”  But Shular’s case concerns the meaning of an ACCA provision that defines “serious drug offense.”  In Section 924(e)(2)(A)(ii), Congress defined a “serious drug offense” to include an “offense under State law, involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance … for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.”

The probation office determined that Shular’s prior Florida convictions were serious drug offenses and recommended that Shular be sentenced under the ACCA.  Shular objected, arguing that Congress defined “serious drug offense” as a series of generic offenses (manufacturing, distributing or possessing with intent) that do not match Florida’s drug offense.  (Specifically, Shular argued that the generic definitions of the drug offenses contain mens rea, or criminal intent, elements, while Florida’s drug laws do not.)....

There is a good amount of text and structure for the Supreme Court to work with in this case.  But the court may be interested in the implications of both sides’ interpretations. Shular is offering the court a tried-and-true approach that has come under fire in recent years.  The government is asking the court to venture into new terrain, but also does not want the court to consider some of the harder questions and greyer areas that might result from the government’s approach.  Oral argument could allow the justices to test out how the government’s proposed interpretation might work.

January 20, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Georgia parole board commutes death sentences shortly before today's scheduled execution

As reported in this AP piece, "Georgia’s parole board on Thursday spared the life of a prisoner just hours ahead of his scheduled execution, commuting his sentence to life without the possibility of parole."  Here is more:

Jimmy Fletcher Meders, 58, had been scheduled to receive a lethal injection at 7 p.m. Thursday at the state prison in Jackson. But the State Board of Pardons and Paroles released its decision granting him clemency around 1 p.m.

Meders is only the sixth Georgia death row inmate to have a sentence commuted by the parole board since 2002. The last to have a sentence commuted was Tommy Lee Waldrip, who was spared execution on July 9, 2014....

Meders was convicted of murder and sentenced to die for the October 1987 killing of convenience store clerk Don Anderson in coastal Glynn County.

The parole board, which is the only authority in Georgia that can commute a death sentence, held a closed-door clemency hearing for Meders on Wednesday.  According to the commutation order, the board considered Meders' lack of a criminal record prior to Anderson's killing, the fact that he had only one minor infraction during 30 years on death row, the jury's desire during deliberations to impose a life without parole sentence and the support for clemency from the jurors who are still living....

Meders was sentenced to death in 1989, four years before a change in the law that allowed a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for capital cases. In the clemency application submitted to the parole board, his lawyers argued that it was clear that the jury wanted that option.  The application cited a note the jurors sent to the judge after 20 minutes of deliberations: “If the Jury recommends that the accused be sentence to life imprisonment, can the Jury recommend that the sentence be carried out without Parole??”

Meders' lawyers also gathered sworn statements from the six jurors who are still alive and able to remember the deliberations.  They all said they would have chosen life without parole if it had been an option and supported clemency for Meders.

Additionally, an analysis by Meders' attorneys of Georgia cases for which the death penalty was sought between 2008 and 2018 shows that in cases like his, with a single victim and few aggravating factors, juries don't choose the death penalty today and prosecutors rarely seek it in such cases.

The official commutation is available at this link.

January 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Splitting with other state courts, Georgia Supreme Court upholds use of preponderance standard in LWOP sentencing determination for juve murderer

Yesterday the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a procedural attack on a life without parole sentence given to a 17-year-old murderer and created an interesting little split on the application of Miller and Montgomery in the process.  The unanimous ruling in White v. Georgia, No. S19A1004 (Ga. Jan. 13, 2020) (available here), covers a couple of issues, and here is the key passage dealing with the procedure for imposing a LWOP sentence on a juvenile murderer after Miller and Montgomery:

White argues that, as a matter of due process, the State must prove permanent incorrigibility beyond a reasonable doubt in order for the trial court to sentence him to life without parole.  At oral argument, White’s counsel cited Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (96 SCt 893, 47 LE2d 18) (1976), which some courts have relied on to conclude that due process demands a finding of permanent incorrigibility beyond a reasonable doubt before a juvenile may be sentenced to life without parole. See Davis v. State, 415 P3d 666, 682 (Wy. 2018); Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A3d 410, 454-455 (Pa. 2017). But those decisions ignore United States Supreme Court precedent. That Court has made clear that Mathews does not apply in the context of a state criminal case.  See Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 443 (112 SCt 2572, 120 LEd2d 353) (1992) (“[T]he Mathews balancing test does not provide the appropriate framework for assessing the validity of state procedural rules which . . . are part of the criminal process.”).  Rather, a state criminal procedure is not prohibited by the federal Due Process Clause “unless it offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Id. at 445 (citation and punctuation omitted).  The United States Supreme Court has held that “application of the preponderance standard at sentencing generally satisfies due process.” United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 156 (117 SCt 633, 136 LE2d 554) (1997).  And no Supreme Court decision of which we are aware — much less that White cites — holds that juvenile sentencing of the sort at issue here is an exception to that rule.  White has not shown that the burden of proof applied by the trial court here violated his rights under the federal Due Process Clause.

I do not know if Dakota Lamar White might appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the paragraph above spotlights the clean split in state courts over this issue. of course, SCOTUS is now working toward a decision in the Malvo case dealing with retroactive application in Miller, and it is possible (though not really all that likely) that other Miller application issues could get addressed directly or indirectly in that coming ruling.

January 14, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 13, 2020

Rounding up previews of SCOTUS oral argument in "Bridgegate" case

More than six years after an infamous partial closing of the George Washington Bridge, and more than three years after a few staffers to then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were convicted of federal crimes resulting from this incident, the US Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument tomorrow in Kelly v. United States.   This affair became known as "Bridgegate," and here is how the case's question is presented in the initial  petition for certiorari:  "Does a public official 'defraud' the government of its property by advancing a 'public policy reason' for an official decision that is not her subjective 'real reason' for making the decision?"

Though this case is more about the reach and application of federal criminal statutes than about sentencing, white-collar cases (and political cases) are often worth watching closely because of how they can skew, both jurists and advocates, the usual political divisions of who is pro-defendant and pro-government.  In light of that reality, I am especially interested in how the newer Justices will engage in this case.  Helpfully, Kelly has generated lots of previews from others, so I can be content here to do a quick round-up:

And back in September, SCOTUSblog had a little on-line symposium on the case, which can be found at this link.

January 13, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

"Cuomo's Clemency and Cruelty of False Hope"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective commentary authored by Steven Zeidman appearing in the Gotham Gazette. Here are excerpts:

In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a project to provide pro bono legal services to prisoners seeking clemency.  The governor explained that this was “a critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New York,” and that he sought to “identify those deserving of a second chance and to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality.”

Two years later, the governor re-emphasized his interest in clemency via a press release stating that “Family members of individuals serving prison sentences are encouraged to apply for clemency on behalf of their family member.”

This expressed interest in clemency, more specifically clemency in the form of a commutation of sentence, reverberated across New York’s patchwork of 50 state prisons.  Men and women serving lengthy sentences with no chance of ever obtaining their freedom now had hope.  People who spent their time wasting away in their cells began to re-engage with programs.  Family visits reflected renewed promise of the possibility of unification beyond the prison walls.

In short order, CUNY Law School’s clemency project received more than 1,800 requests for help with clemency applications.

Yet not a single person had their sentence commuted in 2019 despite an abundance of robust and meritorious applications.  Then on Friday, January 3, 2020 at 6:15 p.m., an auspicious time for any gubernatorial announcement, Governor Cuomo revealed that clemency requests for commutations had been granted to two people.  Two people out of thousands of applicants.

Apparently, the promise of making clemency an “accessible and tangible reality” was nothing more than a cruel, soul-crushing hoax....

In present terms, clemency is the most readily available means to repair the nationally acknowledged crisis of mass incarceration that has devastated communities of color.  Mass incarceration is not just about unnecessarily incarcerating masses of people, but rather unnecessarily keeping masses of people in prison for decades.  Clemency is a means to address that brutal reality.

Furthermore, while clemency is usually cast as an act of mercy, we all stand to gain when clemency is granted to deserving people.  They are reunited with their families.  They care for aging parents.  They are the true credible messengers who mentor young people who might be on the wrong path.  They have jobs and contribute to the economy. And the taxpayer no longer needs to pay for the medical care required for older people in prison, among other costs. Liberal application of clemency makes us all safer and better.

Many of the men and women who submitted clemency applications based on renewed hope inspired by Governor Cuomo’s words are now saying that false hope is worse than no hope.  The wife of one of those men put it best in a tweet: “My husband wrote that he, his good friends, and more than 100 others sat on the edge of their metal beds all month [of December] waiting...PLEASE recognize the strides these men have made and show them mercy and use your redeeming power as the leader of this state.”

While clemency is typically cast as an end of year event consistent with holiday sentiments of mercy, charity, and forgiveness, surely there must be room for mercy, charity, and forgiveness more than once a year.  And surely, there are more than two people among the 45,000 in New York State prisons who deserve the measure of mercy afforded by a sentence commutation.

I am pleased to see this effort to call out Gov Cuomo for talking the talk, but then failing to walk the walk on clemency. The same also can and should be said about Prez Trump's clemency record. It is now more than 19 months since Prez Trump started talking about reviewing thousands of cases for possible clemency relief, but he has only granted a handful since then.

Prior related post:

January 12, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Despite creating lots of clemency hope, NY Gov Cuomo delivers little clemency relief

This New York Daily News article, headlined "Gov. Cuomo grants clemency to abused upstate woman convicted of murder as advocates call for more action," reports on the clemency grants issued yesterday by New York Andrew Cuomo. Here are the details:

An upstate woman convicted of murder after suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband had her 50-year prison sentence commuted by Gov. Cuomo on Friday. Monica Szlekovics, along with her abusive husband, was found guilty of a 1996 murder in Rochester.

Szlikovics, 42, had a traumatic childhood and endured “extreme, ongoing physical and psychological abuse from her husband,” said a statement from Cuomo’s office. She suffered from complex post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma bonding when her husband forced her to take part in the slaying, the statement said.

In her more than two decades behind bars, Szlekovics has expressed remorse for her role in the murder, completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology, worked as a clerk for the prison college program and participated in domestic violence classes. She also has the support of domestic violence groups and women’s justice advocates....

Cuomo also commuted the sentence of Ryan Brice, 32, who turned to crime to make money after his family lost their home and possessions from flooding during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Albany cops caught Brice trying to raise cash by selling a loaded assault rifle for $1,200, leading him to plead guilty to a charge of criminal weapons possession. He was sentenced to prison as a violent offender — even though he never committed any violent acts, the governor’s office said.

Cuomo pardoned nine others convicted of a variety of charges who have remained crime-free since serving their time. Most of those pardoned were convicted of misdemeanor drug charges. He called those who he granted clemency "deserving New Yorkers who have proven their remorse and undergone successful rehabilitation.”

Advocacy groups say Cuomo has failed to follow through on promises to assist more convicted criminals who have demonstrated remorse and accountability. The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign issued a scathing statement Friday calling on Cuomo to show mercy to more of the thousands of prisoners who have applied to have their sentences shortened....

Since 2011, Cuomo has commuted the sentences of only 21 people — most famously that of Judith Clark, who drove a getaway car in the 1981 Brink’s robbery that left three people dead. The commutation in 2016 move made Clark eligible for parole; she was released from prison last June. In 2018, Cuomo issued around 30 pardons, mostly to immigrants who were at risk of deportation. He also commuted the sentences of nine prisoners.

The official statement from Gov Cuomo about the 11 clemency grants can be found here, and the statement from The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign can be found here. Here is an excerpt from that later statement:

As New York celebrates a new year and decade, thousands of New Yorkers continue to languish behind prison bars in 2020 because the governor continually refuses to use his executive clemency power in a meaningful way.  While governors in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, California, and other states have recently used their executive power to promote freedom and reunite families, Cuomo continues to keep people in despair and families apart.

In 2015, Cuomo invited pro bono attorneys to help incarcerated people put together clemency petitions with the goal of granting more clemencies to worthy candidates.  More than 6,000 New Yorkers in prison responded by applying for clemency in ways that demonstrated their remorse, accountability, many accomplishments, family and reentry support, and more.  Yet to date, Cuomo has granted only 21 total commutations, an average of two per year since taking office in 2011.

If New York is to be a leader in the movement to end mass incarceration and the nationwide effort to resist President Trump’s racist agenda, then we need a progressive governor to show bold courage and leadership. Justice for one or two individuals isn’t enough.

More than a few notable folks have used Twitter (such as Profs Rachel Barkow and Steve Zeidman) to expresss similar disappointment at Gov Cuomo's failure to walk the clemency walk after having long talked up his clemency powers.

January 4, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Deep dive into parole history and modern parole practice in California

The New York Times Magazine has this very long new piece on parole under this full headline "Can You Talk Your Way Out of a Life Sentence?: California is giving a second chance to thousands of inmates who had no hope of parole. But first they have to prove to a panel of strangers that they’ve truly changed." The lengthy piece merits a full read, and here is a snippet from its early sections:

The modern idea of basing a prisoner’s release on evidence of his or her rehabilitated character can be traced to 1870, when the inaugural meeting of the newly formed American Prison Association took place in Cincinnati. There, representatives from 25 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada adopted a declaration of principles, among them that prisoners should be rewarded for good conduct and that a “prisoner’s destiny should be placed, measurably, in his own hands.” To achieve this, they argued, “sentences limited only by satisfactory proof of reformation should be substituted for those measured by mere lapse of time.”

By 1922, nearly every state in the union had adopted indeterminate sentencing, in which judges hand out sentences that are formulated as a range of years — a minimum and a maximum amount of time to be served. The responsibility for deciding exactly when in this range an inmate had been rehabilitated enough to be released was vested in state parole boards. (The federal penal system has its own early-release process.)

Over the next half century, it became clear that there was an intrinsic tension between the high-minded notion that inmates should be in control of their own destinies, by deciding whether or not to reform, and the practical difficulty of determining whether they had actually done so. By the 1970s, the discretionary parole system was under attack. Liberals argued that a parole board’s broad leeway allowed racial and class biases to rule unchecked. Conservatives argued that parole boards were releasing dangerous felons who then went on to commit more crimes. A rising national crime rate made the public increasingly dubious of the paternalistic promises of a rehabilitative system.

Over time, some states got rid of parole entirely, while others drastically increased the minimum amount of time an inmate would need to serve before becoming eligible to go before a board. In Georgia, for example, inmates who received a life sentence for a serious crime committed before January 1995 became eligible for parole after seven years. Those who have received a life sentence for a crime committed after June 2006 don’t become eligible for parole until they’ve served 30 years.

But discretionary parole continues to exist in most states, even if it’s often limited to a small pool of longtime inmates whose lengthy periods of incarceration have consigned them to near-oblivion. Conducted by panels of political appointees with varying levels of professional expertise, little accountability and almost unlimited discretion, parole hearings rarely garner attention except when a high-profile inmate comes up for parole.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that inmates who have been sent to prison for life have no due-process right to be released unless the wording of their state’s parole statute created one. In the absence of such rights, parole decisions can be remarkably arbitrary. A 2017 survey of paroling authorities by the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School found that 41 percent of parole boards never make public the logic behind a parole denial, and at least seven states don’t require their parole boards to provide a written explanation for their denial to the parole-seeking inmate. Prisoners are often unable to see the file that the parole board bases its decisions on — in Alabama and North Carolina, inmates are not even allowed to be present for the hearing. While every state except Kentucky and New Mexico allows inmates to have a lawyer at their hearing, very few states will pay for one, which means only a tiny minority of inmates have a lawyer with them at their hearings. “You have about 3 percent of the procedural rights before a parole board as you would in a courtroom,” says Kevin Reitz, the Robina Institute’s former co-director.

All of this makes discretionary parole a far cry from the equation proposed in 1870, in which demonstrated behaviors would result in predictable outcomes. Instead, Reitz has found that parole commissioners are dominated by fears of releasing an inmate who goes on to commit a terrible crime. That’s exactly what happened on March 19, 2013, when a parolee, Evan Ebel, murdered Tom Clements, the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections. When he interviewed parole board members in Colorado, Reitz says, he found the specter of that murder loomed over every decision they made: “Board members told me, ‘If I let someone out and he does something horrible, that’s on me.’ ” So parole-board members have little motivation to release inmates, no matter how deserving they seem.

January 2, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Illinois Gov pardons more than 11,000 people convicted of low-level marijuana crimes

As reported in this local article, "On the day before recreational cannabis becomes legal in Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced he was pardoning more than 11,000 people who had been convicted of low-level marijuana crimes." Here is more:

“When Illinois’ first adult use cannabis shops open their doors tomorrow, we must all remember that the purpose of this legislation is not to immediately make cannabis widely available or to maximize product on the shelves, that’s not the main purpose, that will come with time,” Pritzker said to a crowd at Trinity United Church of Christ on the Far South Side. “But instead the defining purpose of legalization is to maximize equity for generations to come.”

Pritzker, who has touted the social equity elements of the recreational pot law he signed this summer, was joined Tuesday by state, county and local leaders including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has already begun the process of clearing the records of those with low-level marijuana convictions in her jurisdiction.

The 11,017 people pardoned by Pritzker will receive notification about their cases, all of which are from outside Cook County, by mail. The pardon means convictions involving less than 30 grams of marijuana will be automatically expunged.

Pritzker and other elected officials said they believe Illinois is the first state to include a process for those previously convicted of marijuana offenses to seek relief upon legalization of cannabis. “This is justice,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. “And this is what equity is all about, righting wrongs and leveling the playing field.”...

Officials estimate there are hundreds of thousands of people with marijuana-related convictions in Illinois who could be eligible for relief. Those with criminal convictions can get a copy of their criminal record and start the process, though many of the cases will be automatically expunged by the state in the next couple of years.

The Illinois State Police are searching criminal records to identify eligible cases, which are then sent to the state’s Prisoner Review Board. After the board reviews the cases, the names of those eligible for relief are sent to the governor’s office to be considered for pardon. After Pritzker issues the pardon, the attorney general’s office automatically files petitions on the person’s behalf to expunge the records.

State’s attorney offices across the state are also being notified of eligible cases, which can then be vacated by a local judge. In Cook County, prosecutors are working with California-based Code for America to search for convictions involving less than 30 grams of cannabis. Those cases have resulted in both misdemeanor and Class 4 felony convictions....

Individuals with cases involving 30 to 500 grams of cannabis can also be eligible for relief, but the process won’t be automatic, instead requiring the person to file motions to vacate the conviction, according to the governor’s office.

While a pardon forgives a conviction, an expungement erases it from the public record. When a judge vacates a conviction, it overturns it as if it never happened. When a case is expunged, the case is hidden from public view, but it could be viewed by law enforcement if they obtained a court order.

Many of the elected officials noted that enforcement of marijuana-related offenses have disproportionately affected minorities. The Rev. Michael Pfleger, of St. Sabina Church on the South Side, said the elected officials on the stage had done their job, but it would be up to business leaders in the new industry to provide financial mobility for those individuals. “Employ these individuals," Pfleger said to the crowd. “Give them a job.”

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., of the 27th Ward, noted that a pardon for an armed robbery conviction decades ago changed his life and allowed him to serve in public office. He invoked Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to describe how he felt when his record was expunged and how others might feel when they hear news of the pardons. “Free at last,” Burnett said. “Free at last. Thank God almighty, they are free at last.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

December 31, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 27, 2019

Fitting criticisms of unfit attack on Washington DC's proposed Second Look Amendment Act

The revised sentencing provisions of the ALI's Model Penal Code include a section, titled "Modification of Long-Term Prison Sentences," calling upon jurisdictions to allow resentencing of all individuals sentenced to long terms after they have served 15 years in prison.  Senator Cory Booker has introduced a federal Second Look Act which would allow all persons to petition for resentencing after having served at least 10 years in prison.

Against backdrop, the proposed Second Look Amendment Act being considered by the Washington DC Council might look quite modest; it will allow only persons serving lengthy sentences who committed their crimes before age 25 to petition for a reduced sentence after having spending 15 years in prison (and DC law already allows this for those who committed their crimes before age 18).  But this recent Washington Post editorial, headlined "A bill to reduce sentences for violent D.C. felons goes too far," launches an immodest attack on the proposal. The very headline of this editorial had me troubled, as the DC bill does not itself actually reduce any sentences, it just provides a chance for some individual offenders serving extremely long terms to seek sentence reconsideration.

The text of the WaPo editorial is no more accurate.  In a closing paragraph, for example, the editorial asserts that "the measure would embrace a radical rejection of transparency in sentencing and straight dealings with victims."  Huh?  Given that this proposal is less ambitious than what the MPC now urges, there is really nothing "radical" about what this bill proposes.  Plus, the operation of the proposed sentence reconsideration would by entirely "transparent" and should operate with crime victims having an opportunity to be involved in sentencing reconsideration.   (Indeed, an article linked in the WaPo editorial highlights that some victims have been supportive of resentencings in the past.)

Helpfully, I have see two astute criminal justice commentators already busy on Twitter criticizing many more aspects of this WaPo editorial.  Scott Hechinger here has multiple tweets highlighting the problems in the language used throughout the editorial.  And John Pfaff here has multiple tweets highlighting how extreme US sentencing policies and practices are compared to the rest of the world.  Pfaff's tweet thread concludes with this fitting final thought: "the attitudes embodied in this editorial — the cruel punitiveness that doesn’t even require a trace of justification — is why we are where we are, and why we risk staying here indefinitely."

December 27, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 23, 2019

Another round of headlines highlighting continuing controversies surrounding former Kentucky Gov Bevin's pardon flourish

In this post nine days ago, I rounded up some representative headlines and stories covering former Kentucky Gov Matt Bevin's considerable and controversial clemency grants as he relinquished power in December.  As I mentioned before, there are many elements to what Bevin did with his clemency pen, and the resulting controversies have continued to rage.  Once again, I will try to use headlines and links to numerous pieces to provide even more flavor of the grants and some commentary that has followed:

From the Louisville Courier Journal, "Working weekends, late nights, Gov. Matt Bevin rushed to issue hundreds of pardons"

From the Louisville Courier Journal, "Former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin defends controversial pardons, blames outrage on 'political opportunism'"

From USA Today, "Republican mega-donor urged ex-Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to pardon convicted killer"

From the New York Times, "Matt Bevin Drew Outrage Over His Pardons. These Governors Have, Too."

From WHAS11, "Man pardoned by Bevin, gives back to Chickasaw community: Tod Moore created New Day Ministries while in prison and handed out new bikes to kids in time for Christmas"

From the Louisville Courier Journal, "Opinion: Feds should investigate child molesters pardoned by Bevin"

From the Lexington Herald Leader, Opinion: "Don’t let Bevin’s pardons slime the legislature’s important work on criminal justice reform"

From Patheos, "On Bevin’s Pardons and Prison Abolitionism"

I would need dozens more links to adequately cover all the important facets of this story, and so I will conclude with a link to this effective piece titled simply "A lawyer looks at Bevin’s pardons." The piece, which is authored by Jazmin Smith, merits a read in full and it starts and ends this way:

Kentucky is one of only three states that have no form of civil rights restoration by statute. If you listen to My Old Kentucky Podcast, you’ve only heard me say that 100 times. That’s why pardons, commutations, and executive orders are so important. Only our executive has the ability to restore a person’s rights....

A few things have been really frustrating about Pardon-Gate. Pardons are good and so many people are worthy of them. This negativity may make executives less willing to use their pardon power and I think the reaction, especially by those who claim to be progressive or passionate about criminal legal reform, is imprudent and bad for the reform movement.

The way the media treated the pardons is also upsetting. The NPR headline “On His Way Out, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin Pardons Murderers, Rapists, Hundreds More” is extremely unhelpful, as is the Courier-Journal article that decided the 12 “most controversial pardons.” Many stories in the media also featured only interviews from the prosecutors on the case, and of course, the prosecutor wants the person they prosecuted to be in prison. Choosing to feature only interviews from prosecutors in articles about pardon reactions is just bad and lazy journalism.

Finally, Matt Bevin pardoned many people who have turned their lives around and have done awesome work, like Amanda Hall at the ACLU, and that is getting overshadowed. Horrific comments and racial data aside, I’m still glad he pardoned these people. They all served time, and though maybe some were more deserving than others, I don’t think the Commonwealth is less safe than it was before.

While I think those pardons are good, Bevin is definitely not blameless. Pardoning your friend’s kid and people who financially supported you is a super easy way to get the media to attack you. The huge reaction has been frustrating, but Bevin is the one to blame for creating it. The fact remains that Kentucky is incarcerating people too often and for too long. Any limits on the pardon power that come from this will be a real shame.

December 23, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

After serving more than 13 years in federal prison, former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers secures compassionate release thanks to FIRST STEP Act

Regularly readers know that I have been regularly extolling the significance of the FIRST STEP Act's changes to the so-called compassionate release provisions of federal law. In many prior posts I have stressed the provision which now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons; this provision is such a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds, and perhaps many thousands, of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

Today, as reported in this Bloomberg piece, the highest-profile defendant to date has benefited from this FIRST STEP Act change: "Bernard Ebbers, the former WorldCom Inc. chief executive officer, was ordered freed from prison, almost eight years before he was due to be released." Here is more from the press piece:

A federal judge in Manhattan on Wednesday granted compassionate release to Ebbers, who is serving a 25-year sentence for an $11 billion fraud that bankrupted the company. U.S. District Judge Valerie E. Caproni said Ebbers’s health is failing and that letting him out early doesn’t minimize the impact of his punishment.

Relatives of the 78-year-old reacted with jubilation in court. “We’re elated and just very grateful not only for Mr. Ebbers but especially for his family,” lawyer Graham Carner said after the hearing. “All they wanted was for him to live out his time with them.”

Ebbers has served more than 13 years for overseeing the fraud, which was the biggest in U.S. history at the time. He was scheduled to be released in July 2028 with credit for good behavior. It isn’t immediately clear when he will leave prison.

Attorneys for Ebbers asked Caproni in September to free him due to his many medical problems, including macular degeneration that has left him legally blind and a heart condition that makes him vulnerable to cardiac arrest. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons had denied a request from Ebbers’s daughters for compassionate release under the 2018 First Step Act, which allows some federal inmates to be released if they are over 60 years old and face terminal illnesses.

While Caproni noted that records “suggest some exaggeration of his mental condition” that led her to believe Ebbers was trying to manipulate her, she also expressed concern that he’s malnourished and appears to have lost almost 60 pounds since last year.

Some of many prior related posts:

December 18, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Fifth Circuit joins others saying offense of conviction, not claims about underlying conduct, determines eligibility for retroactive relief under FIRST STEP Act

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a notable opinion from a Fifth Circuit panel yesterday in US v. Jackson, No. 19-20346 (5th Cir. Dec. 16, 2019) (available here).  The defendant in Jackson ultimately loses in his battle to benefit from the Fair Sentencing Act retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act, but in so doing the Fifth Circuit addresses an important eligibility war that has been ranging in courtrooms nationwide.  Here is part of the panel's discussion:

The first inquiry in evaluating a motion under section 404 is whether the defendant has a “covered offense.”  See FSA, § 404(a).  The FSA defines such an offense as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . that was committed before August 3, 2010.” Id.

The government’s view of the meaning of “covered offense” is less than clear.  At the district court, the government appeared to contend that Jackson’s offense wasn’t covered because the presentence investigation report (“PSR”) found him responsible for 402.2 grams of crack, meaning that he exceeded even the new 280-gram requirement.  But the government’s briefing on appeal seems to concede that Jackson’s offense is covered.

In other cases, the government has contended that “what counts as a covered offense necessarily turns on facts specific to the defendant’s offense, not limited to what was charged in the indictment.”  United States v. White, 2019 WL 3228335, at *2 (S.D. Tex. July 17, 2019) (quotation marks removed).  On that theory, if the jury convicts on a count requiring a showing of fifty or more grams, but the PSR later finds that, say, 500 grams were involved, then the defendant doesn’t have a “covered offense,” since the drug quantity as stated in the PSR exceeds even the new 280-gram threshold.  See id.

That approach doesn’t comport with the ordinary meaning of the statute, however.  As stated above, a “covered offense” is “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . that was committed before August 3, 2010.” FSA, § 404(a) (emphasis added). The “penalties clause” is the portion in italics. For the government’s approach from previous cases to work, the penalties clause must modify “violation,” not “Federal criminal statute.” But for at least three reasons, the better reading is that it modifies “Federal criminal statute.”  It follows that whether an offense is “covered” depends only on the statute under which the defendant was convicted....

We thus conclude that whether a defendant has a “covered offense” under section 404(a) depends only on the statute under which he was convicted.  If he was convicted of violating a statute whose penalties were modified by the Fair Sentencing Act, then he meets that aspect of a “covered offense.”  The only other circuits to have confronted these arguments agree.

December 17, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 13, 2019

Reviewing two notable SCOTUS sentencing oral arguments finishing up the 2019 calendar

I flagged here a few days ago the SCOTUSblog argument previews before SCOTUS talked to counsel Tuesday in Holguin-Hernandez v. U.S.No. 18-7739 and Wednesday in McKinney v. ArizonaNo. 18-1109.  The SCOTUSblog folks now have posted reviews of both the arguments, and here are links and their starts:

"Argument analysis: Court likely to rule that a defendant preserves appellate challenge to length of sentence merely by arguing for lower one, but precise wording of opinion will be important" by Rory Little:

Justice Byron White, who as a retired justice hired a law clerk named Neil Gorsuch, once wrote that “a prime function of this Court’s certiorari jurisdiction [is] to resolve” conflicts between the federal circuits.  Yesterday the court heard argument in Holguin-Hernandez v. United States to review a sentencing rule of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that is out of step with nine other circuits. The argument was unusually brief, just over 45 minutes, and the transcript reads as somewhat desultory.  It seems clear that the 5th Circuit will be reversed; indeed, one can wonder why the court even bothered with briefing and argument (but see below).  A need to fill the argument calendar?  Or perhaps Gorsuch, who asked no questions, is imbued with White’s circuit-split-correction spirit.  In any case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked the only really difficult question: “How do we write this opinion?” in order to offer the doctrinal “clarity” that the solicitor general has requested.

"Argument analysis: Justices debate impact of 'do-over' in capital case" by Amy Howe:

[On Wednesday] the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of James McKinney, who was sentenced to death for two murders in 1991.  After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit threw out McKinney’s death sentence four years ago, the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated it.  The state court first rejected McKinney’s argument that a jury, rather than a judge, should resentence him. It then concluded that the mitigating evidence — that is, the evidence why McKinney should not receive the death penalty — was not “sufficiently substantial” to warrant a lesser sentence.  Although it wasn’t entirely clear, after an hour of debate ..., McKinney appeared to face an uphill battle in convincing the justices to overturn the Arizona Supreme Court’s most recent ruling.

With the holiday season upon us, the Supreme Court now does not have any other oral arguments scheduled for a full month. When the Court is back to hearing arguments in January 2020, it will have on its calendar a notable white-collar crime case in Kelly v. US (January 14) and yet another of the never-ending ACCA cases with Shular v. US (January 21).

December 13, 2019 in Booker in the Circuits, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

"Second Looks & Criminal Legislation"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Michael Serota now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Essay explores the relationship between second look sentencing and retributive theory by focusing on the primary vehicle for authorizing and distributing punishment in most American jurisdictions: criminal legislation.  Looking beyond debates over the import of evolving norms to desert judgments, the Essay argues that the central retributive issue presented by post-conviction judicial sentencing reductions is whether the long-term punishments imposed by criminal courts live up to the proportionality standards of any time period. 

Using the District of Columbia’s criminal statutes as a case study, the Essay explains how three pervasive legislative flaws — statutory overbreadth, mandatory minima, and offense overlap — combine to support (and in some instances require) the imposition of extreme sentences upon actors of comparatively minimal culpability.  The Essay argues that this code-based sentencing reality, when viewed in light of structural forces driving prosecutorial and judicial decisionmaking, provides very strong reasons to doubt the systemic proportionality of the severe punishments meted out in the District, as well as in other jurisdictions that suffer from similar legislative and structural problems.  And it explains why this epistemic uncertainty offers a compelling reason to authorize courts to reevaluate (and in appropriate cases reduce) severe punishments through second look sentencing reform — both in the District of Columbia and beyond.

December 12, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Eighth Circuit panel explains the reach of FIRST STEP Act retroactivity eligibility

A helpful readers made sure I did not miss the helpful opinion from an Eighth Circuit panel today in US v. McDonald, No. 19-1221 (8th Cir. Dec. 11, 2019) (available here) concerning the retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act.  I have not consistently kept up with this part of FIRST STEP jurisprudence, but I am consistently pleased when a circuit opinion seeks to bring simple clarity to a complicated issue.  So, here are a few paragraphs from ole McDonald:   

McDonald’s Count 39 conviction is a “covered offense” under § 404 of the First Step Act because (1) it is a violation of a federal statute; (2) the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act; and (3) it was committed before August 3, 2010.  Consequently, McDonald is eligible for a sentence reduction on Count 39: the district court may “impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act . . . were in effect at the time of the covered offense was committed.”  First Step Act § 404(b). 

It is true, as the district court noted, that McDonald’s base offense level under the Sentencing Guidelines was based on more than 150 kilograms of powder cocaine, not cocaine base.  But this Guidelines calculation does not change the fact that he was convicted on Count 39 for distributing cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) (1996). The First Step Act applies to offenses, not conduct, see First Step Act § 404(a), and it is McDonald’s statute of conviction that determines his eligibility for relief, see, e.g., United States v. Beamus, No. 19-5533, 2019 WL 6207955, at *3 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2019); United States v. Wirsing, No. 19-6381, 2019 WL 6139017, at *9 (4th Cir. Nov. 20, 2019).

The government does not argue that McDonald did not commit a “covered offense.”  Instead, it contends the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying McDonald’s motion because it had already reduced his sentence in 2016.  But the fact that McDonald received a sentence reduction based on a retroactive Guidelines Amendment does not affect his eligibility for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  A court considering a motion for a reduced sentence under § 404 of the First Step Act proceeds in two steps.  First, the court must decide whether the defendant is eligible for relief under § 404. Second, if the defendant is eligible, the court must decide, in its discretion, whether to grant a reduction.  That the court might properly deny relief at the discretionary second step does not remedy any error in determining ineligibility at the first step....

Because McDonald is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, we remand for the district court to exercise its discretion whether to grant relief.

December 11, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 09, 2019

Two notable SCOTUS sentencing arguments to finish up 2019

In this post last week I flagged the criminal cases on the Supreme Court's argument schedule for this month.  The next two days close with a sentencing bang with arguments scheduled for Tuesday in Holguin-Hernandez v. U.S.No. 18-7739 and for Wednesday in McKinney v. ArizonaNo. 18-1109.  The SCOTUSblog folks have great previews of these cases, and here are links and their starts: 

"Argument preview: What arguments are preserved, and how, in federal sentencing appeals?" by Rory Little:

When a federal criminal defendant has already requested a lower sentence than the judge ultimately imposes, must that defendant again note an objection after the sentence is announced, to preserve anything other than “plain error” appellate review?  The general doctrine that a failure to object can forfeit an appellate claim is well-established.  Thus Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) provides that an “error … not brought to the [trial] court’s attention” may be reviewed only for “plain error.”  On the other hand, Rule 51(b) explains that “[a] party may preserve a claim of error by informing the court — when the court ruling is made or sought — of the action the party wishes the court to take.”

Tuesday the justices will hear argument in Holguin-Hernandez v. United States to resolve a circuit split about how these two rules play out in federal sentencing proceedings.  It is an unusual case because the solicitor general has conceded that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit erred, so the court has appointed an amicus to argue in support of the judgment.

"Argument preview: Justices to take on procedural – but important – questions in case of Arizona death-row inmate" by Amy Howe:

It has been nearly 30 years since James McKinney and his half-brother killed two people while robbing the victims at their homes.  A judge in Arizona sentenced McKinney to death, but in 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit threw out McKinney’s death sentence.  On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the dispute between McKinney and the state over how his case should proceed.

McKinney was convicted by a jury for the 1991 murders of Christine Mertens and Jim McClain, but he was sentenced to death by a judge.  Although McKinney’s lawyers offered evidence that McKinney suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the horrific abuse that he experienced as a child, the judge did not take that evidence into account when making his decision, because the law in effect at the time barred him from considering mitigating evidence that was not linked to the cause of the crime.

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld McKinney’s sentence, but in 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the sentencing judge and the Arizona Supreme Court should have considered the evidence of McKinney’s PTSD, as required by Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma, in which the justices ruled that a sentencer in a capital case cannot decline to consider relevant mitigating evidence.

After the 9th Circuit’s decision, Arizona asked the Arizona Supreme Court to fix the error that the 9th Circuit had identified by reviewing McKinney’s death sentence again.  The state supreme court rejected McKinney’s argument that the Supreme Court’s recent cases required a jury, rather than a judge, to resentence him.  And it upheld McKinney’s death sentence, concluding that the mitigating circumstances in his case were not “sufficiently substantial” to warrant a lesser sentence.  McKinney asked the justices to weigh in on that ruling, which they agreed to do earlier this year.

There are two questions before the justices.  The first is whether the Arizona Supreme Court was required to apply current law — rather than the law that was in effect when McKinney’s conviction became final in 1996 — when weighing the mitigating and aggravating evidence to determine whether a death sentence was warranted.... The second question before the justices is whether, regardless of whether he is resentenced under the law in effect in 1996 or the law in effect now, McKinney is entitled to a new sentencing in the trial court, rather than the Arizona Supreme Court.

December 9, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Circuit panel finds error where district court "improperly relied on [defendant's] bare arrest record in determining his sentence"

I just saw the Third Circuit panel ruling from late last week in US v. Mitchell, No. 17-1095 (3d Cir. Dec. 5, 2019) (available here), which makes a strong statement against the reliance on an arrest record at sentencing.  Here is how the opinion starts and key passages thereafter:

A jury found Tyrone Mitchell guilty of seventeen drug distribution and firearms offenses.  Mitchell appeals his judgment of conviction and sentence of 1,020 months’ imprisonment, raising eight arguments nearly all of which are unavailing.  We do, however, agree with Mitchell as to one sentencing-related argument — that the District Court plainly erred by relying on Mitchell’s bare arrest record to determine his sentence.  We therefore affirm Mitchell’s judgment of conviction, vacate the judgment of sentence, and remand for resentencing....

Under the Due Process Clause, “[a] defendant cannot be deprived of liberty based upon mere speculation.”  Accordingly, in determining a sentence, although a court can mention a defendant’s record of prior arrests that did not lead to conviction, it cannot rely on such a record.  As we recognized in United States v. Berry, “a bare arrest record — without more — does not justify an assumption that a defendant has committed other crimes.”...

Contrary to the Government’s assertions, Mitchell did not just demonstrate that the District Court “noticed that he had a number of arrests that did not result in convictions.”  To the contrary, Mitchell has “bridge[d] the gap between reference and reliance,” and has thus shown plain error.  Looking at the record below in its entirety, we conclude that the District Court improperly relied on Mitchell’s bare arrest record in determining his sentence.  For example, the Court interrupted the prosecutor to highlight Mitchell’s arrests and later recited all 18 of Mitchell’s arrests.  The Court also explicitly referred to Mitchell’s arrests when describing his “long and serious” criminal record and identified Mitchell’s “extensive criminal history” as the sole justification for his sentence.  Resentencing is therefore required.

December 9, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Sotomayor continues her practice of issuing statements on denials of certiorari in criminal cases

The Supreme Court this morning issued this order list this morning. The Court denied certiorari in a long list of cases, but two of those denials prompted short statements respecting the denial of certiorari. Here are the cases with the concluding paragraphs from these short statements:

Concerning the denial of cert in Schexnayder v. Vannoy, No. 18-8341, Justice Sotomayor stated, inter alia:

Petitioner, who was pro se during various stages of the lower court proceedings, did not clearly set forth his claim that he was entitled to habeas review without AEDPA deference when he sought a certificate of appealability from the District Court and, later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals was not fairly presented with the opportunity to resolve the issue that petitioner now presents to this Court. For this reason, I do not dissent from this Court’s denial of certiorari. The re-review procedure adopted by the Louisiana courts, however, raises serious due process concerns.  I expect that lower federal courts will examine the issue of what deference is due to these decisions when it is properly raised.

Concerning the denial of cert in Cottier v. United States, No. 18-9261, Justice Sotomayor stated, inter alia:

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit observed that the court in which Cottier was prosecuted “routinely” sends unredacted factual-basis statements into the jury room.  908 F.3d 1141, 1149 (2018).  I agree with the Eighth Circuit that this practice is “troubling.” Ibid.  By presenting the jury with a factual-basis statement signed by the Government, the prosecution improperly expresses its “‘personal belief ’” in the truth of the witness’ statements — a stamp of approval, an assurance from the Government itself, that the witness is to be believed.  United States v. Young, 470 U.S. 1, 7–8 (1985).  In this case, however, Cottier’s attorney did not object to the statements’ admission and used them as part of Cottier’s defense.  For that reason and others expressed by the Eighth Circuit in affirming Cottier’s convictions, I do not dissent from the denial of certiorari but instead echo its admonition that the admission of such statements “is not a favored practice.” 908 F.3d, at 1149.

December 9, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Following pardon board recs, Pennsylvania Gov Wolf commutes eight life sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Wolf commutes eight, brings clemency total to 19, the third-highest among Pa. governors," the Governor of Pennsylvania is making some notable use of his clemency powers.  Here are the details:

With the stroke of a pen on Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf cut short sentences for eight people serving life in Pennsylvania prisons.  Wolf signed off on eight commutations on Thursday, according to a statement by his office — an action that will allow the recipients to walk free after spending decades incarcerated.

All of the individuals who received commutations had the unanimous endorsement of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, a five-member board that hears clemency applications.  “The [pardoned] individuals have used their time in prison to rehabilitate themselves, remained largely free of any incident, and show remorse for their actions and victims,” Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said in a written statement.

All eight commutation recipients must spend one year in Community Corrections Centers before they can return to their families and communities, Abbott said.  They will then remain under parole supervision for the rest of their lives.

The state Board of Pardons logged its busiest day in decades this September when it voted to send nine commutation applications to Wolf’s desk.  Wolf deferred signing off on one of those applications — that of Charles Goldblum, who has served nearly four decades in state prison for his role in the 1976 murder of George Wilhelm in downtown Pittsburgh.

Wolf did not say in his release why he decided to hold Goldblum’s application under further consideration.  Goldblum, who has maintained his innocence for five decades, has already applied seven times to have his life sentence commuted. Each time, Wilhelm’s family has asked the Pardons Board to deny his bid for mercy.

Since taking office in 2015, Wolf has sought to reverse a decades-long trend that saw commutations grind to a near-halt in Pennsylvania.  He’s had assistance from Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who took the helm of the Pardons Board when he was sworn in as Wolf’s deputy in January 2019....  Prior to Thursday, Wolf had already signed more commutation orders than his last four predecessors combined.

The eight most recent pardons bring his total number of commutations to 19 — the third-highest total of any Pennsylvania governor besides Milton Shapp, who commuted 250 life sentences between 1971 and 1979, and Bob Casey, who granted 27 between 1987-1994

UPDATE: This AP piece, headlined "Gov. Wolf approved inmate’s release after he served nearly 30 years; now he faces old shoplifting charge," provides a somewhat dispiriting follow-up. Here are the basics:

The debate over criminal justice reform and second chances grew heated Friday when a lifer freed by the Pennsylvania governor remained jailed over a lame-duck prosecutor’s efforts to hold him on a 1992 shoplifting charge involving stolen jeans.

David Sheppard, 54, had served nearly 30 years for his role in a fatal robbery that took the life of a beloved pharmacist in West Philadelphia. Sheppard was not the gunman, but was serving life for felony murder before the state pardons board and governor approved his release.

Hours before he was to leave prison Friday, outgoing Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun M. Copeland filed the detainer over his failure to show for court decades ago in the stolen jeans case.

"This store went out of business 25 years ago, and even got the items back," said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the five-member pardons board and called Copeland's tactic an abuse of power. "It's just about cruelty, saying I want to keep this guy locked up over Christmas, his first Christmas out, an individual who never took a life and served 30 years for his proximity to the crime. It's just vindictiveness."...

Copeland did not return phone messages Friday from The Associated Press, but in a statement said she opposed Sheppard's release because the victim's family was never notified about his petition. "The issue here is not about a shoplifting charge, it is the complete failure of the criminal justice system to give victims and their families a voice," Copeland said, echoing criticism that's been fired repeatedly at Krasner as he's implemented reforms. "Convicted felons are being empowered and extended leniency at the direct expense of victims and their families."...

Copeland, a Republican appointed last year when her predecessor became a judge, lost this month's election to Jack Stollsteimer, the first Democrat ever elected district attorney in the county's history. He promised to take a hard look at the case when he takes office in January. "Somebody's going to have to convince me that it is in the interest of justice that we are prosecuting this man for a 27-year-old retail theft," he said.

A judge, though, may beat him to it. Sheppard is expected to be brought to court Monday for a bail hearing on the shoplifting charge.

December 7, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 06, 2019

SCOTUS denies Justice Department's motion to stay or vacate preliminary injunction now blocking scheduled federal executions

The Supreme Court on Friday night released this short order in response the the Department of Justice's request to lift an injunction the precludes federal executions scheduled to start early next week:

The application for stay or vacatur presented to THE CHIEF JUSTICE and by him referred to the Court is denied. We expect that the Court of Appeals will render its decision with appropriate dispatch."

Along with the order comes an interesting little "Statement ... respecting the denial of stay or vacatur" authored by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Here is part of that statement:

The Government has shown that it is very likely to prevail when this question is ultimately decided.  The centerpiece of the District Court’s reasoning was that Congress referred to the “manner” and not the “method” of execution, but there is strong evidence that this reading is not supported either by the ordinary meaning of these two terms or by the use of the term “manner” in prior federal death penalty statutes.  Moreover, the District Court’s interpretation would lead to results that Congress is unlikely to have intended.  It would require the BOP to follow procedures that have been attacked as less safe than the ones the BOP has devised (after extensive study); it would demand that the BOP pointlessly copy minor details of a State’s protocol; and it could well make it impossible to carry out executions of prisoners sentenced in some States.

Vacating the stay issued by the District Court for the District of Columbia would not necessarily mean that the prisoners in question would be executed before the merits of their Administrative Procedure Act claim is adjudicated. They remain free to seek review on other grounds.  Nevertheless, in light of what is at stake, it would be preferable for the District Court’s decision to be reviewed on the merits by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before the executions are carried out.

The Court has expressed the hope that the Court of Appeals will proceed with “appropriate dispatch,” and I see no reason why the Court of Appeals should not be able to decide this case, one way or the other, within the next 60 days.  The question, though important, is straightforward and has already been very ably briefed in considerable detail by both the Solicitor General and by the prisoners’ 17-attorney legal team.  For these reasons, I would state expressly in the order issued today that the denial of the application to vacate is without prejudice to the filing of a renewed application if the injunction is still in place 60 days from now.

December 6, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Honored to be helping Ohio Gov. DeWine with new "Expedited Pardon Project"

Fc30ff87-f68e-4eff-8986-b34c9efb8eaa-large16x9_OhioGovernorsExpeditedPardonProjectI am just back from an exciting gubernatorial press conference that was, conveniently, held in the building in which I work.  Ohio Governor Mike DeWine held the press event at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law because OSU's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) is playing a big role in the Governor's new "Expedited Pardon Project." 

As the name suggests, this project aspires to expedite the process by which people apply for a pardon under Ohio's laws.  The Project was established in collaboration between Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, DEPC and the Reentry Clinic at The University of Akron School of Law.  The universities and the governor’s office have already worked together with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to create an expedited pardon application process, and the project was officially announced by Gov DeWine this afternoon.  This local press article provides some context and particulars:

Saying many ex-criminals deserve “a second chance to reach their full potential,” Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday announced a streamlined process for those who have served time in prison or jail to obtain a pardon.

The governor’s Expedited Pardon Project seeks to accelerate the clemency process for those who have proven themselves to become contributing members of society but whose criminal record bars them from employment, housing, or other aspects of their life.

The program is only open to those who have: A specific reason for seeking a pardon; Already been released from prison or jail; Not committed any additional crimes (other than minor traffic violations) in the past 10 years; Made good-faith efforts to pay any restitution or fines they owe; Have a post-offense job history or a compelling reason why they haven’t been working; Performed volunteer work or community service; Not been convicted of a number of disqualifying offenses, including murder, rape, and a number of other violent and/or sex-related crimes....

In some cases, the existing process for obtaining a pardon can take years.  DeWine said he hopes this program will reduce that wait time to six months.

Under the project, law-school students at Ohio State University and the University of Akron will help qualified applicants to prepare their pardon paperwork, then submit their information to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for extensive background checks.  The Ohio Parole Board will then hold a hearing for each applicant, during which victims, judges and prosecutors involved with his or her case can offer their thoughts.  The Parole Board will then vote the same day about whether to recommend clemency to the governor, who alone has the power under the Ohio Constitution to issue pardons....

Neither DeWine nor Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the state’s prison agency, knew how many people are eligible for the program.  DeWine said it will take about a year before he and other state officials can see how the program is working.

To learn more about the Expedited Pardon Program or to apply, visit ohioexpeditedpardon.org.

I have already learned a lot about pardon policies and practicalities in just the last few months as we have worked to help get this new "Expedited Pardon Project" launched.  I am hopeful I will be able to share my continuing education in this space in the months to come (while also reporting on what I hope will be a lot of successful pardon applications). 

December 3, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 02, 2019

DC Circuit denies Justice Department's motion to stay or vacate preliminary injunction now blocking scheduled federal executions

As noted in this post from 10 days ago, a federal district judge last month blocked the scheduled executions of four condemned federal prisoners via this 15-page order based on the contention that the Justice Department's planned execution protocol "exceeds statutory authority."  Not surprisingly, the Justice Department sought review in the DC Circuit, and today via this three-sentence order a panel of judges denied the motion to stay or vacate the lower court's preliminary injunction.  This Reuters article reports on the ruling and its context:

A U.S. appeals court on Monday dealt another setback to plans by President Donald Trump’s administration to resume the death penalty at the federal level after a 16-year hiatus, denying a Justice Department bid to pave the way for four scheduled executions.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied the department’s request to overturn a judge’s decision that at least temporarily stalled plans for executing four convicted murderers. The first was scheduled to die on Dec. 9.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan last month issued a stay putting on hold the planned executions until a long-running legal challenge to the department’s lethal injection protocol can be resolved. The appeals court found that the administration had “not satisfied the stringent requirements” to block Chutkan’s ruling....

The last federal execution took place in 2003. Since then, protracted litigation over the drugs historically used in lethal injection executions prevented the government from continuing the practice.

Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for the men facing federal execution, welcomed the court’s ruling. “The courts have made clear that the government cannot rush executions in order to avoid judicial review of the legality and constitutionality of its new execution procedure,” Nolan said....

Under Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, the Justice Department abandoned its previous three-drug protocol due to a shortage of one of them, an anesthetic called sodium thiopental. The legal fight fell dormant during Obama’s tenure but was revived in July. Barr scheduled the executions of five inmates for December and January and unveiled a new protocol that involved using a single drug, pentobarbital, for lethal injections.

Four of the five inmates have joined the 2005 lawsuit. They have argued that a U.S. law called the Federal Death Penalty Act requires the federal government to follow the “manner” of execution prescribed in the state where an inmate was convicted. The law, as a result, prevents the federal government from creating a single nationwide execution protocol, they argued. Chutkan ruled that the condemned inmates were likely to succeed on their claims that the protocol violates the Federal Death Penalty Act, and found that Barr likely had overreached his authority.

Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist convicted in Arkansas for murdering a family of three, was scheduled to be the first of the inmates to be executed, at a federal prison in Indiana on Dec. 9. A fifth inmate who Barr had ordered executed, Lezmond Mitchell, won a stay of execution from another federal appeals court in October.

The panel of the DC Circuit ruling her was made up of Circuit Judges Rogers, Griffith, and Rao.  Given the composition of this panel (which includes a recent appointee of Prez Trump), I suspect the Justice Department will not bother with seeking en banc review and instead will press its case to SCOTUS (as Attorney General Barr promised to do, if needed).  Assuming the Justice Department gets its papers to SCOTUS before the end of this week, the Justices should be able to rule on the matter in some manner before the first scheduled execution on Dec. 9.  Interesting times.

Prior related posts:

December 2, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Intriguing (mostly procedural) criminal justice issues up for SCOTUS arguments as 2019 winds down

The US Supreme Court begins its December sitting on Monday morning, and a handful of cases scheduled for oral arguments over the next two weeks ought to be of interest to criminal justice fans.  Here are the ones that I will be watching (with links and descriptions via SCOTUSblog):

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, New YorkNo. 18-280 [Arg: 12.2.2019]

Issue(s): Whether New York City’s ban on transporting a licensed, locked and unloaded handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits is consistent with the Second Amendment, the commerce clause and the constitutional right to travel.

Banister v. DavisNo. 18-6943 [Arg: 12.4.2019]

Issue(s): Whether and under what circumstances a timely Rule 59(e) motion should be recharacterized as a second or successive habeas petition under Gonzalez v. Crosby.

Guerrero-Lasprilla v. BarrNo. 18-776 [Arg: 12.9.2019]

Issue(s): Whether a request for equitable tolling, as it applies to statutory motions to reopen, is judicially reviewable as a “question of law.”

Holguin-Hernandez v. U.S.No. 18-7739 [Arg: 12.10.2019]

Issue(s): Whether a formal objection after pronouncement of sentence is necessary to invoke appellate reasonableness review of the length of a defendant’s sentence.

McKinney v. ArizonaNo. 18-1109 [Arg: 12.11.2019]

Issue(s): (1) Whether the Arizona Supreme Court was required to apply current law when weighing mitigating and aggravating evidence to determine whether a death sentence is warranted; and (2) whether the correction of error under Eddings v. Oklahoma requires resentencing.

For the usual reasons, the Second Amendment/gun control case out of New York and the Eighth Amendment/death penalty case out of Arizona seem likely to get the most attention among this bunch.  But, ever the federal sentencing nerd, I am especially interested to see if the Holguin-Hernandez argument might hint at the case being a possible sleeper.  Remarkably, the Justices have not said much of anything about reasonableness review of sentences in over eight years(!) since its March 2011 ruling in Pepper v. US.  And the Justices have not really said anything really important about reasonableness review in a dozen years since the 2007 trio of opinions in Rita, Gall and Kimbrough.  I am not really expecting much from Holguin-Hernandez, but even a the prospect of a thimble of jurisprudential water can be exciting in a reasonableness desert.

December 2, 2019 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 25, 2019

Maryland Gov grants parole to juve LWOPers, marking first such parole in state in nearly a quarter century

I am pleased to report on this Baltimore Sun article headlined "Larry Hogan grants parole to juvenile lifers, the first time a Maryland governor has done so in decades." Here are details:

For the first time in 24 years, individuals sentenced to life in a correctional facility for crimes they committed before turning 18 are being paroled by a Maryland governor.  The action by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, hasn’t been exercised since the administration of William Donald Schaefer, Maryland’s governor from 1987 to 1995.  It comes after courts have weighed in on juvenile sentencing and state lawmakers have attempted to remove the governor from the process in recent years.

Hogan’s decision to implement parole for juvenile lifers comes after 24 years of rejections for this group by the previous three governors, a trend that started with Gov. Parris Glendening in 1995.  “The governor talked about this issue in his original campaign, and it’s something that he gives serious attention to,” Hogan Administration Deputy Legal Counsel Chris Mincher said in an interview with Capital News Service.

Navarus Mayhew, 42, is scheduled to be released this month after 24 years in prison for first-degree murder, robbery and gun charges.  Robert Davis, 54, who served 37 years for first-degree felony murder and handgun charges has been recently released, a Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman said Thursday.  Shawn Delco Goodman, 42, will likely be released in December after 27 years behind bars for first-degree murder and robbery charges, according to Maryland Parole Commission records. Hogan approved paroles for two of the men and allowed the third to happen without his signature.

Prisoners sentenced to life in prison as both adults and juveniles have been released through other measures of executive clemency, like commutation, which allows the governor — rather than the parole commission — to set the terms of release.  Until the Hogan administration, parole hadn’t been implemented for any lifer — adult or juvenile — since Gov. Schaefer, a Democrat and Glendening’s immediate predecessor.  A number of inmates’ life sentences had been commuted, however....

In 2016, the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal class action lawsuit against Hogan on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and three incarcerated juvenile lifers.  The three juvenile lifers in the ACLU suit are not the 2019 parolees.  The lawsuit states that Maryland’s process of juvenile lifer parole denied “meaningful opportunity for release,” therefore violating constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

There are currently more than 300 individuals sentenced to life who are imprisoned for crimes they committed before the age of 18 in Maryland facilities.  The ACLU suit is pending....

Hogan has commuted the sentences of four juveniles and 17 adults as of last month, and has approved parole for eight adult and three juvenile lifers.  Nine other individuals were released for medical parole.  This happens when a lifer is chronically ill and expected to die, and are no longer considered a threat to society.  They are released to a hospital, hospice care or family members....

There have been attempts to remove the governor’s hand from the state’s process in recent years.  In 2017, parole reform legislation that would dismiss the governor from the process was passed in the state House of Delegates, but failed to advance in the Senate.  This past session, a similar bill made little headway in either chamber.

Legislators are turning their eyes to 2020 — some with the hope that more advancement could be made this time around.  The bill’s former House sponsor, Del. Pam Queen, D-Montgomery, said in an interview with Capital News Service last month that there are plans for similar legislation in the upcoming session, and is looking to the Senate and its new president, Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, to determine what will or won’t make it through....

In 2018, Hogan signed an executive order addressing juvenile lifers specifically, requiring that the governor weigh the same elements as the Maryland Parole Commission when considering parole, as well as the inmate’s age at the time of the offense and any signs of maturity or transformative rehabilitation.

UPDATE: A helpful reader made sure I saw this follow-up editorial from the Baltimore Sun headlined "Kudos to Maryland’s Gov. Hogan for paroling three ‘juvenile lifers,’ but we wish he weren’t involved at all." Here are excerpts:

We applaud Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to honor the recommendations of the Maryland Parole Commission and allow the release of three men sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as minors.... [I]t’s been almost a quarter century since this last occurred — since William Donald Schaefer held the governor’s post — and Mr. Hogan deserves praise for having the common sense to take action where his largely Democratic predecessors haven’t.

Forgive us, however, if the tribute is tepid.

The men Mr. Hogan allowed to be paroled — two by direct approval, and a third by declining to deny parole — amount to less than 1% of those currently in Maryland correctional facilities serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under 18. And the action was a long time coming.  It’s been more than three years since the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal class action suit against Mr. Hogan on behalf of a different set of juvenile lifers, claiming the state’s parole process denies them “meaningful opportunity for release" in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  That case is still pending in the courts.

And, as we’ve said numerous times, we’d prefer Mr. Hogan weren’t required to take any action at all.  Maryland is one of only three states in the country, alongside Oklahoma and California, that requires the governor’s input in parole decisions, unnecessarily politicizing the process.  In 47 other states — many far less progressive than Maryland — the parole commission is trusted to review and assess an inmate’s suitability for release on its own. That’s how it should be here, as well.  The state legislature has for several years sought and failed to pass bills removing the governor from the process.  A similar measure is under consideration for the legislative session starting in January, and we urge its passage.

November 25, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lots of comments from SCOTUS on various issues in holiday week order list

Order lists from the Supreme Court so far this Term have been mostly free of short rulings or separate statements from the Justices.  But this morning, the Court issued this order list full of comments in the form of a per curiam GVR in a First Amendment case from the Ninth Circuit and a number of statements about denials of review.  One of the denials came in the delegation case involving sex offender registries from last Term, Gundy, and Justice Kavanaugh has a short comment in a companion case.  Here is how it starts:

I agree with the denial of certiorari because this case ultimately raises the same statutory interpretation issue that the Court resolved last Term in Gundy v. United States, 588 U.S. ___ (2019).  I write separately because JUSTICE GORSUCH’s scholarly analysis of the Constitution’s nondelegation doctrine in his Gundy dissent may warrant further consideration in future cases.

Criminal justice fans are likely to be most interested in a statement by Justice Sotomayor in a capital case from Arkansas in which cert was denied.  Here are parts of her three-page statement:

After Isom was granted parole three years into his sentence, Prosecutor Pope met with the Office of the Governor to express his concern and to inquire whether Isom could somehow be returned to prison, but to no avail.

Seven years later, a jury convicted Isom of capital murder in a case presided over by Pope himself — now a Drew County judge.  Isom sought postconviction relief, which was denied, also by Judge Pope....

The allegations of bias presented to the Arkansas Supreme Court are concerning. But they are complicated by the fact that Isom did not raise the issue of Judge Pope’s prior involvement in his prosecutions, either at his capital trial or for nearly 15 years thereafter during his postconviction proceedings.  Although the Arkansas Supreme Court did not base its recusal decision on this point, it is a consideration in evaluating whether there was an “unconstitutional potential for bias” in this case sufficient to warrant the grant of certiorari.  I therefore do not dissent from the denial of certiorari.  I write, however, to encourage vigilance about the risk of bias that may arise when trial judges peculiarly familiar with a party sit in judgment of themselves. The Due Process Clause’s guarantee of a neutral decisionmaker will mean little if this form of partiality is overlooked or underestimated.

November 25, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

How quickly could litigation over federal execution procedures get to SCOTUS?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article serving as follow-up to this past week's news, noted in this post, that a federal district court has halted pending scheduled federal executions based claim that planned execution protocol "exceeds statutory authority."  The AP piece is headlined "DOJ would take halted executions to high court" and here are excerpts:

Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press on Thursday that he would take the Trump administration’s bid to restart federal executions after a 16-year hiatus to the Supreme Court if necessary. Barr’s comments came hours after a district court judge temporarily blocked the administration’s plans to start executions next month. The administration is appealing the decision, and Barr said he would take the case to the high court if Thursday’s ruling stands.

He said the five inmates set to be executed are a small portion of 62 death row inmates. “There are people who would say these kinds of delays are not fair to the victims, so we can move forward with our first group,” Barr said aboard a government plane to Montana, after he met with local and federal law enforcement officials in Cleveland.

The attorney general unexpectedly announced in July that the government would resume executions next month, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain. Some of the chosen inmates challenged the new procedures in court, arguing that the government was circumventing proper methods in order to wrongly execute inmates quickly.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan put the cases on ice while the challenge plays out. She said in a Wednesday evening ruling that the public is not served by “short-circuiting” legitimate judicial process. “It is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully,” she wrote.

Her ruling temporarily postpones four of the five scheduled executions beginning next month; the fifth had already been halted. It’s possible the government could win an appeal in time to begin executions Dec. 9, but that would be an unusually fast turnaround.

“This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress,” said the inmates’ attorney, Shawn Nolan. “The court has made clear that no execution should go forward while there are still so many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution method.”...

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. Barr said in July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.

He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.

Chutkan said in her opinion that the inmates’ legal challenge to the procedure was likely to succeed because the Federal Death Penalty Act requires that federal executions employ procedures used by the states in which they are carried out.

On Thursday, Barr defended the protocols, saying the Bureau of Prisons has been testing and conducting practice drills ahead of the first execution. He would not say where the cocktail of drugs would come from. “I was kept advised and reports were given to me, scientific tests, the drills they are running through,” Barr said.

Those chosen were among inmates who had exhausted their appeals, and the cases were forwarded to senior Justice Department officials who reviewed the cases and made recommendations to him, Barr said....

The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state. Though there hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions, and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

I was certain that DOJ would be inclined to appeal this ruling to the DC Circuit and even to SCOTUS as needed in order to try to move forward with executions.  But I am quite uncertain about just how quickly this litigation (and other litigation surrounding these capital cases) would move forward.  It is not uncommon for capital litigation to move though federal courts quickly on the eve of a scheduled state execution, but that often comes after an array of issues have first been reviewed by state court and often come with a deferential standard of review under applicable law.  It has been a very long time since any federal courts have had to consider any modern claims for relief on the eve of a scheduled federal execution. I have no idea if DOJ is going to press for an expedited appeal schedule or if the DC Circuit or SCOTUS will be inclined to fast-track these matters.

Though I am not following all of the relevant litigation, I assume that objections to the federal execution protocol is just one of a number of claims being brought by the death row prisoner with executions dates. As flagged in this post from July, I am especially interested to know how these particular defendants were put in the front of the execution queue and whether this selection process was constitutionally sound. And I suspect the lawyers representing those of federal death row have a lot of other question they are bringing to court in this process.

Prior related posts:

November 24, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, November 22, 2019

"Let’s pardon prisoners, not turkeys"

Regular readers know that I cannot let a holiday season go by without remarking repeatedly on the fact that clemency grants for cleverly named Turkeys are more consistent and predictable than for actual human beings this time of year.  I will start this season's clemency kvetching by spotlighting some passages from this new Washington Post commentary by Mark Osler with the same headline as the title of this post:

At some point before Thanksgiving, President Trump will likely pardon a pair of turkeys.  The turkeys will be given silly names (past recipients have included birds named Mac and Cheese), some children and White House staffers will look on, and there will be forced jokes and stiff laughter.

It’s painful to watch.  Worse, it mocks the raw truth that the federal clemency system is completely broken. While those two turkeys receive their pardons, nearly 14,000 clemency petitions sit in a sludgy backlog. Many of the federal inmates who have followed the rules, assembled documents, poured out their hearts in petitions and worked hours at a prison job just to pay for the stamps on the envelope have waited for years in that queue....

There is a deep sadness in all this: the graceless show of “pardoning” turkeys; the endless pile of files somewhere; the bizarre, tragic and wrong belief that a central constitutional power of the presidency has been delegated to a single well-meaning celebrity....

The Trump administration inherited a clemency review process that is seemingly designed to result in good cases not getting to the president.  Bureaucrats in the Office of the Pardon Attorney — which is buried deep in the Justice Department — review the cases when petitions are received.  Part of their job is to solicit the view of local prosecutors, the very people who sought the sentence in the first place, and Justice Department standards direct that the views of those prosecutors be given “considerable weight” in determining a recommendation.  From the start, there is a thumb on the scale.  That reviewer passes the case to the pardon attorney, who passes it to an official in the office of the deputy attorney general, who passes it to the deputy attorney general himself.  Then it goes to a staffer in the White House counsel’s office, then to her boss and finally to the president.  There is no evidence this system is working at all.  It is a pipe with seven valves that all must be opened at once by seven busy people with very different interests; we shouldn’t be surprised that nothing is flowing through.

Meanwhile, a more informal clemency process has emerged. This one is simple: A television channel, Fox News, makes recommendations directly to Trump, an avid watcher.  Most recently, two military officers received full pardons and another had his rank restored via this route. Previous recipients of Fox News-Trump clemency have included Joe Arpaio, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Dinesh D’Souza.  I don’t begrudge any of them the break they received (though others do).  Alexander Hamilton was right to call clemency “the benign prerogative”; at worst, it produces mercy. My argument is for more clemency, not less.  The problem is that we have two systems, one formal and one informal, that both fail to deliver the level of mercy our history of retribution and over-incarceration requires.

November 22, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Circuit clarifies FIRST STEP creates eligibility for reduced sentence whenever Fair Sentencing Act "modified the statutory penalty"

Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act of 2018 finally provided for retroactive application of statutory changes to reduce federal crack sentences put in place by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  Simple as that might sound, lower courts are still struggling with all the different permutations of who may be eligible for a reduced sentence under FIRST STEP, and a Sixth Circuit panel addressed this issue in a short and effective opinion yesterday in US v. Beamus, No. 19-5533 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2019) (available here).  I recommend the opinion in full, but here is the essence in four paragraphs:

Beamus requested resentencing under the First Step Act.  The district court denied this request without reaching the merits, concluding that because the Sentencing Guidelines classify Beamus as a “career offender[],” he is “ineligible for [a] sentence reduction[] under the First Step Act.” ROA 13 at A-2.  Beamus appeals that determination, and the government concedes error.

Rightly so.  By its terms, the First Step Act permits Beamus to seek resentencing. He was convicted of an offense for which the Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory penalty, and he has not received a reduction in accordance with that Act or lost such a motion on the merits.  The text of the First Step Act contains no freestanding exception for career offenders. Nor would one expect to see such an exception. It makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act’s changes to the statutory range for crack cocaine offenses....

It’s true, as the government notes, that the Fair Sentencing Act’s changes to the statutory penalty for Beamus’s drug offense also would have affected his guidelines range.  But that’s happenstance in this instance.  Beamus is eligible for resentencing because, and only because, the Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory range for his offense.  That the Sentencing Guidelines also would have applied differently does not affect his eligibility for resentencing.

That Beamus is eligible for resentencing does not mean he is entitled to it. The First Step Act ultimately leaves the choice whether to resentence to the district court’s sound discretion.  See First Step Act of 2018, § 404(b); see also United States v. Hegwood, 934 F.3d 414, 418 (5th Cir. 2019).  In exercising that discretion, a judge may take stock of several considerations, among them the criminal history contained in the presentence report.  How do these considerations play out for Beamus?  That’s a question only the district court can answer.  We reverse and remand to give it the opportunity to do so.

November 22, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Federal judge halts pending scheduled federal executions based on contention that planned execution protocol "exceeds statutory authority"

As explained in this Politico article, a federal district "judge has blocked the scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates, effectively freezing the Trump administration’s effort to resume imposing the death penalty in a federal system that saw its last execution more than a decade and a half ago."  Here is a link to the ruling and a summary from this press account: The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials planned to carry out starting next month.

The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials planned to carry out starting next month. The only other execution that officials had put on the calendar, also for December, was blocked last month by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

In July, Attorney General William Barr announced plans to resume executions at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. He suggested the practice had been allowed to languish for too long and said it would deliver justice in cases involving what he called the “worst criminals.” Barr announced a new federal death penalty protocol that would use a single drug, pentobarbital, in lieu of a three-drug “cocktail” employed in the most recent federal executions.

In the wake of Barr’s announcement, a series of death row prisoners joined a long-dormant legal challenge to that previous method and asked Chutkan to block their execution under the new protocol until their legal challenges to it were fully adjudicated.

In her ruling Wednesday, Chutkan said the death row inmates appeared likely to prevail on their arguments that the new protocol violates longstanding federal law because the procedures to be used vary from state law. A 1994 federal statute says federal executions shall be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.”

Justice Department attorneys argued that the use of lethal injection was sufficiently similar regardless of the drugs used or other details of the execution protocol, but Chutkan ruled that the law likely requires federal authorities to adopt the same drugs or drugs and a similar process.

“Requiring the federal government to follow more than just the state’s method of execution is consistent with other sections of the statute and with historical practices. For all these reasons, this court finds that the FDPA [Federal Death Penalty Act] does not authorize the creation of a single implementation procedure for federal executions,” wrote the judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama. “There is no statute that gives the [Bureau of Prisons] or DOJ the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions,” Chutkan added.

In granting the injunction, Chutkan noted the obvious fact that permitting the executions would deprive the inmates of their ability to pursue their legal challenges. She also turned aside the Justice Department’s claim that time was of the essence, noting that revisions to the federal death penalty protocol languished for years after shortages developed of at least one drug used in the earlier cocktail.

The earliest of the five executions that federal officials planned to carry out in the coming weeks was scheduled for Dec. 9. “While the government does have a legitimate interest in the finality of criminal proceedings, the eight years that it waited to establish a new protocol undermines its arguments regarding the urgency and weight of that interest,” the judge wrote.

When AG Barr announced the planned resumption of executions back in July and set five execution dates, I fully expected that some or all of the executions would be delayed by litigation. This particular basis for delay strike me as especially interesting because it will force the Justice Department to debate whether to appeal this ruling or to just try to adjust its protocols in light of the concerns expressed in this ruling. Either way, I am now inclined to confidently predict that we will not see a federal execution in 2019 and probably not in 2020.

November 21, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Medical disputes before federal court as high-profile, white-collar prisoner seeks compassionate release

This NBC News article, headlined "NY prosecutors suggest former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers is faking illness to get out of jail time," reports on an interesting dispute as a high-profile defendants seeks a sentencing reduction thanks to the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are the details:

Federal prosecutors say 78-year-old former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers may not be in as bad physical shape as indicated in court filings seeking his early release from prison due to health concerns.

In a letter Monday to U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gina Castellano cites a note from a prison psychologist who listened in on phone calls between Ebbers and his daughter in recent weeks.  Joy Ebbers Bourne has said in a sworn declaration that her father has dementia.  “In the calls, he was alert, aware and oriented to person, place, time and situation,” the psychologist is quoted as saying, adding that Ebbers was asking about his daughter’s efforts to get him out of prison.  He is being held at the prison medical center in Fort Worth, Texas....

In a response filed in court Tuesday, Ebbers attorney Graham Carner said the alleged discrepancies can be explained by factors that have nothing to do with fakery.  “It is commonly known that people suffering from dementia (which can have many forms) can experience symptom fluctuation (i.e., ‘good days and bad days’),” Carner wrote.

The response, which notes that cognitive issues have not been the focus of Ebbers’ legal motion, cites other parts of his medical records that Carner says demonstrate Ebbers “has a substantially diminished ability to provide self-care in prison.”  Carner noted that Ebbers has suffered multiple falls, and that according to the medical report, he weighed just 148 pounds last week, down from 200 pounds in July.  “Objective medical findings show that his age and medical condition qualify as extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release,” Carner wrote.

Caproni, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, had given the government until Monday to supply the additional medical data, most of which were filed under seal.  In addition to asking for any tests as to whether Ebbers was malingering, or faking his memory loss, the judge asked for information on Ebbers’ rapid weight loss — the former bouncer has reportedly withered to around 160 pounds.  Castellano said an abdominal ultrasound performed late last month found “no definitively worrisome or sonographically acute findings,” but further tests are scheduled next month.

Ebbers has served about 13 years of his 25-year sentence for orchestrating the $11 billion accounting fraud by the defunct telecommunications company. With good behavior, he is scheduled for release in 2028.

Before the FIRST STEP Act, Ebbers' request for compassionate release almost surely would have been rejected by the Bureau of Prisons and that would be the end of the matter. Now, thanks to FIRST STEP, Ebbers' can get a federal judge to consider these matters.

November 20, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Lots of interesting discussions of FIRST STEP Act (and Jeffrey Epstein) during Senate Judiciary's BOP oversight hearing

This morning, the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary held an hearing titled "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons" with a single witness testifying.  That witness was Dr. Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the new Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the full two-hour hearing can be watched at this link.  

Dr. Hawk Sawyer submitted this lengthy written statement, and it covers a lot of BOP ground.  It also concludes with an extended discussion of FIRST STEP Act implementation efforts, and here is a snippet from that part of the written testimony:

The Bureau has made great progress in implementing the FSA.  We appreciate the considerable work of the Department of Justice (Department) in the implementation process, as well.  In particular, the Department’s National Institute of Justice has been instrumental in collaborating with us as we move forward aggressively to ensure this important criminal justice reform is appropriately and effectively implemented.  We similarly appreciate the ongoing work of the Independent Review Committee as they advise the Attorney General on the new risk and needs assessment systems required under the FSA.

We have listened to the important comments of the many interested stakeholders — from crime victims to a broad array of advocacy groups.  The statutory timelines in the FSA were formidable, and placed before us many challenges, but I am proud to say that the Bureau and the Department rose to that challenge.  And we continue to remain focused on the full, fair, and balanced implementation of the FSA....

With the President signing the FSA into law on December 21, 2018, several provisions became immediately effective. Despite the government shutdown, the Bureau rapidly developed guidance and policies to ensure appropriate implementation.  The retroactive application of sentence reductions under the Fair Sentencing Act resulted in over 2,300 orders for release, with the release thus far of over 1,600 of those inmates.  Staff also immediately began the challenge of re-programming our Good Conduct Time (GCT) sentence computations to reflect the change.  As a result, on July 19, 2019, when the GCT change took effect commensurate with the Attorney General’s release of the Risk and Needs Assessment System, the Bureau executed timely releases of over 3,000 inmates.

Guidance regarding the expanded Reduction in Sentence (RIS or compassionate release) provisions were issued in January 2019. Since the Act was signed into law, 109 inmates have received Compassionate Release.  The re-initiation of the Elderly Offender Pilot from the Second Chance Act of 2008 was issued in April 2019.  We currently have 358 inmates approved for the pilot, with 273 already on Home Confinement. The balance are pending their Home Confinement placement....

In accordance with the FSA, the Attorney General on July 19, 2019, released the Department’s report on the Risk and Needs Assessment System.  The new Risk Assessment system — the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs or PATTERN — has been developed by the Department and is currently undergoing fine-tuning as we consider feedback from stakeholders.  In the interim, the BOP has conducted extensive training for its staff on the key elements of the tool such that they are prepared to assess inmate risk in accordance with statutory deadlines.  The Bureau already has in place a robust Needs Assessment system, and we are working with experts in the field and research consultants to further enhance it.

During the hearing, FIRST STEP Act implementation issues were raised by a number of Senators. And lots and lots of other topics were also covered.  This AP article published yesterday, headlined "Federal Prison System Plagued by Abuses," provides a review of the range of BOP management issues were brought up during the hearing.  And this ABC News piece, headlined "Bureau of Prisons director set for grilling on Capitol Hill in wake of Epstein, Bulger deaths," names in its headline some of the high-profile prisoners of concerns to lawmakers.   Not surprisingly, especially with news of charges being brought against two guards for falsifying records, the death of Jeffrey Epstein was raised by a number of Senators.

As criminal justice nerd, I enjoyed all the issues raised throughout the entire oversight hearing, and I was encouraged by both the questions raised by many Senators and the answers provided by Dr. Hawk Sawyer.  And I especially enjoyed the surprising discussion during the early part of the hearing (starting just before minute 34) of Senator Lindsay Graham asking about "reinstituting parole in the federal system."  I am not sure why Senator Graham is now saying that reinstating parole is "something [Congress] should look at," but I am really intrigued by and supportive of any such efforts.  A couple of years ago, in this article titled "Reflecting on Parole’s Abolition in the Federal Sentencing System," I explained why I thought "parole might serve as an efficient and effective means to at least partially ameliorate long-standing concerns about mandatory minimum statutes and dysfunctional guidelines" and why sentencing reformers "ought to think about talking up the concept of federal parole anew."  Here is hoping Senator Graham might become a full-throated champion of giving serious consideration to bringing parole back to the federal system.

November 19, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issues stay of execution so trial court can examine Rodney Reed's "Brady, false testimony, and actual innocence claims"

As noted in this prior post, many questions have been raised about the guilt of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed, who had been scheduled to be executed on November 20.  But, as this Hill piece reports, that execution was stayed late Friday:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Friday to stay indefinitely the upcoming execution of Texas inmate Rodney Reed, who had been convicted in a 1996 slaying.

Citing an appeal filed by Reed’s attorney’s this week that claimed, among other things, that the state provided false testimony, the court ruled to halt the execution scheduled for Wednesday “pending further order of this Court.”

The decision came shortly after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Friday unanimously recommended delaying Reed’s execution.

The developments come amid national scrutiny over Reed’s case, as supporters of the inmate say newly uncovered evidence raises serious doubts about his guilt in the case of the killing of 19-year-old Stacey Stites.

Prosecutors accuse Reed of raping and strangling Stites in Bastrop, Texas, more than 20 years ago. However, in an application for clemency, Reed’s attorneys wrote that new evidence has “contradicted and, in all key respects, affirmatively disproven, every aspect of the State’s expert-based case against Mr. Reed” and implicates Stites’s then-fiance.

Efforts to stop the execution have been aided by high-profile calls from celebrities including Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian West, Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, Questlove and more.

The TCCA's oder is available at this link, and here is a key passage:

On November 11, 2019, Applicant filed the instant subsequent writ application in the convicting court.  Applicant raises four claims in this application: (1) that the State suppressed exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); (2) that the State presented false testimony in violation of due process; (3) that Applicant’s trial counsel were ineffective; and (4) that Applicant is actually innocent.

After reviewing the application, we find that Applicant’s Brady, false testimony, and actual innocence claims satisfy the requirements of Article 11.071 § 5.  Accordingly, we remand those claims to the trial court for further development.

November 17, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Another District Court finds statutory sentence reform among "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for reducing sentence by 40 years under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I am pleased to be able to report on a great new district court ruling granting a sentence reduction using 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in order to under the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking of mandatory minimum 924(c) counts.  (As regular readers know, in prior posts I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act which now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I see this provision as such a big deal because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds, and perhaps many thousands, of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.)

This new ruling comes in US v. Urkevich, No. 8:03CR37, 2019 WL 6037391 (D. Neb. Nov. 14, 2019). In this case, Judge Camp begins by noting that because of the severe stacking rules in place at the time of the crime, Urkevich's sentence "(848 months) is forty years longer than the sentence he likely would have received (368 months) if he were sentenced under the law (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(C)) as it now exists." Then, after noting that the "Government does not dispute that Urkevich has demonstrated post-offense rehabilitation, and the Government does not argue that he poses a current danger to the safety of any other person or to the community," Judge Camp concludes:

If this Court reduces Urkevich’s sentences on Counts III and V to 60 months each, consecutive, he will not be eligible for immediate release.  His sentence would total 368 months, and he would have served somewhat more than half that sentence.  Nonetheless, the Court does not consider the Motion premature.  A reduction in his sentence is warranted by extraordinary and compelling reasons, specifically the injustice of facing a term of incarceration forty years longer than Congress now deems warranted for the crimes committed. A reduction in the sentence at this juncture will help Urkevich and the Bureau of Prisons plan for his ultimate release from custody and may assist him in his pending efforts to seek clemency from the Executive Branch.  This Court will not intervene in that process.

After consideration of all the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), especially § 3553(a)(2)(A) (“the need for the sentence imposed ... to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense”) and § 3553(a)(6) (“the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct”), as well as applicable Sentencing Commission policy statements, the Court finds extraordinary and compelling reasons for a reduction of the Defendant’s sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The Court further concludes that the Defendant has demonstrated that he poses no current danger to the safety of any other person or to the community. Accordingly, the Defendant’s sentences on Counts III and V of the Indictment will be reduced to 60 months each, consecutive.

The statement above by Judge Camp that the sentence reduction motion here is not premature is a reference to (and disagreement with) the reasoning of Judge Pratt in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), a similar case noted and lamented in this post.  In Brown, the court seemed to essentially conclude that the movant had demonstrated extraordinary and compelling reasons for a sentence reduction and seemed to conclude the 3553(a) factors justified such a reduction, but the court rejected the motion for a reduced sentence seemingly because conforming a reduced sentence based on the terms of current statutory law would not lead to the defendant's immediate release.  I am quite pleased that this Urkevich case recognizes why a congressionally-authorized sentence reduction that is statutorily justified is always timely.

Some prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

November 16, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Trump grants clemency to three military men subject to various war crime prosecutions

As reported in this Military Times piece, "President Donald Trump on Friday granted clemency to three controversial military figures embroiled in charges of war crimes, arguing the moves will give troops 'the confidence to fight' without worrying about potential legal overreach."  Here is more about these grants:

Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans, was given a full pardon from president for the crimes.  Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses.  Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president.

All three cases had been championed by conservative lawmakers and media personalities as an overreaction to the chaos and confusion of wartime decisions.  But critics have warned the moves could send the message that troops need not worry about following rules of engagement when fighting enemies abroad.

“The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted,” the White House said in a statement. “For more than 200 years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history.”

Pentagon leaders privately had expressed reservations about the moves, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper has declined comment on the rumored actions in recent days. Last week, he said that he had a “robust” conversation with Trump about the proposed pardons and clemency and that “I do have full confidence in the military justice system and we’ll let things play out as they play out.”

The Army announced it will implement Trump’s pardons.... In the wake of Trump’s decision, the official twitter account of Rear Adm. Charles Brown, the Chief of Naval Information, indicated that Navy leaders “acknowledge his order and are implementing it.”

While Gallagher was acquitted of murder and obstruction of justice charges in July, a panel of his peers recommended he be reduced in grade for posing with the body of a detainee, a crime he never denied.

Lorance’s case dates back to a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan, when he ordered his soldiers to fire on three unarmed men riding a motorcycle near their patrol. Members of his platoon testified against him at a court-martial trial, describing Lorance as over-zealous and the Afghans as posing no real threat. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In recent years, Lorance and his family had waged a long campaign against his sentence, and found a receptive ear in Trump.

Golsteyn’s case had not yet been decided. He was scheduled for a December trial on charges he murdered an alleged Taliban bomb maker, and burned his remains in a trash pit during a 2010 deployment with 3rd Special Forces Group. Trump’s action effectively puts an end to that legal case before any verdicts were rendered....

Trump overturned a decision by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday announced on Oct. 29 that preserved Gallagher’s demotion to petty officer first class. Gallagher’s legal team had urged the four-star to show mercy for a highly decorated SEAL whose case was plagued by allegations of corruption inside the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Gallagher’s court-martial trial for murder and other alleged war crimes collapsed and a panel of his peers convicted him on the sole charge of positing for a photo next to a dead Islamic State detainee, a charge he never denied.

Before the trial kicked off, a military judge booted Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, the lead prosecutor, for his role in a warrantless surveillance program cooked up with NCIS to track emails sent by defense attorneys and Navy Times. Prosecutors and agents also were accused of manipulating witness statements; using immunity grants and a bogus “target letter” in a crude attempt to keep pro-Gallagher witnesses from testifying; illegally leaking documents to the media to taint the military jury pool; and then trying to cover it all up when they got caught.

In a prepared statement sent to Military Times by attorney Phil Stackhouse, Golsteyn’s family said they were “profoundly grateful” that the president ended the soldier’s prosecution. Stackhouse said Golsteyhn spoke with the president by telephone “for several minutes” on Friday.

“We have lived in constant fear of this runaway prosecution," Golsteyn said in the statement. "Thanks to President Trump, we now have a chance to rebuild our family and lives. With time, I hope to regain my immense pride in having served in our military. In the meantime, we are so thankful for the support of family members, friends and supporters from around the nation, and our legal team.”...

Trump has exercised his pardoning powers often during his administration, including in the case of another soldier earlier this year. Former 1st Lt. Michael Behenna had been paroled from Leavenworth in 2014, after receiving a 15-year sentence for murdering an alleged al-Qaida operative in Iraq in 2009.

And in 2018, he pardoned former Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Kristian Saucier, who spent a year in jail after pleading guilty in 2016 to taking cell phone photos of his work space on board the attack submarine Alexandria ― prohibited, as the entirety of a submarine is considered a classified area.

This official statement from the White House about these clemency grants discusses the cases further and concludes with this paragraph:

The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted.  For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country.  These actions are in keeping with this long history. As the President has stated, “when our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight.”

November 16, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 15, 2019

SCOTUS grants cert on yet another ACCA case and also on statute of limitation on military rape charges

Via this new order list, the Supreme Court has added four new cases to its merits docket.  The big one of the bunch is a case involving Google and copyright issues concerning computer code, but the others are criminal cases.  One has SCOTUS focused on the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act yet again, and two combined others deals with statutes of limitation.  Here are descriptions of the new criminal cases via this post at SCOTUSblog (with paragraphs rearranged): 

In Walker v. United States, the justices will consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed merely by being reckless can qualify as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a 1984 law that extends the sentences of felons who commit crimes with guns if they have been convicted three or more times of certain crimes.

The question comes to the court in the case of James Walker, an elderly Tennessee man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison under the ACCA after police discovered 13 bullets — which Walker had found while cleaning the rooming house that he managed — when responding to reports of drug sales at the house.  Walker argues that the ACCA should not apply to his case. He contends that one of his prior convictions, for robbery in Texas, does not qualify as a “violent felony” because a defendant could be convicted if he recklessly caused injury during a theft.

The federal government agrees with Walker that the justices should weigh in on the issue, but it maintains that the lower court was correct in deeming Walker’s robbery conviction a “violent felony” for purposes of the ACCA.

The justices also granted two requests by the government to weigh in on the statute of limitations for old rape charges against members of the armed forces.  The question arises in the case of Michael Briggs, a captain in the U.S. Air Force who in 2014 was charged with the 2005 rape of a member of his squadron.  Under the version of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that was in effect when Briggs was charged, there is no statute of limitations for rape.  At his court-martial proceeding, Briggs was found guilty, but an appeals court later ordered that the charge be dismissed.  It reasoned that under a 2018 ruling by the same court, the five-year statute of limitations for the version of the UCMJ in effect in 2005 applied to Briggs’ offense.  The court also ruled that a 2006 law that specifically provides that there is no statute of limitations for rape does not apply to rapes committed before 2006.

The government filed a separate petition for review in the case of two other members of the Air Force.  Richard Collins was an instructor at an Air Force base in Texas.  In 2016 he was found guilty of the August 2000 rape of a student in his course.  As in Briggs’ case, an appeals court reversed Collins’ conviction, pointing to a 2018 decision by the same court.  Humphrey Daniels was convicted in 2017 of the 1998 rape of a civilian near the North Dakota Air Force base where he was stationed; his conviction was also reversed.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to grant both petitions.  The government told the justices that sexual assault is “devastating to the morale, discipline, and effectiveness of our Armed Forces, but also difficult to uncover.”  The request was supported by a “friend of the court” brief by Harmony Allen and Tonja Schultz — the victims of Collins and Daniels. Today the justices agreed to take up the case.

November 15, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Tales of extreme state drug mandatory minimums (and non-retroactive reforms) from Florida

The Miami Herald has this lengthy article discussing an array of extreme sentences resulting from Florida's (now somewhat reformed) mandatory minimum drug laws.  The piece is headlined "Hundreds languish in Florida prisons under outdated mandatory minimum drug sentences, " and I recommend it in full.  Here is a taste:

It’s not enough that Jomari DeLeon calls every day, asking her 8-year-old daughter about school and reminding her that “mommy misses you.” The child still asks when she’s coming home, believing her mom’s been gone all these years because of a stint in the military. That would explain the barbed wire surrounding the compound that she visits every month.

In reality, DeLeon is four hours away in this privately run women’s prison in the Panhandle town of Quincy, serving the third year of a 15-year sentence. If she had committed her drug crime in 2016, rather than eight years ago, she would be free by now. Up to 1,000 Florida inmates find themselves in the same legal purgatory....

[DeLeon was involved in two small non-violent drug] deals — a grand total of 48 pills for $225.... Under Florida law in 2013, the possession or sale of about 22 hydrocodone pills — less than one prescription’s worth — would trigger a trafficking sentence of 15 years...

Similar drug cases were playing out across the state. In Orange County in 2009, a man named William Forrester was handed a 15-year sentence for oxycodone trafficking after he was caught falsifying prescriptions to support his habit....

In 2010, a woman named Nancy Ortiz asked an Osceola judge that rehabilitation be included in her sentence to ease her addiction to crack. She had sold two bottles of hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop. Instead, the judge sentenced her to 25 years. “I take no pleasure in imposing this sentence,” the judge told Ortiz. “But I don’t have any discretion in the matter.”

For years, people caught with prescription painkillers in Florida received tougher penalties than those with the same weight in street drugs. In some cases, they received five times the sentence because that’s what the law required....

[P]ublic defenders from around the state went to Tallahassee to lobby the Legislature to change the law .. [and] even the state prosecutors’ association — those pursuing convictions for drug crimes — joined the public defenders in pursuit of lighter sentences for those selling prescription pills. MO<Finally, lawmakers listened. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor, sponsored a bill in 2014 that increased the number of hydrocodone or oxycodone pills needed to trigger the lengthy mandatory sentences. To get 15 years for hydrocodone, for example, would now take about 77 pills, rather than about 22....

The Legislature’s 2014 law could not apply to DeLeon’s sentence because, at the time, the Florida Constitution explicitly prohibited changes in sentencing laws to apply retroactively.... [That was changed in 2018 when] voters approved Amendment 11 last year.

At Gadsden Correctional Facility, it was cause for celebration. Another prisoner serving 15 years, also for hydrocodone, told DeLeon that the change in Florida’s Constitution could mean their freedom. “This is exactly what’s going to help us get out of here,” she told DeLeon. DeLeon’s family was so excited for her re-sentencing hearing, they started preparing for her to come home, buying canvasses for her to paint.

In July, however, the judge explained his hands were tied. Her motion for a new sentence was denied because state lawmakers first need to lay out a framework for judges to follow. It’s unclear when, or if, lawmakers will do so.

Earlier this year, lawmakers again increased the number of hydrocodone pills required to trigger mandatory sentences. Bradley, the state senator who sponsored the 2014 drug sentencing change, said he would be open to easing sentences for old drug cases. But he said he doesn’t consider it a priority....

Hundreds of people like DeLeon are in prison serving outdated sentences for hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking that would not have been handed down if they committed the same crimes today.

One analysis by the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonpartisan group that’s done policy analysis for the Florida Senate, found that up to 640 current inmates fall into this category, while researchers with the Project on Accountable Justice housed at Florida State University found up to 935 inmates. Both estimates have not been previously published.

For one year, it costs Florida $20.7 million to incarcerate 935 people, according to “full operating cost” data from the Department of Corrections. Multiply that expense over their entire sentences, and the cost to taxpayers balloons to more than a hundred million dollars.

November 14, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Two upcoming executions with still lots of questions swirling

As noted in this recent NBC News piece, a lot of officials and celebrities are raising a lot of questions about the guilt of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed by Texas next week, on November 20, based on his conviction in the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites.

But tonight there is an execution scheduled in Georgia, and it is not without questions as well as detailed in this local article headlined "As execution nears, co-defendant says condemned man likely isn’t killer." Here are the basics:

A co-defendant of Georgia death row inmate Ray “Jeff” Cromartie, sentenced to be executed for murder, said recently he had no idea who pulled the trigger.... [T]he co-defendant says he's been keeping a secret the past 25 years that makes him believe Cromartie most likely wasn’t the gunman.

“I keep hearing that Jeff Cromartie is the shooter and I know that is probably not true,” Thad Lucas wrote in an affidavit released Monday, claiming he overheard another man confess to the shooting.  Lucas was the getaway driver for the 1994 store robbery turned shooting in South Georgia.  He and fellow defendant Corey Clark testified for the state, avoiding the death penalty and murder charges.

At the time, Clark testified that Cromartie was the gunman. Cromartie said it was Clark.  Now Lucas, who is Cromartie’s half-brother, says he overheard Clark confess to the crime. He said he didn’t come forward before now because he feared no one would listen....

Cromartie is scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Wednesday.  His attorneys are fighting for new DNA testing that they say could prove Cromartie didn’t pull the trigger.  Cromartie doesn’t deny involvement in the robbery, but he has maintained he wasn’t the shooter.

Generally speaking, Georgia’s party to a crime law could have made Cromartie eligible for the death penalty whether he pulled the trigger or not.  But his attorneys said the party to a crime law doesn’t apply now because prosecutors explicitly argued at trial that Cromartie fired the fatal shots.

On Monday, Cromartie’s attorney Shawn Nolan said the defense team was preparing a filing for the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to halt the execution based on Lucas’ statement. “No court has ever heard or considered this new evidence of Ray Cromartie’s innocence,” Nolan said.  “The state has denied his requests for DNA testing for years.  Mr. Cromartie’s jury sentenced him to death based on their conclusion he was the shooter. If he was not the shooter, his death sentence is not valid and his execution must not proceed."

November 13, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lots of victims/families and former officials urge Trump Administration not to move forward with federal executions

The Washington Post has this notable new article headlined "Hundreds of victims’ relatives, ex-officials ask Trump administration to halt federal executions."  Here are excerpts:

Hundreds of relatives of murder victims, current and former law enforcement officials and former judges have signed letters urging the Trump administration to call off its plans to resume federal executions next month.  The letters, which are signed by a wide range of current and former officials across the justice system as well as 175 people whose loved ones were slain, plead with President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr to stop the executions.

These messages offer several explanations and requests. The relatives of murder victims — the largest single group to sign the letters — call for an end to the death penalty, denouncing the process as wasteful and something that only extends their grieving.  “We want a justice system that holds people who commit violence accountable, reduces crime, provides healing, and is responsive to the needs of survivors,” they write.  “On all these measures, the death penalty fails.”

Barr announced over the summer that the Trump administration would carry out the first federal executions since 2003, scheduling them to resume on Dec. 9.  The move breaks with recent declines in both death penalty activity nationwide as well as public support for the practice.  “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a July statement declaring that executions would resume.  The Justice Department said five executions were scheduled for December and January and promised that more would follow.

The letters asking Barr and Trump to stop the executions — intended to arrive at the White House and Justice Department on Tuesday — contain pleas from victims’ families as well as current and former prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, judges and corrections officials, all citing their experiences and perspectives in arguing against resuming executions as scheduled.

Copies of the letters were shared with The Washington Post before they were submitted. A spokesman for the White House did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.  A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the letters and referred a reporter to Barr’s earlier statement announcing the resumption of executions.

In one letter, current and former prosecutors and other law enforcement officials express fears about innocent people being convicted, the financial cost of death penalty cases and racial disparities. “We are deeply concerned that the federal government plans to proceed with executions despite serious questions about the fairness and reliability of the system that condemned them,” they write.

The current and former officials — a group including some of the “progressive prosecutors” who won district attorney jobs after campaigning for criminal justice reforms — note that they include a mix of people who support and oppose the death penalty. Rather than calling for an end to capital punishment, they ask for “a comprehensive review of the system” before any federal executions can occur.  “It’s too big a risk and there’s nothing to be gained,” Jim Petro, a Republican and a former Ohio attorney general who signed the letter, said in an interview....

In the letter signed by murder victims’ relatives, they argue that the death penalty “exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one,” wastes money, does not deter crime and, due to the lengthy appeals process that keeps the cases going, delays the healing process.  Gail Rice — whose brother, Bruce VanderJagt, was a Denver police officer slain in 1997 by a man who killed himself — said she became an active death-penalty opponent after his death. Rice, who signed the letter to Trump and Barr, said her years working in prison and jail ministries showed her that justice is not fairly administered. “I’ll be praying for them,” she said of relatives of victims in the cases that led to the scheduled federal executions. “I would certainly tell them … please don’t listen to judges or prosecutors or legislators that are going to tell you this is wonderful, it brings closure, it brings healing. Because believe me, it doesn’t.”

The message in the letter from victims’ relatives echoes a plea from Earlene Peterson, who has separately asked the Trump administration not to kill Daniel Lewis Lee, the first federal inmate scheduled to be executed.  The Justice Department said Lee killed a family of three, among them an 8-year-old-girl and her mother — Sarah Powell and Nancy Mueller, Peterson’s granddaughter and daughter.  “I can’t see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way,” Peterson said in a video statement released last month. Peterson, noting that she voted for Trump and plans to do so again, said she wants the president to know: “I don’t want this to happen.”

November 12, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why are bureaucrats undermining the president on criminal justice?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris.  The piece laments developments, previously reported here and here, relating to the implementation of one part of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is are excerpts:

Justice Department bureaucrats have been quietly working to undermine President Trump and Congress by obstructing federal criminal justice reforms.  It is not surprising, and it is not the first time.  But it is a shame....

The Justice Department, according to various reports, is inexplicably spending taxpayer resources trying to find ways of bringing some of the prisoners released under the First Step Act back into federal custody.  An investigation by Reuters found dozens of instances in which the Justice Department argued against releasing these prisoners early, usually basing their new cases on some technicality like “the total amount of drugs that were found to be involved during the investigation, rather than the often smaller or more vague amount laid out in the law they violated years ago.”

It is no secret that the Justice Department zealously opposed the First Step Act, but I remained hopeful when its officials promised to fully and faithfully implement the law.  I applauded when they had issued progress reports on each of the provisions of the First Step Act.  But never once in these reports nor anywhere else did the Justice Department publicly disclose their plan to direct prosecutors to oppose release petitions.

Fortunately, most of those attempts to keep these individuals behind bars, or to reincarcerate them after the fact, have been struck down by federal judges.  But that is not stopping obstructionists within Justice Department ranks from continuing to thwart the will of President Trump, the will of Congress, and the will of the people to implement the First Step Act.

The Justice Department has long acted on an island, separate from the administration and accountable to no one.  The surreptitious obstruction of First Step is just the latest in a long line of unilateral actions aimed at undermining badly needed reforms to our broken criminal justice system.  Others questionable federal actions include reopening for profit prisons, directing prosecutors to charge all defendants with the highest provable offenses, and eliminating the investigations of police departments that repeatedly violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect.

Predictably, the latest obstruction of the popular First Step Act is not sitting well with leaders on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois told Reuters, “The notion that the Department of Justice is just going to keep nagging at them and appealing these cases is not what we have ever had in mind.”  Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah likewise told the Washington Post, “It would be a shame if the people working under the president failed to implement the bill as written.”...

In the face of this obstruction, Congress may finally be willing to push back hard against Justice Department attempts to act as a fourth branch of government.  Too many are invested in the success of the First Step Act to overlook attempts to undermine it.  I urge the leaders in the House and Senate to vigorously exercise their oversight authority over an institution that has operated on an island for far too long, and ensure that their own groundbreaking efforts to restore some justice to a broken system is not thwarted by the very officials who pledged to faithfully implement it.

Prior related posts:

November 12, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Disaggregating Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Doctrine: Four Forms of Constitutional Ineffectiveness"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Eve Brensike Primus now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

For years, experts have blamed Strickland v. Washington’s lax standard for assessing trial attorney effectiveness for many of the criminal justice system’s problems.  But the conventional understanding of Strickland as a problem for ineffectiveness claims gives Strickland too much prominence, because it treats Strickland as the test for all such claims. That is a mistake.  Properly understood, the Supreme Court has recognized four different constitutional forms of trial attorney ineffectiveness, and Strickland’s two-pronged test applies to only one of the four.  If litigants and courts would notice the complexity and relegate Strickland to its proper place, it would pave the way for meritorious ineffectiveness claims of the other three kinds.  This Article disaggregates strands of Sixth Amendment doctrine that others have jumbled together so as to enable courts and litigants to confine Strickland to its proper domain and use more appropriate analyses elsewhere.

The Article also explains why additional disaggregation is necessary within the category of cases where Strickland rightly applies.  Implicitly, the Supreme Court has created not one but three tests for assessing deficient performance within that domain, and it has indicated a willingness to soften the outcome-determinative prejudice prong as well.  Failure to recognize these different forms of Strickland ineffectiveness has made the test seem much harder for defendants to satisfy than needs to be true.  Recognizing these complexities, and applying the right test in the right case, is necessary if individual defendants are to be treated fairly and systemic constitutional problems in the provision of indigent defense services are to be addressed.

November 11, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 08, 2019

Spotlighting again how the Justice Department is resisting broad applicability of certain FIRST STEP Act provisions

In this post from July, I noted this Reuters article on some of the court skirmishes over the crack sentencing retroactivity provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  That piece carried this headline: "As new U.S. law frees inmates, prosecutors seek to lock some back up."  Now the Washington Post has this lengthy piece in a similar vein under this headline: "Trump boasts that his landmark law is freeing these inmates. His Justice Department wants them to stay in prison." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The gathering in April was a triumphant celebration of the First Step Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in a generation. Since its passage nearly a year ago, the law has led to the release of more than 3,000 inmates — including [Gregory] Allen, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2001.

The Justice Department, though, had never wanted to let Allen out of prison. In fact, even as he and Trump shared a joyous embrace on television, federal prosecutors were trying to persuade a judge to put Allen back behind bars.

The president has repeatedly pointed to the First Step Act as one of his administration’s chief bipartisan achievements and one for which he is personally responsible. But cases like Allen’s expose a striking rift between the White House allies who supported the law and the Justice Department officials now working to limit the number of inmates who might benefit from it.

“DOJ is pushing against the will of the people, the will of Congress, the will of the president,” said Holly Harris, a conservative activist and leader of the Justice Action Network who worked with Congress and the White House to pass the law. Harris noted that, before the law’s passage, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a vocal critic of reducing prison sentences. His successor, William P. Barr, expressed similar reservations before his appointment.

The First Step Act aims to lessen long-standing disparities in punishment for nonviolent drug offenses involving crack cocaine. Having five grams of crack, a form of cocaine that is more common among black drug users, used to carry the same mandatory minimum sentence as having 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is more common among white drug users.

But federal prosecutors are arguing in hundreds of cases that inmates who have applied for this type of relief are ineligible, according to a review of court records and interviews with defense attorneys. In at least half a dozen cases, prosecutors are seeking to reincarcerate offenders who have been released under the First Step Act.

The department has told federal prosecutors that when determining whether to challenge an application for early release, they should consider not the amount of crack an inmate was convicted of having or trafficking — but rather the amount that court records suggest they may have actually had, which is often much larger.

A Justice spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, defended that interpretation, though he declined to discuss the department’s guidance to prosecutors or to say when it was disseminated. He did not respond to questions about the split between the department and the White House allies who pushed for the law. Hornbuckle said that in years past, prosecutors could secure lengthy prison sentences without having to prove an offender had large amounts of drugs. Under today’s laws, he said, those same offenders would probably be charged with crimes involving larger quantities. “The government’s position is that the text of the statute requires courts to look at the quantity of crack that was part of the actual crime,” Hornbuckle said. “This is a fairness issue.”

In the vast majority of cases reviewed by The Washington Post, judges have disagreed with the Justice Department’s interpretation. Some of the people involved in writing the legislation also disagree, including Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah. He and other supporters of the law note that the text of the legislation does not explicitly instruct courts to consider the actual amount of crack an offender allegedly had. “This is not a faithful implementation of this part of the First Step Act,” said Tolman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “At some point, they figured out a way to come back and argue that it wouldn’t apply to as many people.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused the Justice Department at a congressional hearing last month of “trying to sabotage” the law by interpreting it in this way. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a key Republican sponsor of the law, declined to comment on the department’s stance on inmate eligibility but told The Post he had concerns about how other aspects of the law are being implemented. “It would be a shame if the people working under the President failed to implement the bill as written,” Lee said in a recent statement to The Post....

“The people that did the deal, including President Trump, wanted to help guys like me,” said Allen, 49, whose case was mentioned in a Reuters story in July about efforts by some prosecutors to clamp down on First Step Act relief. “But on the flip side, you have federal prosecutors who wake up every day trying to keep guys like me locked up.”...

The First Step Act was championed by a bipartisan coalition that spanned the political spectrum, from the conservative megadonor Koch brothers toracial-justice activist Van Jones. The legislation forbids federal jailers from shackling pregnant inmates and grants judges new powers to free sick and elderly prisoners. One of the most consequential parts of the law was the provision allowing federal inmates such as Allen to apply for early release. The mandatory sentencing policies those offenders faced are among the factors that have led the United States to incarcerate more people than any other nation, experts say....

Trump has made criminal justice reform a chief talking point in recent months, and several of his advisers — including Kushner — believe it could play an important role in his reelection bid, said Doug Deason, a prominent donor to the Trump campaign. A senior campaign official added that the Trump campaign plans to tout the First Step Act in the hopes of attracting black voters in key states such as North Carolina and Florida.

The legislation has earned Trump goodwill from unlikely corners, something he craves amid an impeachment inquiry. Last week, he beamed onstage in Columbia, S.C., as he was presented with an award from a bipartisan advocacy group of black elected officials. “I told him, ‘You ought to go and get that award,’” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “There ain’t many people giving you an award these days.”

Backstage, Trump talked up the idea of another such law, asking Steve Benjamin, the city’s mayor, whether he should call it the Second Step Act, the mayor recalled. Yet even as Trump toasts himself for the legislative victory, defense attorneys and advocates are frustrated that the White House is not doing more to ensure that the law is implemented as intended.

“The irony of this administration working against itself is mind-boggling,” said Brittany Barnett, a defense attorney who has worked on several of the First Step Act cases championed by Kardashian. “Especially with lives on the line.”

In the weeks after the bill became law, many federal prosecutors allowed inmate petitions for early release to go unchallenged. Then, at the direction of officials in Washington, prosecutors began to reverse course, court records show. In March, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Bockhorst asked federal judges in West Virginia to place a hold on more than two dozen applications for relief — some of which she had not previously opposed. She wrote that she expected to oppose at least some of those applications based on new guidance from the Justice Department.

In a brief phone interview, Bockhorst said the government shutdown that began soon after the bill passed and lasted until late January delayed the guidance from Washington. “We didn’t have the benefit of any kind of coordinated position,” she said. Similar reversals took place in New York, where prosecutors agreed in April that certain inmates were eligible — only to change their position in May. In one case, a judge found the reversal striking enough to ask what prompted it.

Prior related post:

November 8, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

"Taking a second look at life imprisonment"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Boston Globe commentary authored by Nancy Gertner and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:

While there has been a great deal of attention in recent years to the impact of the drug war on growing prison populations, in fact, the main drivers of the prison system now are excessive sentences for violent offenses.

The statistics are troubling.  There are as many individuals [in Massachusetts] serving life sentences as the entire state prison population in 1970, and more than half are black or Latino. Of the 2,000 lifers in the state, about half are not eligible for parole.  Barring executive clemency, they will die in prison after spending decades behind bars.

Since 90 percent of lifers nationally have been convicted of serious violent crimes, supporters of lifelong incarceration argue that incapacitating such people is an effective crime-control mechanism.  In fact, it is the opposite: It is counterproductive for public safety.

Criminologists know that individuals “age out” of crime.  Any parent of a teenager understands that misbehavior, often serious, is all too common at this stage.  FBI arrest data show that the rate of arrest for teenage boys rises sharply from the mid-teen years through the early 20s but then declines significantly. Arrests for robbery, for example, peak at age 19 but decline by more than half by age 30 and by three-quarters by age 40. The same is true for other violent crimes.

The reason is clear.  As teenage boys enter their 20s, they lose their impulsivity, get jobs, find life partners, form families, and generally take on adult roles.  Violent behavior becomes less attractive.

For public safety purposes incarcerating people past age 40 produces diminishing returns for crime control; less and less crime is prevented by incapacitation each year.  This impact is magnified by resource tradeoffs.  National estimates for the cost of incarcerating an elderly person are at least $60,000 a year, in large part due to the need for health care.  With finite public safety resources, these costs are not available to invest in family and community support for the new cohort of teenagers, for whom proactive initiatives could lower the risk of antisocial behavior.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston and Senator Joe Boncore of Winthrop, along with 34 cosponsors, would help to ameliorate this problem in Massachusetts.  Under the bill’s “second look” provision, individuals serving life without parole would be eligible for a parole review after serving 25 years....

Recently, there has been a bipartisan critique of the effects of mass incarceration, particularly on low-income communities of color.  State policy makers across the country are exploring ways to reduce excessive prison populations without adverse effects on public safety.  The proposed “second look” provision offers one significant alternative.  It should be passed.

November 7, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Very different looks on criminal justice reform for governors in Oklahoma and New York

As spotlighted in prior posts here and here and here, Oklahoma this week saw a series of interesting and important criminal justice reform efforts culminate in the release of more than 400 prisoners as part of the largest mass commutation in U.S. history (details here).  Thanks to Twitter, I saw this video clip of persons being released from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.  Notably, in addition to being greeted by friends and families, the released individuals also saw Governor Kevin Stitt and First Lady Sarah Stitt awaiting their release to congratulate them.

Not long after I saw this video and the heartening involvement of Oklahoma Governor Stitt in this historic criminal justice reform story, I saw this press article discussing the disheartening work of New York Governor Cuomo is a much more discouraging criminal justice story.  The piece is headlined "Gov. Cuomo's Program for More Clemency Applications Appears to Stall, As Prisoners Wait and Hope for a Second Chance," and here are excerpts:

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s program to help more prisoners apply for clemency in New York State appears to be stalled and the Governor’s office is declining to explain why.

In 2017, Cuomo asked lawyers to volunteer to help identify prisoners worthy of his mercy, and assist them in making their best case for a shortened sentence. More than two hundred lawyers stepped up. But two years and thousands of pro bono hours later, Governor Cuomo has neither approved nor denied any of the 107 clemency applications filed through the program.

“It’s discouraging. We’ve put a lot of resources into it.” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which partnered with Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the State at the Governor’s request. “We put people away for ridiculous amounts of time, often for mistakes they made when they were very young,” Reimer added.

Lawyers involved in the NACDL/FAMM project tell News 4 because there has been no action in these cases, they are reluctant to take on new prisoners. More than 1,600 prisoners are currently waiting to be assigned attorneys through the project. “The idea that you can’t find a single one of those to grant is inconceivable to me. There’s just no greater feeling than giving somebody freedom,” said NYU Law Professor Rachel Barkow and author of "Prisoners of Politics."

The power to commute a prisoner’s sentence rests solely with the Governor. NACDL says the Cuomo administration has been highly cooperative, producing records and helping to vet cases.

Cuomo administration insiders familiar with the clemency review process say the problem is not that these cases are being ignored. Sources with first hand knowledge say the cases submitted by NACDL/FAMM were carefully reviewed by a team of attorneys inside the office of the Counsel to the Governor. They say the team identified a group of worthy candidates for a possible mid-year clemency grant this past Spring, but the Governor did not act.

Timing, they speculated, may have played a role, citing pushback from some law enforcement groups for Cuomo’s role in the early release of Judith Clark in May 2019. Clark was the getaway driver in the deadly 1981 Brink’s robbery and the Governor commuted her sentence to make her eligible for early parole. One person who has discussed the project at length with the Governor’s senior staff described a sense that politically speaking, “the bang was not worth the buck.”

Several sources familiar with the internal review process say the Governor’s office may have been taken aback by the large number of applications lawyers submitted on behalf of prisoners who committed violent felonies. These cases are more politically sensitive for a governor, because it is not uncommon for district attorneys, law enforcement groups and family members of victims to oppose early release.

But Norman Reimer says if the severity of the crimes is the reason for Cuomo’s inaction, that’s not how the governor’s office promised to approach this process. “What I like about Governor Cuomo’s initiative is he didn’t limit it based on the nature of the crime," said Reimer. "We pressed that issue and it was an affirmative decision by them to let the person’s record of rehabilitation speak the loudest, even in violent crimes.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation for his inaction on the NACDL/FAMM cases, nor for a breakdown of the clemency grants he has issued. According to public reports, Cuomo has commuted at least 18 sentences in almost nine years, including three in 2018.

Barkow says compared with some other Democratic governors, Cuomo has used his executive clemency powers sparingly. Gavin Newsom of California commuted the sentences of 23 prisoners since September of this year, including prisoners involved in violent felonies....

In last year's primary, the progressive wing of the Democratic party hammered Cuomo for what they considered insufficient criminal justice reforms. “The people who care about these issues want to see real results,” said Professor Barkow. “They want to see that people are walking the walk and not just kind of throwing talk out there.” As for Cuomo’s record on justice issues like clemency and marijuana legalization, Barkow added “It seems like the pattern is to wait and just make sure where the political winds are blowing.”

November 5, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 04, 2019

"Experimental Punishments"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by John Stinneford.  Here is its abstract:

The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits, under its original meaning, punishments that are unjustly harsh in light of longstanding prior practice.  The Clause does not prohibit all new punishments; rather, it directs that when a new punishment is introduced it should be compared to traditional punishments that enjoy long usage.  This standard presents a challenge when the government introduces a new method of punishment, particularly one that is advertised as more “progressive” or “humane” than those it replaces.  It may not always be obvious, for example, how to compare a prison sentence to a public flogging, or death by lethal injection to death by hanging. When the new method of punishment is introduced, it is often an experimental punishment whose constitutional status is not immediately clear.

This Article shows how usage over time clarifies the constitutional status of experimental punishments by revealing two types of data that may not be available at the time the punishment is adopted.  First, the degree of stable reception the punishment achieves over time indicates whether society has accepted the punishment as consistent with the overall tradition.  The Eighth Amendment is premised on the idea that long usage is the most reliable method of determining what is cruel and what is not.  The longer a practice is used, and the more universally it is received, the more likely it is to comport with the demands of justice.  On the other hand, failure to achieve long usage may be powerful evidence that a punishment is cruel.  Second, usage over time can reveal more clearly how harsh the effects of the punishment are in comparison to traditional punishments. Innovations in punishment such as long-term solitary confinement, involuntary sterilization, and three-drug lethal injection all appeared “progressive” and “humane” when first adopted, but usage over time has shown their effects to be unjustly harsh in comparison with the practices they have replaced.

November 4, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Giving Oklahoma its criminal justice reform due

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear more about red-state Oklahoma's interesting and important criminal justice reform efforts, as I have tried to highlight here repeatedly the more-than-okay news from the OK state.  But with record-setting clemency developments (first noted here), the mainstream media is catching up as evidence by these recent pieces:

From the Boston Globe, "What a conservative state can teach us about progressive criminal justice reform"

From US News, "Oklahoma Focuses on Criminal Justice Reform"

From the Washington Post, "Oklahoma approves largest single-day commutation in U.S. history"

UPDATE: Here are a few more new pieces from the national media:

From CNN, "462 Oklahoma inmates will be released today in the largest commutation in US history"

From USA Today, "Hundreds of Oklahoma inmates to be freed, the largest mass release in US history"

November 3, 2019 in Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 01, 2019

"The Decline of the Judicial Override"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Michael Radelet and G. Ben Cohen.  Here is its abstract:

Since 1972, the Supreme Court has experimented with regulation of the death penalty, seeking the illusive goals of consistency, reliability, and fairness.  In this century, the court held that the Sixth Amendment prohibited judges from making findings necessary to impose a death sentence.  Separately, the court held that the Eighth Amendment safeguarded evolving standards of decency as measured by national consensus.

In this article, we discuss the role of judges in death determinations, identifying jurisdictions that initially (post 1972) allowed judge sentencing and naming the individuals who today remain under judge-imposed death sentences.  The decisions guaranteeing a jury determination have so far been applied only to cases that have not undergone initial review in state courts.  Key questions remain unresolved, including whether the evolving standards of decency permit the execution of more than 100 individuals who were condemned to death by judges without a jury's death verdict before implementation of the rules that now require unanimous jury votes.

November 1, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rounding up some death penalty news and notes

In order to cover a number of notable death penalty stories of late, I will resort here to a round up of headlines and links.  As always, I welcome reader feedback on whether some of these pieces (or others in this arena) merit additional attention:

From the AP, "Georgia Supreme Court temporarily halts man’s execution"

From the AP, "2 more Ohio executions delayed amid lack of lethal drugs"

From The Appeal, "Using Nitrogen Gas For Executions Is Untested And Poorly Understood. Three States Plan To Do It Anyway."

From The Conversation, "The death penalty is getting more and more expensive. Is it worth it?"

From the Death Penalty Information Center, "More Than 250 Conservative Leaders Join Call to End Death Penalty"

From the New York Times, "Before First Federal Execution in Years, Family of Victims Dissents"

UPDATE: A few more:

From The Crime Report, "Feds ‘Out of Touch’ on Death Penalty, says Conservative Leader"

From Mother Jones, "Trump Loves the Death Penalty. These Conservatives Don’t."

From NET, "No Scheduled Executions, But Courts Busy With Nebraska Death Penalty Issues"

October 31, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)