Friday, September 30, 2022

"The Lost Right to Jury Trial in 'All' Criminal Prosecutions"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article available via SSRN authored by Andrea L. Roth. Here is its abstract:

The Sixth Amendment states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to . . . trial, by an impartial jury.”  Similarly, Article III mandates that the trial of “all crimes, other than impeachment, shall be by jury.” Nonetheless, tens of thousands of federal defendants each year are denied a jury in “petty” cases with a potential sentence of six months or less.  These cases can carry significant consequences and involve not only regulatory crimes but traditional crimes like theft, assault, and sexual abuse.  This apparently blatant contradiction of the Constitution’s text is justified by the so-called “petty-offense exception,” originating in nineteenth-century Supreme Court dictum that cited to the Founding-era practice of allowing certain offenses deemed “petty” by Parliament or colonial charters to be summarily tried by a justice of the peace.

While a couple of commentators over the last century have criticized this doctrine, it has never been fully litigated. Harnessing previously unexplored historical and textual sources, this Article offers the most comprehensive argument to date that the petty offense exception’s existing rationales are untenable.  Indeed, as the sources reveal, controversial summary bench trials could just as naturally be read as inspiration for the Framers’ conspicuous decision to guarantee a jury in “all” criminal prosecutions.  Ultimately, if one looks to text and history to interpret the jury right, it must at the very least extend to defendants formally charged by the Department of Justice in federal criminal court.  The Article concludes by exploring the implications of a jury right in federal petty cases, including the importance of the right, and implications for state defendants and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

September 30, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, September 29, 2022

New US Sentencing Commission releases its first set of tentative policy priorities

As reported in this USSC press release, the "newly constituted United States Sentencing Commission today issued tentative policy priorities for the 2022-2023 amendment year — with top focus on implementation of the First Step Act of 2018."  Here is more:

The First Step Act, which authorized defendants to file motions in federal court, helped facilitate a substantial increase in compassionate release filings during the COVID-19 pandemic but the Commission recently reported wide variation in grant rates among the federal courts (more here).

The Commission also proposed a focus on implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022 relating to firearms penalties under §2K2.1, one of the most common sentencing guidelines applied annually.  The act created new penalties for straw purchasers and increased penalties for other firearms offenses.

In addition, the Commission proposed consideration of several circuit court conflicts that have emerged since the loss of a quorum.  Commissioners also identified as a priority further examination of the guidelines relating to criminal history in light of the agency’s studies on recidivism and complications in the application of the career offender provision.  

U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, Chair of the Commission remarked, “This amendment cycle is a particularly exciting and challenging one for the Commission.  It will require swift consensus-building among my colleagues and thoughtful feedback from all our stakeholders.”

The Commission’s amendment cycle typically begins in June and ends the following April (more here).  The recently confirmed Commissioners will work on an expedited timetable to finalize priorities in October and adopt amendments by May 1, 2023.

Reeves stated, “We know much is expected of this new Commission beyond these immediate priorities, and we are eager to start laying that groundwork.  We will operate in a deliberative, empirically-based, and inclusive manner — open to voices from all parts of our federal criminal justice system — judges, Congress, the Department of Justice, the Federal Public Defenders, probation officers, victims, important advocacy groups, and the public at large.”

A complete list of proposed priorities and comment submission instructions can be found here.  Public comment will be accepted through October 17, 2022.  

There are lots and lots of "hot topics" covered in the 13 items specified by the Commission in this new list of tentative priorities. Though I could get excited about just about all of them, I see particularly interesting possibility lurking in this "group of four":

(8) Consideration of possible amendments to the Guidelines Manual addressing 28 U.S.C. § 994(j).

(9) Consideration of possible amendments to the Guidelines Manual to prohibit the use of acquitted conduct in applying the guidelines.

(10) Multiyear study of the Guidelines Manual to address case law concerning the validity and enforceability of guideline commentary.

(11) Continuation of its multiyear examination of the structure of the guidelines post-Booker to simplify the guidelines while promoting the statutory purposes of sentencing.

Exciting times!!

September 29, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Spotlighting again the decarceral success of the CARES Act

Because it is often so very easy to notice and spotlight government failings in the crime and punishment arena, it is nice to have opportunities to highlight government successes in this world.  So, though I have noted before the great data about the success of persons released from federal prison early under the CARES Act, I am happy to see Molly Gill talking up this data in this new Washington Post opinion piece headlined "Thousands were released from prison during covid. The results are shocking."  Here are excerpts:

We are keeping many people in prison even though they are no danger to the public, a jaw-dropping new statistic shows. That serves as proof that it’s time to rethink our incarceration policies for those with a low risk of reoffending.

To protect those most vulnerable to covid-19 during the pandemic, the Cares Act allowed the Justice Department to order the release of people in federal prisons and place them on home confinement. More than 11,000 people were eventually released. Of those, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that only 17 of them committed new crimes.

That’s not a typo. Seventeen. That’s a 0.15 percent recidivism rate in a country where it’s normal for 30 to 65 percent of people coming home from prison to reoffend within three years of release.

Of those 17 people, most new offenses were for possessing or selling drugs or other minor offenses. Of the 17 new crimes, only one was violent (an aggravated assault), and none were sex offenses.

This extremely low recidivism rate shows there are many, many people in prison we can safely release to the community. These 11,000 releases were not random. People in low- and minimum-security prisons or at high risk of complications from covid were prioritized for consideration for release....

The Cares Act policy teaches us that many of our prison sentences are unnecessarily lengthy. People who commit crimes should be held accountable, and that might include serious time in prison. Many of the people released to home confinement had years or even decades left to serve on their sentences. But they changed in prison and are no longer a danger to others, as the new data confirms.

Releases to home confinement were also focused on two groups of people who pose little to no risk to public safety: the elderly and the ill (i.e., those most likely to face serious covid complications). Study after study confirms that people become less likely to reoffend as they get older. America’s elderly prison population is growing rapidly, because of our use of lengthy prison terms.

People with serious chronic illnesses or physical disabilities are another group who can be safely released from long sentences. They are not dangerous, but their increased medical needs make them exponentially more expensive to incarcerate. Taxpayers aren’t getting much public safety bang for their buck when we incarcerate bedridden people.

The federal Cares Act home confinement program should inspire similar programs across the country. Virtually all states have programs available to release elderly or very sick people from prison, but they are hardly used and should be expanded. States should also give people serving the longest sentences a chance to go back to court after 10 or 15 years and prove that they have changed and can be safely released.

The data is in. It shows that we can thoughtfully release low-risk people from prison with supervision and not cause a new crime wave. At a time when crime is going up in so many cities and towns, we cannot afford to waste money or resources keeping those who no longer need to be in prison locked up.

Prior related posts:

September 29, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New bill, Federal Prison Oversight Act, part of continued congressional push for federal prison oversight

As detailed in this AP article, a "bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation Wednesday to overhaul oversight and bring greater transparency to the crisis-plagued federal Bureau of Prisons."  Here is more:

The bill, called the Federal Prison Oversight Act, would require the Justice Department to create a prisons ombudsman to field complaints about prison conditions, and would compel the department’s inspector general to evaluate risks and abuses at all 122 federal prison facilities.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., Mike Braun, R-Ind., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is being introduced a day before Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Durbin chairs.

Ossoff, Braun and Durbin are three founding members of the Senate Bipartisan Prison Policy Working Group. The panel launched in February amid turmoil at the Bureau of Prisons, much of it uncovered by AP reporting, including rampant sexual abuse and other criminal misconduct by staff, chronic understaffing, escapes and deaths. “It’s no secret that BOP has been plagued by misconduct,” Durbin said. “One investigation after another has revealed a culture of abuse, mismanagement, corruption, torture, and death that reaches to the highest levels. And yet it still operates without any meaningful independent oversight. The result has been catastrophic for both incarcerated people and staff.”

A companion bill in the House is sponsored by Reps. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. and Reps. Lucy McBath, D-Ga. Under the Federal Prison Oversight Act, the Justice Department’s inspector general would be required to conduct risk-based inspections of all federal prison facilities, provide recommendations to address deficiencies and assign each facility a risk score. Higher-risk facilities would then receive more frequent inspections.

The inspector general would also be required to report findings and recommendations to Congress and the public, and the Bureau of Prisons would then need to respond with a corrective action plan within 60 days. A prison ombudsman would be established to take complaints — via a secure hotline and online form — and investigate and report to the attorney general and Congress dangerous conditions affecting the health, safety, welfare and rights of inmates and staff....

The reforms have the backing of a wide array of groups involved in the federal prison system and across the political spectrum, including the correctional officers’ union, the inmate advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Conservative Union and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity....  Shane Fausey, the president of the Council of Prison Locals union, is also scheduled to testify Thursday, along with the former head of Pennsylvania’s state prison system, John Wetzel, and Cecilia Cardenas, a former federal inmate.

The folks at FAMM have this detailed summary of The Federal Prison Oversight Act of 2022.  Today's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons," can be followed at this link.  And Shanna Rifkin is live-tweeting the hearing starting with this tweet.

September 29, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Spotlighting one Governor's notable clemency track record

The Guardian has this notable lengthy new piece, fully headlined "The story of one US governor’s historic use of clemency: ‘We are a nation of second chances’; Kate Brown has granted more commutations or pardons than all of Oregon’s governor from the last 50 years combined."  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

Last October, Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, signed an executive order granting clemency to 73 people who had committed crimes as juveniles, clearing a path for them to apply for parole.

The move marked the high point in a remarkable arc: as Brown approaches the end of her second term in January, she has granted commutations or pardons to 1,147 people – more than all of Oregon’s governors from the last 50 years combined.

The story of clemency in Oregon is one of major societal developments colliding: the pressure the Covid-19 pandemic put on the prison system and growing momentum for criminal justice reform.

It’s also a story of a governor’s personal convictions and how she came to embrace clemency as a tool for criminal justice reform and as an act of grace, exercising the belief that compassionate mercy and ensuring public safety are not mutually exclusive.

“If you are confident that you can keep people safe, you’ve given victims the opportunity to have their voices heard and made sure their concerns are addressed, and individuals have gone through an extensive amount of rehabilitation and shown accountability, what is the point of continuing to incarcerate someone, other than retribution?” Brown said in a June interview.

September 28, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Voices from Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons: A System Designed to Silence and Dehumanize"

The title of this post is the title of this notable recent report from the nonprofits More Than Our Crimes and The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Here is part of the report's executive summary:

Prison walls are erected not only to keep people in, but to prevent the world from seeing the abuses of our carceral system.  The inhumanity of what happens behind bars, as is demonstrated by the accounts of incarcerated persons in this report, is deliberately hidden from view in faraway prisons surrounded by high walls and double fences of razor wire.  Few people other than those who are confined or work in prisons have a full view of how they operate.  Glimpses provided by litigation or a scandal are rare and transitory; sustained transparency is nonexistent. This opacity allows dehumanizing conditions to be sustained and grow worse.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) is comprised of 122 institutions, incarcerating more than 157,000 people, that are among the least transparent and accountable in the nation.  The violent, dehumanizing and dangerous conditions in FBOP prisons harm families and communities in every state; impacting the mothers, fathers, children and siblings who lose loved ones to this sprawling network....

Yet, despite this extremely problematic history, the FBOP operates with no real accountability. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General routinely lists “maintaining a safe, secure and humane prison system” as one of its top management challenges.  FBOP and prison leadership seem to be either unwilling or incapable of ensuring that even minimum standards are met.  As Sen. Dick Durban, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted, FBOP Director Michael Carvajal (since resigned) has “overseen a series of mounting crises, including failing to protect BOP staff and inmates from the COVID-19 pandemic, failing to address chronic understaffing, failing to implement the landmark First Step Act, and more.”

However, the overarching conclusion of this report is that reform cannot be achieved solely by replacing Director Carvajal with new blood.  The problems with the FBOP are cultural, entrenched and systemic, and independently enforced accountability must be the cornerstone of any serious attempt to change.  That cannot be achieved without replacing the current grievance procedure that incarcerated individuals must follow — which too often triggers retaliation as severe as physical abuse — with a process that is safe, reliable and fair.

September 28, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Extended discussion of the messy uncertainty of Excessive Fines jurisprudence from Ohio Supreme Court

Earlier this month, as well detailed in this lengthy courthouse news piece headlined "Court-Ordered Truck Forfeiture for Third Drunk-Driving Offense Found Constitutional," a split Ohio Supreme Court upheld the forfeiture of a 2014 Chevrolet Silverado for a repeat OVI offense. Here is how the ruling in State v. O'Malley, No. 2022-Ohio-3207 (Ohio Sept 25, 2022) (available here) gets started:

In this case, we are asked two separate questions about R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v) and Ohio’s criminal-forfeiture scheme for vehicles owned and used by repeat drunk drivers.  First, we are asked whether that scheme violates the Equal Protection Clauses in the state and federal Constitutions by treating owners and nonowners differently.  Next, we are asked, more specifically, whether the forfeiture of appellant James O’Malley’s 2014 Chevrolet Silverado constituted an excessive fine in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We find that there was no equal-protection violation and that, as applied to O’Malley, the vehicle forfeiture mandated by R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v) did not violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment because it was not grossly disproportional to the gravity of his offense.  Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Ninth District Court of Appeals affirming the trial court’s forfeiture order.

The equal protection discussion in O'Malley is relatively brief, but the Eighth Amendment analysis is extended and should be of interest to those still trying to figure out how excessive punishment are to be constitutionally assessed. There are many passages from the majority opinion that are notable, but this one particularly struck me as jurisprudentially interesting:

The application of these multifactor proportionality tests generally varies depending on whether the forfeiture is in personam or in rem and depending on whether the property to be forfeited is real property, personal property, or something else. The problem is that there does not appear to be any consensus.  Nevertheless, O’Malley and his amicus curiae ask us to do what other federal and state courts have done: set forth a multifactor test that would include in the proportionality analysis considerations of the defendant’s financial ability to pay and the extent to which the forfeiture would harm the defendant’s livelihood.  While we appreciate the allure of a seemingly airtight checklist that ideally would — but in practice may not — address all future contingencies, we do not believe — for both practical and principled reasons — that it is necessary or appropriate for us to establish the multifactor test sought in this case.  Instead, we rely on our decision in Hill and the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Bajakajian to evaluate the forfeiture imposed in this case.

The dissenting opinion criticizes this approach by claiming that we provide no additional guidance and merely engage in error correction.  The dissent is mistaken.  Rather, in this case, we have revisited an issue that is of great public interest, reviewed how the issue has developed over the past 30 years since we decided Hill, and have simply come to the same conclusion that we reached in Hill — a bright-line test analyzing an Eighth Amendment excessiveness challenge is not appropriate.  We must allow trial courts flexibility so that they may consider the situation before them and make a fully informed and reasoned decision about whether a forfeiture is unconstitutionally excessive.  We need not bind trial courts’ hands in these already difficult forfeiture cases.

September 28, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 26, 2022

Kentucky parole board orders school shooter to serve out the remainder of his life sentence

In this post last month, titled "Grappling with parole possibilities a quarter-century after horrific school shooting by young teen," I flagged an article discussing the first modern teen school shooter who was due to receive parole consideration 25 years after his crime.  This new lengthy CNN piece reports on the results of the process, and here are excerpts:

The Kentucky Parole Board on Monday denied parole to Michael Carneal, a man serving a life sentence for killing three students in a school shooting in 1997 when he was 14 years old. The ruling by the full parole board to have Carneal serve out his sentence comes after a two-person panel failed to reach a unanimous decision about Carneal’s release last week.

“Due to the seriousness of your crime — your crime involved a weapon, you had lives taken, and the seriousness, again — it is the decision of the parole board today to allow you to serve out the remainder of your sentence,” Parole Board Chairperson Ladeidra Jones said Monday. Carneal, who attended the hearing via video conference, responded, “Yes ma’am,” and stepped out of frame.

Carneal has served nearly 25 years in prison for opening fire at Heath High School in Paducah on December 1, 1997, killing the three students and wounding five others just after the students’ prayer circle in the lobby said “Amen.” Carneal pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, and a count of first-degree burglary. While he was sentenced to life in prison, Kentucky law requires that minors be considered for parole after 25 years.

Many survivors and families of the victims were opposed to Carneal’s requested release.  But now 39, Carneal pleaded his case to members of the parole board in a hearing last week, saying that if he were released, he planned to live with his parents, continue undergoing mental health treatment and eventually get a job.

Carneal’s public defender, Alana Meyer, asked the board to remember Carneal was a teenager when he opened fire, was suffering from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and was struggling with bullying and the transition from middle to high school. In the quarter century since, Carneal “has committed himself to his mental health treatment, to participating in available educational and vocational programs, and to being a helpful and positive person within the prison,” Meyer wrote....

Carneal told the panel he has received multiple mental health diagnoses and has long heard voices in his head – including on the day of the shooting.  He said that before opening fire he heard a voice telling him to “pick up the gun out of the backpack and hold it in front of me and shoot.”

“There’s no justification or excuse for what I did,” Carneal said. “I’m offering an explanation. I realize there’s no excuse for what I did.”  Carneal said he still hears voices in his head, but now knows when to ignore them.

A colleague has informed me that there is litigation in lower courts contesting the legality of the Kentucky parole board converting a life with parole sentence into a life without parole sentence via this kind of "serve out" order.  

September 26, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Spotlighting the ugly problems with incarceration deaths (and with data collection by the Justice Department)

Last week brought this notable bipartisan Senate report with a title that largely highlights its main points: "Uncounted Deaths in America’s Prisons & Jails: How the Department Of Justice Failed to Implement the Death In Custody Reporting Act."  Here is the report's "Executive Summary":

Approximately 1.5 million people are incarcerated in state and local correctional facilities throughout the United States.  Thousands die every year.  The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 (“DCRA 2013” or “the reauthorization”) — reauthorizing a law that first passed in 2000 — requires states that accept certain federal funding to report to the Department of Justice (“DOJ” or “the Department”) about who is dying in prisons and jails.

Over the course of a ten-month bipartisan investigation into DOJ’s implementation of the law, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (“PSI” or “the Subcommittee”) found that DOJ is failing to effectively implement DCRA 2013.  DOJ’s failed implementation of DCRA 2013 undermined the effective, comprehensive, and accurate collection of custodial death data.

This failure in turn undermined transparency and Congressional oversight of deaths in custody.  The Subcommittee has found that DOJ will be at least eight years past-due in providing Congress with the DCRA 2013-required 2016 report on how custodial deaths can be reduced.  The Subcommittee also highlights the following key facts: in Fiscal Year (“FY”) 2021 alone, DOJ failed to identify at least 990 prison and arrest related deaths; and 70% of the data DOJ collected was incomplete.  DOJ failed to implement effective data collection methodology, despite internal warnings from the DOJ Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  DOJ’s failures were preventable.

Here was just some of the media coverage from the release of this report and the associated hearing:

From The Marshall Project, "‘A Moral Disgrace’: How The U.S. Stopped Counting Deaths Behind Bars; The Department of Justice is failing miserably at collecting data on deaths. Experts say that makes it hard to identify the worst prisons and jails."

From NBC News, "Hundreds of prison and jail deaths go uncounted by the federal government, report finds; A Senate subcommittee hearing is focusing on how lawmakers say the Justice Department has "failed to implement" the Death in Custody Reporting Act.

From The Washington Post, "DOJ slammed by senators over poor reporting on deaths in custody"

September 26, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Rounding up some notable justice coverage and commentary from Law360's Access to Justice

I find a lot of Law360 coverage and commentary to be blogworthy, but I also find a lot of it behind a paywall.  Fortunately, the Law360 folks have the good sense to keep its Access to Justice section open access.  And that section has had a number of recent pieces that ought to be of interest to sentencing fans:

"Access To Justice Cases To Watch This Supreme Court Term"

"Racial Disparities In State Imprisonment Continue To Decline"

"Mich. Ruling Widens Sentencing Protections For Young Adults"

"Algorithms Have Potential To Reduce Sentencing Disparities"

September 25, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 24, 2022

"Are progressive chief prosecutors effective in reducing prison use and cumulative racial/ethnic disadvantage? Evidence from Florida"

The title of this post is the title of this new article recently published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy and authored by Ojmarrh Mitchell, Daniela Oramas Mora, Tracey L. Sticco and Lyndsay N. Boggess. Here is its abstract:

Research Summary

Progressive chief prosecutors, campaigning on platforms calling for reducing prison populations and racial/ethnic disparities, have been elected in numerous jurisdictions across the United States in recent years.  Yet, there is no empirical research that compares case outcomes between jurisdictions headed by progressive and traditional chief prosecutors.  In this research, we utilize a cumulative case outcome approach that tracks cases from arrest to disposition to examine whether cases prosecuted under progressive chief prosecutors receive less punitive sanctions and exhibit smaller racial/ethnic disparities.  We find that cases adjudicated in progressive jurisdictions are more likely to end without a felony conviction and less likely to result in a prison sentence.  Racial but not generally ethnic disadvantage is evident in case outcomes, and racial disparities are smaller in jurisdictions led by progressive chief prosecutors.

Policy Implications

The election of progressive prosecutors is a radical departure from earlier approaches aimed at controlling prison populations and mitigating racial disparities.  Instead of restricting the discretion of criminal justice actors, voters are relying on progressive, reformist prosecutors to use their enormous discretion in less punitive and more egalitarian fashions.  This research indicates that progressive chief prosecutors do, in fact, reduce prison use and racial disparities.

September 24, 2022 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (19)

Friday, September 23, 2022

Brennan Center publishes new report on "The First Step Act’s Prison Reforms: Uneven Implementation and the Path Forward"

I was alerted via email this morning about this notable new Brennan Center report titled “The First Step Act’s Prison Reforms: Uneven Implementation and the Path Forward.”  I recommend the report in full, but the email I received usefully summarized the reports "recommendations to Congress and to the Department of Justice and its Bureau of Prisons to fulfill the First Step Act’s potential":

September 23, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing notable aspect of SCOTUS vote on Alabama execution stay

The story of Alabama botched execution last night has many interesting elements, but this new Washington Examiner piece flags one (small) part of the story that ought not be overlooked.  The article, headlined "Barrett sides with liberal justices in opposition to halted Alabama execution," merits a full read for SCOTUS fans.  Here are excerpts:

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett sided with the high court's three liberal justices on Thursday in dissenting a decision to allow the execution of an Alabama inmate, but the state called off the execution at the last minute....

In a 5-4 vote prior to the halted procedure, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of Miller could move forward, lifting a lower court's injunction that had blocked his death by lethal injection. Barrett joined Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ketanji Brown Jackson in dissent....

Barrett has sided with the liberal justices in other death penalty cases.

In February 2021, Barrett sided with Sotomayor, Kagan, former Justice Stephen Breyer, and a justice who did not disclose his vote in a "shadow docket" case that blocked the execution of Alabama inmate Willie Smith....

In January 2022, Barrett once again sided with Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer in voting to block the execution of Alabama inmate Matthew Reeves, who was convicted of robbing and killing a tow truck driver in 1998.

However, Barrett has not exclusively voted against the death penalty in Supreme Court cases. She went against liberal justices in the March 2022 case that reinstated the death penalty for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Though it may be pure coincidence, it seems Justice Barrett often has particular concerns with how Alabama is seeking to move forward with executions.  In almost all other capital cases, Justice Barrett seems to be a fairly predictable vote for the state. Indeed, Justice Barrett's first official SCOTUS vote in November 2020, as detailed here, had her joining with her five more conservative colleagues to lift a stay on a federal execution.

A range of distinct and complicated procedural issues attended the stay in this latest Alabama execution effort, and the SCOTUS order lifting the stay only notes the dissent without any explanation for any of the votes.  It will be interesting to see if this case or other capital cases will give us further clues on what issues are driving various votes in these kinds of matters.

September 23, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Alabama botches execution by failing to be able to complete it before expiration of death warrant

In prior posts about executions that were ultimately completed, but involved some ugly particulars, I resisted using the adjective "botched" because the standard definition of that term is "unsuccessful because of being poorly done."  As I see it, an execution is fundamentally "successful" if it concludes with the termination of the life of the condemned, even if that task was completed poorly.  I stress those semantics to explain why I think what happened in Alabama last night qualifies as a "botched" execution.  This local article, headlined "Alabama halts execution of Alan Eugene Miller, citing time constraints and vein access," provides these details:

Alan Eugene Miller was set to be executed Thursday night by the state of Alabama for his August 5, 1999 shooting spree that left three men dead in Shelby County. But it was called off minutes before midnight, when the state’s death warrant was set to expire.

The execution was called off at approximately 11:30 p.m. because Miller’s veins couldn’t be accessed within execution protocol time limits, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm told reporters gathered at the prison system media center. Miller, 57, was returned to his death row cell.

Hamm said the victims’ families were informed of the decision to call off the execution and that Gov. Kay Ivey was sending her thoughts and prayers to the victims’ families. “Due to the time constraints resulting in the lateness of the court proceedings, the execution was called off once it was determined the condemned’s veins could not be accessed in accordance with our protocol before the expiration of the death warrant,” Hamm said.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling just after 9 p.m., giving the state nearly three hours to conduct the execution before the death warrant expired. Hamm said the execution team did start trying to access Miller’s veins to insert the intravenous lines for the three-drug lethal injection cocktail, but he isn’t sure how long the team worked to try to access a vein. “I’m not sure... I wasn’t looking at that. We were more focused on the time that the court, the Supreme Court, sent their order. Before we start accessing veins, we have other things we have to do that take time.”

When pressed what was being done during that nearly three-hour period, Hamm would not elaborate. “Like I said, there are several things that we have to do before we even start accessing the veins. And that was taking a little bit longer than we anticipated.”

Ivey released a statement shortly after the cancellation was announced. “In Alabama, we are committed to law and order and upholding justice. Despite the circumstances that led to the cancellation of this execution, nothing will change the fact that a jury heard the evidence of this case and made a decision,” the governor said. “It does not change the fact that Mr. Miller never disputed his crimes. And it does not change the fact that three families still grieve. We all know full well that Michael Holdbrooks, Terry Lee Jarvis and Christopher Scott Yancey did not choose to die by bullets to the chest. Tonight, my prayers are with the victims’ families and loved ones as they are forced to continue reliving the pain of their loss.”

Hamm visited with the victims’ families prior to announcing the cancellation and relayed the governor’s prayers and concerns. A spokesperson said Ivey “anticipates that the execution will be reset at the earliest opportunity.”...

The failed execution comes after weeks of legal wrangling, most recently in a flurry of filings on Thursday when the Alabama Attorney General’s Office asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court judge’s ruling that effectively stayed the execution.

At approximately 9:08 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state’s application to vacate the injunction, clearing the way for Alabama to execute Miller via lethal injection. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson voted to deny the application and block the execution. No opinion was issued.

Miller’s legal battles centered around his claims that in June 2018, he completed a form distributed to death row inmates at Holman electing to die by the state’s newly approved method of execution, nitrogen hypoxia, instead of the default method of lethal injection. The AG’s Office argued there is no record of that form being submitted, and that he should be executed using lethal injection instead.

But a federal judge on Monday stated “Miller has presented consistent, credible, and uncontroverted direct evidence that he submitted an election form in the manner he says was announced to him by the (Alabama Department of Corrections),” along with “circumstantial evidence” that the ADOC lost or misplaced his form after he turned it in.

September 23, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 22, 2022

"Racial Disparities in Lifer Parole Outcomes: The Hidden Role of Professional Evaluations"

The title of this post is the title of this new article recently published in the journal Law & Social Inquiry. The article was authored by Kathryne M. Young and Jessica Pearlman and here is its abstract:

One in seven people in prison in the US is serving a life sentence, and most of these people will eventually be eligible for discretionary parole release.  Yet parole hearings are notoriously understudied.  With only a handful of exceptions, few researchers have considered the ways in which race shapes decision-makers’ perception of parole candidates.  We use a data set created from over seven hundred California lifer parole hearing transcripts to examine the factors that predict parole commissioners’ decisions.  We find significant racial disparities in outcomes, with Black parole candidates less likely to receive parole grants than white parole candidates, and test two possible indirect mechanisms.  First, we find that racial disparity is unassociated with differences in rehabilitative efforts of Black versus white parole candidates, suggesting that differential levels of self-rehabilitation are not responsible for the disparity.  Second, we test the hypothesis that racial disparity owes to commissioners’ reliance on other professionals’ determinations: psychological assessments, behavioral judgments, and prosecutors’ recommendations.  We find that reliance on these evaluations accounts for a significant portion of the observed racial disparity. These results suggest that inclusion of professional assessments is not race-neutral and may create a veneer of objectivity that masks racial inequality.

September 22, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

House Judiciary Committee advances a number of federal criminal justice bills

As well reported in this lengthy new Marijuana Moment piece, "Congressional Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Record Sealing And Other Drug Policy Bills In Key Committee," today brought some notable action in the US House of Representatives on some criminal justice matters.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts :

A key House committee has approved a series of criminal justice reform bills—including bipartisan proposals to clear records for prior federal marijuana convictions, provide funding for states that implement systems of automatic expungements and codify retroactive relief for people incarcerated due to on crack-cocaine sentencing disparities.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), advanced the measures, as well as other bills unrelated to drug policy, during a hearing on Wednesday.... Nadler, speaking about a bill to provide funding to states for expungement purposes, stressed that “even just an arrest can present lifetime barriers to obtaining jobs, housing, education and put other opportunities out of reach.”

“Criminal record expungement and sealing is a pathway to employment opportunities for individuals with a criminal record and enable them to participate fully in their communities at a time when many industries continue to face labor shortages,” the chairman said. “These pathways that desperately needed.”

The congressman also voiced support for the federal cannabis record sealing bill, saying it is “critical in helping those with non-violent criminal records to rebuild their lives.” He added that the public is on board with the reform, as well as major employers who’ve endorsed the legislation such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Walmart.

Here’s a rundown of what the committee-approved bills would accomplish:

HR 2864: The “Clean Slate Act” from Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) would mandate the automatic sealing of criminal records for certain non-violent, federal marijuana convictions. It would also provide relief to people who have been arrested for other offenses that did not result in a conviction....

HR 5651: The “Fresh Start Act” sponsored by Rep. David Trone (D-MD) would provide federal funding to states that create their own systems of automated expungements.  Though it does not specify the types of crimes that would warrant relief, a growing number of states are taking steps to implement systems of automatic expungement for marijuana convictions, and those states would benefit from the new funding....

HR 5455: The “Terry Technical Correction Act” from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is responsive to a 2021 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that a law reducing the federal crack-cocaine sentencing disparity did not apply retroactively in cases that did not trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.

It would amend the law by clarifying that the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act was intended to provide individuals in those cases with relief, and so any motion that was denied on the basis of a court’s interpretation of eligibility under the statute “shall not be considered a denial after a complete review of the motion on the merits within the meaning of this section.”...

The crack-cocaine sentencing bill from Jackson Lee enjoyed some bipartisan support in the committee, with Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH) speaking in favor of the legislation ahead of the vote. He stressed that it was a necessary reform to align the law with congressional intent.

Republican members generally balked at the state expungements and federal record sealing proposals, however, arguing that they amount to “soft on crime” policies.

September 21, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Is Criminal Law Unlawful?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Paul Gowder and available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

A legal theorist reading contemporary criminal justice scholarship is confronted with a troubling sense of dissonance. Foundational to modern accounts of the concept of law are rules, and the chief modality of law’s operation in ordinary peoples’ lives is said to be in enforcing those (primary) rules.  Normative theories by philosophers of law typically deploy this rule- oriented character as a key virtue of legal systems, whether in Fullerian theories of the moral value of law itself in terms of their facilitation of autonomous self-application of rules, or in theories of the rule of law according to which one of the key criteria of good legal systems is that they only coerce individuals pursuant to rules.

Yet criminal justice scholars have known for decades that rule-enforcement is at best incidental to vast swathes of criminal justice.  Even before the advent of “broken windows” policing, a large portion of police work was focused on coercively organizing public space, with minimal regard to the rules of substantive law.  Scholars of misdemeanor adjudication — the judicial destination of the arrests that result from this mode of policing — have described a process in which the ultimate disposition of defendants is unconnected to any serious effort to determine whether some law has been violated.  This lawlessness of criminal justice is exacerbated by, and itself exacerbates, America’s underlying system of race and class hierarchy.  In short, instead of a system of law enforcement, American criminal justice is a key exemplar of what critical race scholars have called “structural racism,” in which individual and organizational incentives reproduce racially unjust outcomes even in the absence of individual racial malice.

Legal philosophers must reconcile their theories with reality by confronting the fact that a sector of American “law” with immense practical significance does not, in fact, constitute an application of law (for conceptual theorists) or the rule of law (for normative theorists) at all.

In this context, some lessons may be drawn from an analogous juridical context.  A handful of scholars have suggested that the system of criminal justice is more administrative than legal.  Moreover, advocates and scholars have long articulated severe critiques of the federal administrative state on rule of law grounds.  Thus, the discourse around the administrative state can serve as a model for how legal theorists should confront the criminal justice state.

While some scholars appear to have supposed that the notion of legality simply does not apply to the administrative state, others have propounded radical challenges to that state which have reflected a willingness to sacrifice other important interests in the pursuit of legal fidelity.  Results such as the recent Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. E.P.A. have suggested that even the pursuit of existential policy goals like combatting climate change must give way to the concept of legality underneath challenges to the administrative state.  If such challenges are any model to follow, then rule of law advocates and scholars must at least consider similar radical challenges to the criminal justice system, such as police abolition, to be on the table.

September 21, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Noting that the Biden Administration in a high-profile case "has decided to continue to seek the death penalty"

Chris Geidner has this new Substack posting, titled "The Biden administration supports the death penalty," that effectively flags a notable new capital case filing by the Biden Administration's Department of Justice.  The subheadline of the piece summarizes the key points:  "Although Biden's campaign promised to 'eliminate the death penalty,' his administration told a court in a case last week that AG Merrick Garland 'has decided to continue to seek the death penalty'."  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

On Friday, Sept. 16, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a one-page notice in a pending capital case for Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused in the October 2017 terror attack along a bike path in Manhattan that killed 8 and injured many more. In its key sentence, the DOJ notice stated: “We were notified today that the Attorney General has decided to continue to seek the death penalty.”...

[I]n July 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a moratorium on executions pending a review of execution procedures — echoing a DOJ policy during then-President Barrack Obama’s administration. The administration has done little since to “eliminate the death penalty,” and Garland’s decision in Saipov’s case does the opposite....

One of the people who most closely tracks the death penalty across the country, Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Law Dork that this news shows — at the least — a disconnect between the White House and Justice Department. “The Department of Justice’s pursuit of the death penalty in this case — along with the its continued defense of the death penalty in other cases on appeal — indicates that, if the White House has a policy of working to end the federal death penalty, the Department of Justice certainly isn’t acting on it,” Dunham told Law Dork.

Garland — in cases involving Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s 2013 Boston Marathon bombing death sentence and Dylann Roof’s death sentence for 2015 murder of nine Black people at a Charleston church — has supported previously issued death sentences in court, but Saipov’s case would be the first trial of the Biden administration where the federal government is seeking to impose a new death sentence.

To be clear, Garland did not initially make the decision to seek death in this case. That was done in the Trump administration, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But, in the aftermath of Biden’s election and Garland’s execution moratorium, there was a request from Saipov that DOJ withdraw its intent to seek the death penalty in his case.

September 20, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, September 19, 2022

"What’s Dangerous Is America’s Lack of Crime Data"

The title of this post is the headline of this new opinion piece by Matthew Yglesias.  I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

Crime is on the political agenda in a big way this year, with Republicans zeroing in on it as their favorite topic now that gasoline prices are moderating.  Which naturally raises the question: Is crime rising?  To which the shocking answer is — nobody knows.  Not because anything unusual is happening, but simply because the usual state of America’s information on crime and policing is incredibly poor.

Contrast this state of affairs with the amount of data available on the US economy.  There are monthly updates on job creation, the unemployment rate and multiple indexes of inflation.  Commodity prices are publicized on a daily basis. Reports on gross national product come out quarterly, with timely revisions as more data comes in.  Policymakers benefit from a deeply informed debate, enriched by commentary from academics and other observers.

But on crime the US is, to a shocking extent, flying blind.  As a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice noted: “More than six months into 2022, national-level data on crime in 2021 remains unavailable.”...

The dearth of information is a problem not only for rigor-minded policymakers.  It also leaves the political arena open for manipulation by demagogues.  Since nobody actually knows in real time what’s happening, anecdotes can just stand in for made-up fears.  Since the very real murder surge of 2020 now has people primed to believe “crime is out of control” narratives, any particular instance of violence can be used to support that story....

By the same token, when murder really was soaring in 2020, it was easy for progressives to stay in ideologically convenient denial for far too long, since it was genuinely impossible to actually prove that it was happening until much later.  The people who dismissed the anecdotal evidence of rising crime were, in that case, mistaken. But the Republicans who are stoking fears of rising crime right now also appear to be mistaken.  And the lack of information about geographical patterns in murder trends means no one has much ability to assess what social or policy factors may be in play.

What makes this all especially maddening is that collecting this information in a timely manner shouldn’t be that difficult. Police departments know how many murders are committed in their jurisdiction. That information is stored on computers. It doesn’t need to be delivered to the Department of Justice via carrier pigeon. The DOJ should be given some money to create a system that can be easily updated by law enforcement agencies, and actually filing that information in a timely way should be a condition of receiving federal police grants.  A small team at the Bureau of Justice Statistics could have the job of phoning up departments who haven’t done it and “reminding” them to update the numbers.  And then the data could be released on a regular basis in a machine-readable form — the same way numbers for jobs, inflation, and other major economic statistics are.

Knowing what’s actually happening would not, by itself, solve America’s crime problems.  But successful efforts to reduce violence, such as the one in New York City in the 1990s, were driven by a commitment to rigorous measurement.  A serious federal investment in crime data collection is no panacea, and it’s not exactly a winning political slogan.  But it would be a huge boost to all kinds of crime-control efforts.

September 19, 2022 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interesting report on the echoes of the Supreme Court's recent Ruan decision

As noted in this post last week, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has this great panel discussion scheduled for tomorrow to discuss various aspects of the Supreme Court's work last term in Ruan v. United States.  (Folks can and should register here for this event.)  Coincidently, CBS News has this lengthy new piece discussing the case's impact under the headline "Doctors rush to use Supreme Court ruling to escape opioid charges."  Here are excerpts:

Dr. Nelson Onaro conceded last summer that he'd written illegal prescriptions, although he said he was thinking only of his patients. From a tiny, brick clinic in Oklahoma, he doled out hundreds of opioid pills and dozens of fentanyl patches with no legitimate medical purpose. "Those medications were prescribed to help my patients, from my own point of view," Onaro said in court, as he reluctantly pleaded guilty to six counts of drug dealing. Because he confessed, the doctor was likely to get a reduced sentence of three years or less in prison.

But Onaro changed his mind in July. In the days before his sentencing, he asked a federal judge to throw out his plea deal, sending his case toward a trial. For a chance at exoneration, he'd face four times the charges and the possibility of a harsher sentence.

Why take the risk? A Supreme Court ruling has raised the bar to convict in a case like Onaro's. In a June decision, the court said prosecutors must not only prove a prescription was not medically justified ― possibly because it was too large or dangerous, or simply unnecessary ― but also that the prescriber knew as much. Suddenly, Onaro's state of mind carries more weight in court. Prosecutors have not opposed the doctor withdrawing his plea to most of his charges, conceding in a court filing that he faces "a different legal calculus" after the Supreme Court decision.

The court's unanimous ruling complicates the Department of Justice's ongoing efforts to hold irresponsible prescribers criminally liable for fueling the opioid crisis. Previously, lower courts had not considered a prescriber's intention. Until now, doctors on trial largely could not defend themselves by arguing they were acting in good faith when they wrote bad prescriptions. Now they can, attorneys say, although it is not necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Essentially, the doctors were handcuffed," said Zach Enlow, Onaro's attorney. "Now they can take off their handcuffs. But it doesn't mean they are going to win the fight."

The Supreme Court's decision in Ruan v. United States, issued June 27, was overshadowed by the nation-shaking controversy ignited three days earlier, when the court erased federal abortion rights. But the lesser-known ruling is now quietly percolating through federal courthouses, where it has emboldened defendants in overprescribing cases and may have a chilling effect on future prosecutions of doctors under the Controlled Substances Act.

In the three months since it was issued, the Ruan decision has been invoked in at least 15 ongoing prosecutions across 10 states, according to a KHN review of federal court records. Doctors cited the decision in post-conviction appeals, motions for acquittals, new trials, plea reversals, and a failed attempt to exclude the testimony of a prescribing expert, arguing their opinion was now irrelevant. Other defendants have successfully petitioned to delay their cases so the Ruan decision could be folded into their arguments at upcoming trials or sentencing hearings.

David Rivera, a former Obama-era U.S. attorney who once led overprescribing prosecutions in Middle Tennessee, said he believes doctors have a "great chance" of overturning convictions if they were prohibited from arguing a good faith defense or a jury was instructed to ignore one. Rivera said defendants who ran true pill mills would still be convicted, even if a second trial was ultimately required. But the Supreme Court has extended a "lifeline" to a narrow group of defendants who "dispensed with their heart, not their mind," he said.

"What the Supreme Court is trying to do is divide between a bad doctor and a person who might have a license to practice medicine but is not acting as a doctor at all and is a drug dealer," Rivera said. "A doctor who is acting under a sincerely held belief that he is doing the right thing, even if he may be horrible at his job and should not be trusted with human lives ― that's still not criminal."...

To defense attorneys, the unanimous ruling sent an unambiguous message. "This is a hyperpolarized time in America, and particularly on the court," Enlow said. "And yet this was a 9-0 ruling saying that the mens rea ― or the mental state of the doctor ― it matters."

Some prior related posts:

September 19, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Notable developments as defense rests in capital trial of Parkland school shooter

I have been following the capital sentencing trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz somewhat more closely than I follow other capital trials in part because the case involves such competing extremes.  This case is the deadliest U.S. mass shooting to ever reach trial, involves no question about guilt and the 17 victims were mostly students with many as young as 14.  And yet Nikolas Cruz's defense team has presented a considerable mitigation case highlighting his damaged upbringing and considerable mental health issues.

The Cruz defense team rested its case in mitigation last week sooner than had been expected, and that led to a reaction by the presiding trial judge which has now produced a defense motion to remove the judge.   Here are some headlines and ledes from a few stories covering these latest developments:

"Parkland school shooter's defense team demands judge be removed after heated exchange"

The attorneys representing the Parkland school shooter filed a motion Friday asking for the judge overseeing his sentencing trial to be replaced.  The motion comes after the judge and the defense attorneys had an unusually heated exchange on Wednesday, in which the judge accused the attorneys of a lack of professionalism.

The motion alleges that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer's conduct during the Wednesday exchange revealed "long-held" animosity toward the defense counsel that has "infected" the proceedings and will prevent their client from getting a fair trial.

"Parkland defense has convinced some that killer deserves mercy"

The sudden end of the defense case in the Parkland mass shooting trial this week drew criticism of and from the presiding judge, temporarily overshadowing the biggest question at issue — was enough evidence presented to convince a jury to spare the defendant’s life?

It’s impossible to say for sure — juries are notoriously unpredictable.  But at least one expert, and some trial observers, say they would not be surprised if the jury in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting case were to show mercy toward confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz.

Some prior related posts:

September 18, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 17, 2022

"The Prison Pleading Trap"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Tiffany Yang.  Here is its abstract:

The prison is an epicenter of dominance — it is where state-sanctioned abuses are most forcefully expressed and legitimized without being seen. Incarcerated people have increasingly turned to civil prisoners’ rights litigation to expose the injustices hidden behind prison walls.  But rather than safeguarding incarcerated people’s access to courts, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act to obstruct their pathways to judicial relief.  A centerpiece of this effort is the Act’s exhaustion provision, which mandates proper completion of the prison grievance process before challenging any condition of prison life in federal court.

Prisons design demanding grievance pleading standards to make exhaustion more difficult for the people they confine. When a federal court disagrees with the prison’s interpretation of a pleading rule and permits an incarcerated plaintiff’s claim to move forward, the decision is seen as a victory that safeguards incarcerated people’s right to judicial redress.  It is tempting to perceive the plaintiff’s success as the prison’s defeat.  But when we peer behind the curtain and interrogate what follows, a dangerous manipulation of power emerges.  Prisons have responded to litigation “defeats” by amending their grievance rules to impose a more onerous pleading standard that forecloses the short-lived victory.  What appears at first glance to be a welcome exercise of judicial intervention functionally becomes an invitation — indeed, a blueprint — for the prison to raise its grievance pleading bar and immunize itself from liability.

This reactive process — what I call the “prison pleading trap” — creates an untenable and perilous regime.  And its harms are heightened for people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated and, while confined, disproportionately subject to prison abuses requiring redress.  This article investigates the trap’s operations and impacts, and upon considering a range of potential solutions, it ends by recognizing the merits of transformative change.  Congress created PLRA exhaustion to reduce the quantity of prison litigation, but this reform addressed a symptom (the volume of litigation) while ignoring the disease (growing prison populations and persisting abuses). Discrete procedural solutions to prison grievance pleading will have meaningful impacts, but they are ultimately incomplete without a concurrent commitment to decarceration.

September 17, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 16, 2022

Federal judge orders Philly prosecutors to send written apologies to victim family members for poor behavior in capital habeas case

This ABA Journal article, headlined "Federal judge orders district attorney to write apology letters to families of murder victims," reports on a notable federal court order from earlier this week. Here are the highlights:

A federal judge has ordered Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to write apology letters to the families of the victims of a double murder after concluding that supervisors in his office made misleading statements to the court.

U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania scolded prosecutors for being “vague” and “unclear” about whether they consulted with victims’ families before supporting efforts to overturn the death penalty in the case against Robert Wharton.  In reality, prosecutors communicated with just one person — the family member who survived the attack, Lisa Hart-Newman.  The district attorney’s office had written in a court notice that it decided to concede an ineffective counsel claim following a review by its capital case review committee and “communication with the victims’ family,” wrote Goldberg in a Sept. 12 opinion.

Wharton was convicted for killing Bradley and Ferne Hart in 1984 in retaliation for failure to pay for construction work.  Working with an accomplice, he then shut off the heat to the couple’s home, leaving their 7-month-old daughter, Lisa, “to fend for herself,” according to a 2018 opinion by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia.  A relative found the baby still alive three days later.

The 3rd Circuit ordered the death penalty review to determine whether Wharton’s trial lawyer was ineffective by failing to present evidence about the defendant’s positive adjustment to prison.  The district attorney’s office agreed that Wharton’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated and asserted that a full review by the judge was unnecessary, according to Goldberg’s opinion.  But precedent “plainly holds that a jury’s death sentence verdict cannot be undone until all facts are placed on the table so that a fully informed judge, not the district attorney, can make the decision as to whether a decades-old verdict should be set aside,” Goldberg said.

Although the 3rd Circuit required a review of evidence in favor and in opposition to the death penalty, the district attorney’s office failed to advise the court about Wharton’s “violent escape from a city hall courtroom” and subsequent escape conviction, Goldberg said.  That’s “possibly the worst type of prison adjustment,” he observed.

Department supervisors on the capital case review committee said they recommended conceding Wharton’s habeas petition without knowing about the escape attempt. But that admission “was curiously contrary” to an assistant supervisor’s assertion in court that the office was aware of Wharton’s escape conviction, Goldberg said.... Goldberg said the district attorney’s office “continues to misunderstand its role” in collateral review proceedings in death penalty cases.  “If the district attorney’s office files its concession on a misleading presentation of the facts, it attempts to misuse the court’s power,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg directed Krasner to send separate written apologies to Hart-Newman and three family members for representing that the office had communicated with the victims’ family.

The full and interesting 28-page ruling in Wharton v. Vaughn is available at this link.

September 16, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 15, 2022

"Lemonade: A Racial Justice Reframing of The Roberts Court’s Criminal Jurisprudence"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Daniel Harawa available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  When it comes to the Supreme Court’s criminal jurisprudence and its relationship to racial (in)equity, progressive scholars often focus on the tartness of the lemons. In particular, they have studied how the Court often ignores race in its criminal decisions, a move that in turn reifies a racially subordinating criminalization system.

However, the Court has recently issued a series of decisions addressing racism in the criminal legal system: Buck v. Davis, Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, Timbs v. Indiana, Flowers v. Mississippi, and Ramos v. Louisiana.  On their face, the cases teach that history matters. Government actors who discriminate must be held to account.  Accepted institutional practices can no longer perpetuate racism. And courts must assume an active role in addressing the racism endemic to the criminal legal system.  At least tonally, these cases are a marked shift for the notoriously post-racial Roberts Court

But if you dig a little deeper, it is clear that the cases have severe shortcomings.  The cases reflect that the Court acknowledges only the most egregious examples of racism, and it fails to see the invidious ways race taints the criminal legal system.  The cases also demonstrate the Court’s failure to connect past racial practices with present racial disparities, a failure that in turn paints a false picture of discontinuity of the past from the present.  When viewed critically, these seemingly race-aware cases fall neatly in line with the post-racial critiques of the Roberts Court. From a racial justice perspective, the cases could be viewed as lemons.

Even so, this Article attempts to make lemonade. The Article shifts the narrative about the Court’s criminal jurisprudence by arguing that these recent cases can be helpful tools in the fight for racial justice.  This Article asserts that the cases can be deployed not only to make specific antiracist legal arguments, but also to push for policy changes and to encourage more open discussions about racism in the criminal legal system.  In the end, the Article urges a reclaiming of the case law to help unwind the corrosive relationship between race, crime, and punishment in America.  This intervention is necessary now, for the millions of Black and Brown people shuffled through the system each year. 

September 15, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US organizations file complaint at United Nations stating LWOP and other extreme prison terms "are cruel in violation of the international prohibition on torture"

As reported in this new Guardian piece, headlined "US civil rights groups file complaint against ‘death by incarceration’ to UN," a coalition of organizations today filed a notable broadside against all extreme prison terms in the US.  Here are the basics:

A coalition of civil and human rights organizations on Thursday filed a complaint urging United Nations special rapporteurs to declare the United States’ longstanding practice of subjecting people to life sentences, including without possible release, “cruel, racially discriminatory” and “an arbitrary deprivation of liberty” that violates incarcerated people’s rights.

They argued that “death by incarceration”— a term describing life sentences without parole coined by [Terrell] Carter and other members of the Right to Redemption Committee, a group of incarcerated people seeking the abolition of the practice — amounted to torture.  In their complaint, the civil rights organizations asked the international watchdogs to pressure the United States, who leads the world in sentencing people to life imprisonment, to abolish the extreme practice altogether.  They proposed instead to impose maximum sentencing laws that would eliminate the practice of “virtual life” sentences — those longer than a person’s remaining years of life expectancy, often more than 50 years....

Dozens of testimonies from incarcerated people sentenced to life detail the horrific toll so-called “death by incarceration” has not just on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing but also the lasting impact separation has on their family members.  Carlos Ruiz Paz, who is serving a life sentence in California, wrote in a testimonial that a life sentence without parole signaled a person was “irreparably damaged without hope of redemption”, adding: “Extreme sentences affect the kids who grow up without us and the parents that will die without us at their side.”

The complaint noted that the United States’ use of virtual life sentences increased exponentially since the 1970s, particularly after the supreme court abolished the death penalty in 1972, prompting states to strengthen life sentencing laws for offenders.  Even after the supreme court reversed course in 1976, extreme sentencing practices continued.  By the 1980s and 90s, as the federal government incentivized states to impose harsher sentencing practices in an effort to curtail perceived rises in crime, more and more people were imprisoned for longer.

The toll of that suffering has disproportionately upended the lives of Black and brown people who have been subjected to over-policing throughout time, exposing them to the US carceral system and led to escalating mass incarceration.  Organizers argue that that violates international human rights law prohibiting racial discrimination. “This systemic deprivation of resources, including education, healthcare and other social support and services, is coupled with the entry of more police and prisons in these communities and exposure to the criminal legal system,” the complaint noted.

The US is the only country that sentences children under 18 to life without parole, a practice that the United Nations has already singled out. And the US accounted for more than 80% of people worldwide serving life sentences without parole.

The full complaint is available at this link, and it runs 160 pages in total (though 3/4 of the document is comprised of an Appendix with testimonials from persons serving extreme sentences). Here is a paragraph from the complaint's introduction:

The United States’ use of DBI sentences violates a range of international human rights.  First, the disproportionate imposition of DBI sentences on racial minorities, in particular Black and Latinx people, violates the prohibition against racial discrimination.  Second, by arbitrarily and permanently sentencing individuals to prison terms that result in their premature death, DBI sentences violate individuals’ right to life.  Third, as recognized by numerous international human rights bodies, by depriving individuals of their right to hope and to rehabilitation, DBI sentences violate the international prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.  The devastating consequences on an individual’s right to family life further exacerbate the cruelty of DBI sentences.  Finally, the failure of DBI sentences to serve any legitimate purpose further demonstrates that such sentences are an impermissibly arbitrary deprivation of liberty.  To comply with international human rights standards, the United States must abolish DBI and restore incarcerated individuals’ right to hope.

September 15, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Ninth Circuit panel holds non-retroactive sentencing changes can be considered in compassionate release motions

Weighing in on an issue that has split circuits, a Ninth Circuit panel today in US v. Chen, No. 20-50333 (9th Cir. Sept. 14, 2022) (available here), held that "a district court may consider the First Step Act’s non-retroactive changes to sentencing law, in combination with other factors particular to the individual defendant, when determining whether extraordinary and compelling reasons exist for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)."  The Chen opinion explains how "other circuits are split concerning this issue," but ultimately decides to "join the First, Fourth, and Tenth circuits and conclude that district courts may consider non-retroactive changes in sentencing law, in combination with other factors particular to the individual defendant, when analyzing extraordinary and compelling reasons for purposes of § 3582(c)(1)(A)."  Here is a portion of the panel's explanation for its ruling:

Congress has only placed two limitations directly on extraordinary and compelling reasons: the requirement that district courts are bound by the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement, which does not apply here, and the requirement that “[r]ehabilitation . . . alone” is not extraordinary and compelling.... To hold that district courts cannot consider nonretroactive changes in sentencing law would be to create a categorical bar against a particular factor, which Congress itself has not done. In fact, such a categorical bar would seemingly contravene the original intent behind the compassionate release statute, which was created to provide the “need for a ‘safety valve’ with respect to situations in which a defendant’s circumstances had changed such that the length of continued incarceration no longer remained equitable.” Ruvalcaba, 26 F.4th at 26 (citing S. Rep. No. 98225, 55–56, 121 (1983)....

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Concepcion confirms that, in the context of modifying a sentence under the First Step Act, “[i]t is only when Congress or the Constitution limits the scope of information that a district court may consider in deciding whether, and to what extent, to modify a sentence, that a district court’s discretion to consider information is restrained.” 142 S. Ct. at 2396.  Since Congress has not legislated to create a third limitation on extraordinary and compelling reasons prohibiting district courts from considering non-retroactive changes in sentencing law, we decline to create one now....

Through § 3582(c)(1)(A) and § 994(t), Congress has demonstrated that it can, and will, directly limit what constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons.  It is therefore hard to reconcile the argument that we should infer a categorical bar on extraordinary and compelling reasons with Congress’s prior decisions not to create such stark limitations on a district court’s discretion.

September 14, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rounding up lots of notable headlines and stories

Busy times means I sometimes need to cover a lot of stories of interest through a round-up post.  This is one of those posts:

From AL.com, "‘We have to do something’: Alabama lawmaker pitches increased penalties for fentanyl traffickers as overdoses mount"

From Bloomberg Law, "Ninth Circuit Standard Sentencing Terms Ruling Highlights Split"

From CBS News, "Minnesota man sentenced to life in prison for selling fentanyl in 11 fatal overdoses: 'Your disregard for human life is terrifying'"

From the Chicago Tribune, "An Illinois man is serving a life sentence for 6 grams of cocaine. He is fighting to be freed."

From Florida Politics, "Not so deadly DeSantis — law and order Governor has signed fewer death warrants than predecessors"

From The Guardian, "‘My emancipation proclamation’: the man fighting to free millions from their criminal records"

From NPR, "110 people once sentenced to life in prison as juveniles convene for 'freedom party'"

From Politico, "Arrests in New Jersey for small-time cannabis dealing plummet post-legalization"

From Time, "People Age Out of Crime. Prison Sentences Should Reflect That"

From WGHP, "Why do some of NC’s convicted killers get parole and others don’t?"

From WHYY, "Sentencing reform, or getting tough on crime? Oz and Fetterman on criminal justice"

September 14, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hoping and pushing for SCOTUS finally taking up acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements

Long-time readers know I have long bemoaned the use of so-called "acquitted conduct" to enhance sentences in the federal system.  My moans have sometimes found expression in amicus briefs in support of efforts to get the Supreme Court to take up this issue, and I surmise any number of defendants have brought this issue to SCOTUS in cert petitions over the last two decades.  But the Justices have persistently declined to take up this issue (though, back in the 2014 Jones case, Justice Scalia joined by Justices Ginsburg and Thomas dissented from the denial of cert on this topic). 

But hope springs eternal, and this month I had the pleasure of working with great lawyers at Squire Patton Boggs to file another amicus brief on this issue, this one in support of petitioner Dayonta McClinton.  I blogged here about McClinton's case after the Seventh Circuit affirmed his 19-year sentence that was based heavily on the judge's determination that McClinton was to be held responsible for a murder even after a jury had acquitted him of that killing.  As detailed in this SCOTUS docket sheet, a number of notable interest groups have also filed amicus briefs in support of cert in this case.

Excitingly, Michael Pepson and Jeremiah Mosteller have this new Bloomberg Law commentary, headlined "US Supreme Court Should Tackle Acquitted Conduct Sentencing," which focuses on the McClinton cert petition and makes this notable assertion: "Taking up the issue of acquitted conduct sentencing this next term will give the court another opportunity to tackle a criminal justice issue that unites people from across the spectrum."  Here is more from the piece that I recommend in full (with links from the original):

This practice allows judges to use conduct a defendant was acquitted of by a jury to increase a defendant’s sentence or punishment for a separate crime.  This tool essentially allows judges to veto a jury’s decision when they merely disagreed with their conclusion.

At least three current justices have questioned or called for an end to this unjust practice. And they do not stand alone, as other recent members of the court have also noted this issue demands action, including former justices Antonin ScaliaRuth Bader Ginsburg, and Anthony Kennedy.

There is reason to hope other members of the court would also agree acquitted conduct sentencing is unconstitutional given their professional backgrounds and experience on the front lines working in the criminal justice system.

The justices are not alone.  For years, many lower federal court judges have also forcefully argued that acquitted conduct sentencing is unconstitutional.  And a growing number of state courts have also broken ranks with the federal courts, calling this sentencing practice what it is: unconstitutional.

This broad criticism underscores the appalling nature of this practice.  It is not only unjust to defendants but also undermines the legitimacy of our criminal justice system and eviscerates the role of juries as a check on government abuse and overreach.

We both frequently have conversations with friends, advocates, and partners who have no idea this practice occurs.  The response is always shock and confusion about how such a practice can exist in America.  This horrified reaction mirrors our own, which is why we continue to advocate for the end of this practice.

The Supreme Court has a perfect opportunity to reconsider this practice by accepting a case called McClinton v. United States

A few recent of many, many prior related posts:

September 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"'Take the Motherless Children off the Street': Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Michael Perlin and Heather Cucolo now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Remarkably, there has been minimal academic legal literature about the interplay between fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) and critical aspects of many criminal trials, including issues related to the role of experts, quality of counsel, competency to stand trial, the insanity defense, and sentencing and the death penalty.  Nor has there been any literature about the interplay between FASD-related issues and the legal school of thought known as therapeutic jurisprudence.

In this article, the co-authors will first define fetal alcohol syndrome and explain its significance to the criminal justice system.  We will then look at the specific role of experts in cases involving defendants with FASD and consider adequacy of counsel.  Next, we will discuss how the impact of FASD on the major fundamentals of criminal law and procedure, especially as it relates to questions of culpability. Under this broad umbrella of topics, we consider questions that may arise in the criminal trial process, such as those related to competency to stand trial (and, to a limited extent, other criminal competencies), the insanity defense, sentencing, and the death penalty.  We look carefully at the way that courts all too often dismiss effectiveness-of-counsel claims in such cases, and the implications of this case law.

Finally, we investigate why it is so significant that the caselaw in this area has totally ignored the teachings of therapeutic jurisprudence, and offer some conclusions and recommendations (based on therapeutic jurisprudence principles) that, we hope, can (at least partially) ameliorate this situation.

This article strikes me as especially timely given that the capital defense of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter, has been particularly focused on FASD.  This new article, headlined "Nikolas Cruz trial: FASD expert has ‘never seen’ pregnant woman abuse alcohol as much as shooter’s mother," provides a partial account of the evidence being developed during his on-going capital sentencing proceeding.

September 14, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Is Alabama going to pioneer using nitrogen as a method of execution soon?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "State: Alabama nearly ready with untried execution method."  Here are the details:

Alabama could be ready to use a new, untried execution method called nitrogen hypoxia to carry out a death sentence as soon as next week, a state attorney told a federal judge Monday.

James Houts, a deputy state attorney general, told U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. that it is “very likely” the method could be available for the execution of Alan Eugene Miller, currently set for Sept. 22, if the judge blocks the use of lethal injection.  Houts said the protocol “is there,” but said the final decision on when to use the new method is up to Corrections Commissioner John Hamm.

Nitrogen hypoxia, which is supposed to cause death by replacing oxygen with nitrogen, has been authorized by Alabama and two other states for executions but has never used by a state.  The disclosure about the possibility of using the new method came during a court hearing on Miller’s request for a preliminary injunction to block his execution by lethal injection.  Miller maintains prison staff lost paperwork he returned in 2018 that requested nitrogen as his execution method rather than lethal injection.  The Alabama attorney general’s office argued there is no corroborating evidence that Miller returned the form.

Huffaker heard testimony and arguments during an evidentiary hearing in Montgomery federal court.  He noted the “high stakes” involved with a looming execution date, but did not immediately rule on the request to block the lethal injection.  When Alabama approved nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative execution method in 2018, state law gave inmates a brief window to designate it as their execution method.  Wearing a maroon shirt and with his hands shackled in front of him, Miller testified that he returned a state form selecting nitrogen on the same day it was distributed to inmates by a prison worker....

Miller described how he disliked needles because of painful attempts at drawing blood. He said nitrogen gas sounded like the nitrous oxide gas used at dentist offices, and that seemed better than lethal injection. “I did not want to be stabbed with a needle,” Miller said....

Alabama told a federal judge last year that it has finished construction of a “system” to put condemned inmates to death using nitrogen gas, but did not give an estimate of when it would be put to use.  Miller’s lawyer, Mara Klebaner, said the state had asked if Miller would waive his claims if nitrogen was ready, but she said they need more information about the nitrogen process. Miller’s lawyers don’t want him to be the test case for an untried execution method, she said.

Klebaner said the Alabama attorney general’s office recently withdrew an execution date request for another inmate after his lawyers provided proof that the inmate had selected nitrogen hypoxia.  She said Miller should be treated the same.

The state argued Miller was trying to delay his execution. Houts told the judge the state had gone as far as to see if Miller would agree to be fitted with a mask for use of nitrogen, but the inmate declined. Miller’s attorney said the state presented the gas mask during a deposition and that Miller was understandably upset.

Miller, a delivery truck driver, was convicted in workplace shootings that killed Lee Holdbrooks, Scott Yancy and Terry Jarvis in suburban Birmingham. Miller shot Holdbrooks and Yancy at one business and then drove to another location to shoot Jarvis, evidence showed.

Long-time readers likely know that nitrogen gas has long been discusses as a possible alternative execution method to lethal injection.  Just some of many prior posts on the topic are noted below:

September 13, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Pandemic Rules: COVID-19 and the Prison Litigation Reform Act's Exhaustion Requirement"

The title of post is the title of this new paper authored by Margo Schlanger and Betsy Ginsberg now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

For over twenty-five years, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) has undermined the constitutional rights of incarcerated people.  For people behind bars and their allies, the PLRA makes civil rights cases harder to bring and harder to win — regardless of merit.  We have seen the result in the wave of litigation relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Beginning March 2020, incarcerated people facing a high risk of infection because of their incarceration, and a high risk of harm because of their medical status, began to bring lawsuits seeking changes to the policies and practices augmenting the danger to them.  Time and again, courts have thrown cases out based on the PLRA —especially, on the PLRA’s instruction to dismiss civil rights cases unless “such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted” (that is, unless the incarcerated plaintiff worked the complaint all the way through the prison’s or jail’s grievance system).

The pandemic has exposed a particularly egregious problem: the mismatch between a mandate to use internal grievance systems and those grievance systems’ systemic inability to address emergency situations. Here, we propose three solutions.  First, incarcerated plaintiffs should be allowed to proceed with their federal lawsuits if the press of an emergency renders a prison’s or jail’s grievance system “unavailable” because it is unable to process their complaint quickly enough to offer any relief.  As we describe below, this is already the right answer under existing case law — but so far, many district courts have declined to follow this path.  The second proposal focuses on possible actions at the state and local levels, because it is corrections agencies, not the PLRA, that determine what procedures must be exhausted or whether the defense is raised in litigation.  Any prison or jail unhappy with allowing incarcerated plaintiffs to proceed in federal court or amenable to allowing them to access court quickly in emergency circumstances could implement working emergency grievance systems.  We provide some parameters to guide any such system. In addition, state legislatures could enact legislation forfeiting or waiving the exhaustion defense in cases seeking emergency relief.  The third solution addresses the reluctance of district judges to excuse non-exhaustion when they should; we propose that the PLRA be amended to pretermit the “availability” inquiry by eliminating the statutory exhaustion requirement in emergency situations.  We offer suggested legislative text to accomplish this end.

September 13, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 12, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases latest "Compassionate Release Data Report" with detailed data through March 2022

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission late last week published this updated compassionate release data report, which includes data on all "motions decided by the courts during fiscal years 2020, 2021, and the first half of 2022 (October 1, 2019 – March 31, 2022)."   As I have noted with prior data runs, there are lots and lots of interesting data points throughout this report covering the period just before, during and after the heights of the COVID pandemic.  

As I also have noted before, perhaps most striking data points are the dramatic variations in grant rates from various districts.  As but one of many remarkable examples, I must note again the stark disparities in the three districts of Georgia: the Southern District of Georgia granted only 6 out of 272 sentence reduction motions for a 2.2% grant rate; the Middle District of Georgia granted only 4 out of 238 sentence reduction motions for a 1.7% grant rate; but the Northern District of Georgia granted 80 out of 174 sentence reduction motions for a 46% grant rate.  And the District of Maryland — with a total of 244 sentencing reduction motions granted (though "only" a grant rate of 33%) — granted more of these motions than all the courts of five different circuits (and circuit grant rates ranged from a low of 9.8% in the Fifth Circuit to a high of 29.6% in the First Circuit).

I expect the newly confirmed Sentencing Commission will be giving these data a good luck as the consider revisions to the out-of-data guideline that is supposed to help courts considering sentencing revision motions brought under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  

September 12, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Ruan v. United States: Implications for Criminal Law, Health Care, and Beyond"

606e9d1f-2ef6-49f0-bbd7-fcb1b4ce9f73The title of this post is the title of this great panel discussion hosted by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law which is scheduled for midday on Tuesday, September 20.  Folks can and should register here for this event, which is described this way on this event page:

What must prosecutors prove about a defendant’s mental state in order to convict them of unauthorized distribution of controlled substances under federal drug laws?  In the case of Ruan v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Government must prove the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner.  But because the defendants in this case were medical doctors involved in questionable opioid prescribing practices, the case has generated an array of public policy questions.  The Government, stressing opioid overdose deaths and the broad harms of the opioid epidemic, argued the law should be interpreted to apply an objective standard for criminal liability.  The doctors, and many amici briefs, argued that an objective standard could criminalize merely careless prescribing and could deter responsible doctors from trying any novel medical therapies that had not yet been accepted by traditional medical practice.

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and our panel of experts as they discuss the doctrines and broader policies involved in the Ruan case and the implications for criminal law and beyond.

Panelists:

  • Douglas A. Berman, Newton D. Baker-Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law; Executive Director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center
  • Kelly Dineen, Associate Professor of Law, Director of the Health Law Program, Creighton University School of Law
  • Martin Fried, Clinical Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, Wexner Medical Center, The Ohio State University
  • Jennifer Oliva, Professor of Law, UC Hastings Law

Moderator:

Patricia Zettler, Associate Professor of Law, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

September 12, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Noting opaque SCOTUS rulings, split Ninth Circuit panel rejects habeas Eighth Amendment claim against 292-year prison term

Being sentenced to serve in 292 years in prison for a bunch of non-violent offenses certainly seems pretty "cruel."  And such an extreme prison term is still somewhat "unusual" in modern times, and surely would have been entirely unknown to the Founders. (Remarkably, were someone sentenced to 292 years in prison in 1790, he would still have 60 years left to serve circa 2022.)  But, despite textualist and originalist turns in other areas, modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence does not (yet?) focus on the text and original understanding of this provision.  Indeed, because there have been so few modern cases about application of the Eighth Amendment to extreme adult prison sentences, it remains unclear just whether and how the Eighth Amendment still serves to limit extreme adult prison terms at all.

I flag these issues in the wake of a notable recent split Ninth Circuit panel decision in Patsalis v. Shinn, No. 20-16800 (9th Cir. Sept. 6, 2022) (available here), in which the very opaqueness of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence provided the basis for rejecting a habeas challenge to a 292-year state prison term. Here is the start of the majority opinion in Patsalis providing context as well as passages from the discussion:

Petitioner-Appellant Atdom Patsalis seeks federal habeas relief, arguing that his 292-year total sentence imposed by an Arizona state court is grossly disproportionate to his crimes and, therefore, cruel and unusual in violation of the Federal and Arizona Constitutions. Patsalis was convicted of 25 felonies (mostly residential burglaries) committed against multiple victims over a three-month period. These were not his first crimes. The trial court imposed consecutive sentences on all but two of the 25 counts, resulting in an overall sentence of 292 years imprisonment.

The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected Patsalis’s constitutional claim concluding that proportionality should be assessed based on each individual conviction and sentence, not the cumulative effect of consecutive sentences, and that none of Patsalis’s individual sentences were disproportionate. Patsalis sought habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He argued that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA) deferential standard of review does not apply to the Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision because that court did not consider the cumulative impact of his sentence. Instead, he argued that he was entitled to de novo review on this claim. The district court disagreed, afforded AEDPA deference to the Arizona court, and concluded that Patsalis is not entitled to relief. We affirm....

There is no clearly established law from the Supreme Court on whether Eighth Amendment sentence proportionality must be analyzed on a cumulative or individual basis when a defendant is sentenced on multiple offenses.... Lockyer is instructive....  The Court noted that its sentence-proportionality precedents “have not been a model of clarity.” Id. at 72. It further recognized that it has “not established a clear or consistent path for courts to follow” in analyzing proportionality of a sentence to a term of years. Id. Nor has it been clear about “what factors may indicate gross disproportionality” or provided “clear objective standards to distinguish between sentences for different terms of years.” Id. (cleaned up). Other than the basic principle of proportionality, the only thing that the Court has established is that the rule against grossly disproportionate sentences is violated “only in the exceedingly rare and extreme case.” Id. at 73 (cleaned up)....

To grant Patsalis’s habeas petition, we must conclude that “there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree” that the Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision conflicts with the Supreme Court’s clearly established precedents. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102.  This we cannot do given the limited Supreme Court precedent regarding the prohibition against disproportionality of a sentence to a term of years.

Judge Christen penned a lengthy dissent, and here are parts of its opening and analysis:

Atdom Patsalis was convicted of various non-violent theft-related crimes committed over a three-month period when he was twenty-one years old. The total value of the property was about $5,000. Pre-trial, the State of Arizona made two plea offers of twenty years or less. Patsalis rejected both offers and was convicted of the charged offenses after a jury trial. The longest sentence imposed for any of his crimes was 15 years, but the court specified that his multiple sentences would run consecutively. The net result was a cumulative sentence of 292 years....

On appeal, my colleagues agree that AEDPA deference applies and they affirm on that basis. The majority acknowledges that the state court did not address Patsalis’s cumulative sentence — yet it asserts that the state court rejected Patsalis’s federal claim on the merits. The state court’s opinion is clear: it affirmed Patsalis’s individual sentences while expressly declining to consider whether his 292-year sentence was grossly disproportionate. Because the state court did not reach the merits of the claim Patsalis actually presented, there is no state-court decision to which we can defer and de novo review is the proper standard. Reviewing Patsalis’s claim de novo, I conclude that his cumulative sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent....

The facts and circumstances in the Supreme Court’s Solem and Graham opinions inescapably point to the conclusion that Patsalis’s 292-year sentence is one of the extremely rare cases that gives rise to an inference of disproportionality at the first step of the Eighth Amendment analysis. Patsalis was just 21 years old when he committed his offenses so he did not have a track record that had accumulated over the course of even the eleven years at issue in Solem. (Indeed, he had only been an adult for three years.) His offenses were non-violent and theft-related, and he stole random items (e.g., a drill, a flashlight, a telescope) with a total value of roughly $5,000. While four of his offenses involved entering private residences — admittedly serious conduct — eighteen of the twenty-two burglaries for which Patsalis received consecutive sentences did not involve entry into a home, but into a garage, a vehicle, and a detached shed. All of them were deemed “non-dangerous” by the trial court. As was the case in Graham, the sentence Patsalis received was multiples of the sentences imposed for murderers or rapists, yet Patsalis did not injure anyone and there is no indication that any violence or weapons were involved in any of his offenses.

Remarkably, in an era in which life sentences and lengthy term-of-years sentences keep reaching historic new levels (see reports discussed here and here), it has now been nearly two full decades since the Supreme Court has addressed an Eighth Amendment challenge to an adult term of years sentences.  Lockyer and Andrade were decided way back in 2003, and Justice Thomas is now the only member of SCOTUS who remains on the Court since those rulings were handed down. 

With SCOTUS transitions and the recent textualist and originalist turns in other jurisprudence, I would like to imagine Patsalis as the kind of case in which certorari might be granted and the Justices might look to finally clean up precedents that have not been a "model of clarity" and that seem quite inconsistent with the text and original understanding of the Eighth Amendment.  But, I should probably know better than to hope and expect that people sentenced to live in a cage for nearly three centuries will garner the kind of constitutional attention as praying football coaches and college admissions officers.

September 12, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Should pardon enable pharmacist convicted of federal fraud to claw back restitution already paid?

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this interesting news story from Georgia regarding the uncertain aftermath of a presidential pardon.  The piece is headlined, "Trump pardoned him; now Ga. man sues state, insurer for half-million," and here are in the details:

In his final days in the White House, then-President Donald Trump pardoned dozens of people, including former Augusta pharmacist John Duncan Fordham who was convicted of defrauding the state of Georgia and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution.

Fordham spent four years in prison after his 2005 health care fraud conviction, and his assets were seized and liquidated to help make whole the state and a private insurance company he had defrauded. At the time of his January 2021 pardon, Fordham had made good on $531,000 in restitution payments.

And while the pardon erased the nearly half million he and company still owed, that wasn’t good enough for Fordham. On Thursday, he took the unusual step of suing the state and the insurance company to pay him the hundreds of thousands he had already paid in restitution, claiming that Trump’s pardon had entitled him to recover the funds — plus interest.

“I’m not sure that I’ve heard of a case of reimbursement,” said Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt, an expert on presidential pardons.

Fordham was convicted of taking part in a fraud scheme in which former state Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta, steered a lucrative contract with the East Georgia Community Mental Health Center to Fordham, in exchange for generous kick backs to the former lawmaker. Williams was also convicted and sentenced to federal prison....

In addition to the nearly $500,000 that were seized following his conviction, Fordham had continued to make monthly payments totaling $46,000 until Trump’s pardon, the complaint says. He paid roughly $259,000 to the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, an agency that provides financial services to state and local government entities and a defendant in Fordham’s suit. Fordham paid Great American Insurance Company, the other defendant in his suit, $272,000 in restitution, records show.

Kalt said that the presidential pardon cleared Fordham of responsibility to continue to pay restitution, but it seems unlikely that a federal court will agree that the pardon entitles him to claw back payments he had already made. “It’s unclear, but it seems doubtful to me that he’ll be able to get the money back,” Kalt said.

I understand Professor Kalt's first instinct that this pardoned individual should not be able to get back restitution already paid; after all, this individual cannot "get back" the four years he already served in prison.  But, of course, money can be returned whereas time cannot.  And, if one concludes that the pardon here serves to wipe out the remaining restitution owed that had not yet been paid, I am not sure why logic does not suggest that the pardon also serves to wipe out the already paid restitution.

Notably, Prez Trump's grant of clemency provided for a "full and unconditional pardon" for Fordham's conviction and it mentioned the entire full restitution amount that was part of the sentence imposed.  I find myself somewhat drawn to the notion that the law should aspire to give as much effect to a clemency grant as possible, including enabling Fordham to claw back even restitution already paid.  But perhaps we ought to view clemency as a classic example of equity over law, and so perhaps we best achieve equity by wiping out only future restitution still owed without returning restitution already paid.

September 11, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Making the case for jury nullification in response to criminalization of abortion

LawProfs Peter Sali and Guha Krishnamurthi have this notable new Inquest piece talking up jury nullification as having "a role to play in securing reproductive rights" in the wake of the Supreme Court reversal of Roe.  The piece is fully titled "Nullifying Dobbs: Jurors’ conscientious refusal to convict people charged for violating abortion bans is perfectly legal — and what justice demands." (The Inquest piece is a shorter exposition of this essay on SSRN titled "Nullification in Abortion Prosecutions: An Equilibrium Theory.")  Here is an excerpt:

[W]e expect the effect of nullification on abortion prosecutions to be twofold.  First, it will reduce the range of cases that will be brought.  Prosecutors fearing the possibility of objectors on the jury will avoid bringing the most unpopular charges.  Second, when instances where prosecutors do bring charges, nullification may change the outcome of some cases.  This becomes more likely as criminal penalties become more obviously unjust.

There is some evidence beyond idle speculation of the above potential for nullification.  Marijuana prosecutions are a relevant precedent.  In roughly the past decade, public support for the criminal prohibition of marijuana has cratered — dropping by nearly half.  Today, only about a third of Americans approve of such laws.  Over the same period, federal prosecutions of marijuana cases likewise collapsed — dropping by over 86%.  We think that this was not a coincidence.  As with abortions, most of the possible prosecutions for marijuana possession simply became extremely unpopular.  Perhaps understanding this, prosecutors chose to devote their resources elsewhere, rather than risk losing factually solid cases because of the jury’s hostility to the law itself....

Nullification cannot and will not fix everything.  Nullification itself comes at the end of the criminal process.  The stress, anxiety, and fear of the criminal process can be overwhelming for defendants, and the consequences of being investigated and prosecuted — such as stigmatization and financial stress — can be devastating.  Nullification cannot directly alleviate those harms.  Thus, in some instances, prosecutors may bring charges despite the potential for nullification precisely to send a message through the harsh criminal process.  But we think that the equilibrium effect of nullification will be to reduce the number of cases prosecutors bring. And when unpopular cases are brought, nullification can avert the harshest part of the criminal process — the punishment....

Nullification is, at best, a shield against the most outrageous state actions — a way for the community to stand in the way of punishment.  The case of abortion is no different. Yet in this arena, unlike in other areas of criminal law, state lawmakers seem committed to outrageous acts — as evaluated by the standards of ordinary Americans.  Here, then, nullification may make a difference, at least until law moderates to reflect the values of the governed.

I have flagged the passage here discussing declining federal marijuana prosecutions in part because I co-wrote an article last year on this topic, "How State Reforms Have Mellowed Federal Enforcement of Marijuana Prohibition."   As explained in that article, a sharp decline in marijuana seizures at the southern US border (as states have legalized local grows) likely most directly explains the sharp decline of federal marijuana prosecutions.  Still, the disinclination of federal prosecutors to go after state-legalized marijuana activities — especially during the Trump Administration when many DOJ officials were clearly not so keen on marijuana reform — likely has reflected the reality that more and more citizens may be less and less likely to support using criminal laws to punish "responsible" marijuana activity.

A few prior related posts:

September 11, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, September 09, 2022

Split Washington Supreme Court revisits its limits on long prison terms for juvenile offenders

As explained in this AP article, a "year after saying virtual life sentences are unconstitutional for teenage killers, the Washington Supreme Court changed course Thursday in a split ruling that drew irate dissents from four justices.  The 5-4 decision was a striking departure for a court that in recent years has steadily embraced research showing that juveniles’ brain development typically makes them less culpable than adults, and which has made significant efforts to undo the impact of racial bias in the criminal justice system."  The majority opinion in Washington v. Anderson, No. 97890-5 (Wash. Sept. 8, 2028) (available here), starts this way:

Tonelli Anderson is serving a 61-year sentence for two first degree murders he committed at age 17. Anderson asks us to hold that his sentence is unconstitutionally cruel in violation of article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution.  He argues that this court’s recent decision in State v. Haag announced a bright line rule that no juvenile offender can ever receive a sentence of 46 years or longer — no matter how serious or numerous their crimes may be — and so his sentence is unconstitutional because it is longer than 46 years.  We disagree with Anderson’s interpretation of Haag.

Haag is properly understood as announcing that article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution limits the category of juvenile offenders who can receive de facto life without parole (LWOP) sentences, the harshest punishments possible for juvenile offenders under Washington law.  In Haag, we determined that a particular juvenile offender could not receive such a harsh punishment because his crime reflected youthful immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. But when, as here, a juvenile offender’s crimes do not reflect those mitigating qualities of youth, Washington’s constitution does not bar a de facto LWOP sentence.

The King County Superior Court properly considered all of Anderson’s evidence regarding the mitigating qualities of his youth and his rehabilitation while in prison.  In light of that evidence and the trial record, the court appropriately determined that Anderson’s crimes do not reflect youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences. Article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution therefore does not prohibit Anderson’s 61-year sentence. We affirm.

A dissent by Chief Justice Gonzalez starts this way:

Even if I could join the majority’s repudiation of our recent constitutional jurisprudence, I could not join it in affirming the trial court’s resentencing decision here. The resentencing judge abused her discretion by failing to meaningfully consider how juveniles are different from adults, by failing to meaningfully consider how those differences applied to Tonelli Anderson, by failing to consider whether Anderson’s case was one of the few where a life without parole sentence is constitutionally permissible, by failing to give meaningful weight to the significant evidence that Tonelli Anderson had rehabilitated himself while in prison, and by improperly allocating the burden of proof to him at resentencing. For all these reasons, I respectfully dissent.

Another dissent from Justice Yu starts this way:

I agree with the dissent that Tonelli Anderson is entitled to resentencing pursuant to this court’s precedent, which recognizes “that life is more than just life expectancy and that a juvenile must have a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society after leaving prison.” State v. Haag, 198 Wn.2d 309, 328, 495 P.3d 241 (2021). I write separately to elaborate on the ways in which the majority undermines our precedent, ignores fundamental principles of stare decisis, and disregards this court’s own call to “recognize the role we have played in devaluing [B]lack lives.” Letter from Wash. State Sup. Ct. to Members of Judiciary & Legal Cmty. at 1 (June 4, 2020), https://www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20 News/Judiciary%20Legal%20Community%20SIGNED%20060420.pdf [https://perma.cc/QNT4-H5P7]. Today’s decision is contrary to both longestablished principles of law and newly recognized principles of justice. I therefore respectfully concur in the dissent.

September 9, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fascinating data and transparency project from Colorado district attorneys

The Denver Post has this lengthy and interesting account of a remarkable new data project in Colorado involving numerous district attorneys.  The piece should be read in full and is headlined "Eight Colorado DAs unveil detailed data about prosecutions, racial disparities; Public dashboards show racial disparities, offer unprecedented detail."  Here is how the article gets started:

Eight Colorado district attorneys released detailed data about their operations Thursday in an attempt to be more transparent with the public amid broader criticism of racial disparities in and distrust of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The data offers a look at the inner workings of Colorado’s prosecutors in unprecedented detail, with researchers tracking 55 different aspects of prosecution, ranging from charging and bond decisions to sentencing to how long cases take to be resolved

“For too long and too often, the justice system feels like a black box of information,” 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said during a news conference Thursday. “…That changes today.”

The data is presented publicly in online dashboards — collected at data.dacolorado.org — for each of the eight offices that participated in the research project, which was funded by an $882,000 grant from the Microsoft Justice Reform Institute. The research was carried out by the University of Denver’s Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab and by the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators project.

September 9, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Spotlighting disparities in voter fraud prosecutions and punishments

The New York Times has this lengthy new piece highlighting that the uneven application of justice around the country when it comes to cases of voter fraud.  The full headline of this piece highlights its themes: "In Voter Fraud, Penalties Often Depend on Who’s Voting: Cases in Florida and a survey of prosecutions nationally indicate that despite the furor over voter fraud, prosecutions remain exceedingly rare and penalties vary wildly."  Here is how this piece starts:

After 15 years of scrapes with the police, the last thing that 33-year-old Therris L. Conney needed was another run-in with the law. He got one anyway two years ago, after election officials held a presentation on voting rights for inmates of the county jail in Gainesville, Fla.  Apparently satisfied that he could vote, Mr. Conney registered after the session, and cast a ballot in 2020.  In May, he was arrested for breaking a state law banning voting by people serving felony sentences — and he was sentenced to almost another full year in jail.

That show-no-mercy approach to voter fraud is what Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has encouraged this year during his re-election campaign.  “That was against the law,” he said last month about charges against 20 other felons who voted in Florida, “and they’re going to pay a price for it.”

But many of those cases seem to already be falling apart, because, like Mr. Conney, the former felons did not intend to vote illegally.  And the more typical kind of voter-fraud case in Florida has long exacted punishment at a steep discount.

Last winter, four residents of the Republican-leaning retirement community The Villages were arrested for voting twice — once in Florida, and again in other states where they had also lived. Despite being charged with third-degree felonies, the same as Mr. Conney, two of the Villages residents who pleaded guilty escaped having a criminal record entirely by taking a 24-hour civics class. Trials are pending for the other two.

Florida is an exaggerated version of America as a whole.  A review by The New York Times of some 400 voting-fraud charges filed nationwide since 2017 underscores what critics of fraud crackdowns have long said: Actual prosecutions are blue-moon events, and often netted people who didn’t realize they were breaking the law.

Punishment can be wildly inconsistent: Most violations draw wrist-slaps, while a few high-profile prosecutions produce draconian sentences.  Penalties often fall heaviest on those least able to mount a defense.  Those who are poor and Black are more likely to be sent to jail than comfortable retirees facing similar charges.

September 8, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

South Carolina state judge declares execution by firing squad and electric chair to be unconstitutional

As reported in this AP piece, a "South Carolina judge ruled Tuesday that the state's newly created execution firing squad, as well as its use of the electric chair, are unconstitutional, siding with four death row inmates in a decision sure to be swiftly appealed as the state struggles to implement its new execution protocols." Here is more:

“In 2021, South Carolina turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die," Judge Jocelyn Newman wrote in a case brought by the inmates against the state. "In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency.”

Last month, Newman heard arguments from lawyers for four men on the state's death row, who said that the prisoners would feel terrible pain whether their bodies were “cooking” by electricity or heart stopped by a marksman’s bullet — assuming they are on target.

Attorneys for the state countered with their own experts who said death by the yet-to-be-used firing squad or the rarely used electric chair would be instantaneous and the condemned would not feel any pain. The state Supreme Court had ordered Newman to issue her decision within 30 days, with further appeals all but certain. Officials with the state Corrections Department told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the agency was “assessing the ruling.”

From 1995 to 2011 — when the state’s last execution was performed — South Carolina carried out the death penalty with lethal injections on 36 prisoners. But, as the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013, an involuntary pause in executions resulted from pharmaceutical companies' refusal to sell the state more. Condemned inmates technically had the choice between injection and electrocution, meaning that opting for the former would in essence leave the state unable to carry out the sentence.

Prison officials sought help from state lawmakers, who for several years had considered adding the firing squad as an option to approved methods, but debate never advanced. Last year, Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian and GOP Sen. Greg Hembree, both of whom previously served as prosecutors, again argued in favor of adding the firing squad option....

The ultimately approved measure, signed into law by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster last year, made South Carolina the fourth state in the country to allow use of a firing squad, and made the state's electric chair — built in 1912 — the default method for executions, thereby giving prisoners a new choice.

During last month's trial, a Corrections Department official said he devised the firing squad protocols after consulting a prison official in Utah, location of the only three inmates to die by firing squad since 1977. Colie Rushton, the department’s security director, testified the .308 Winchester ammunition to be used is designed to fragment and split up in the heart to make death as fast as possible. Much of the rest of the trial was each side calling its own experts to detail whether inmates feel any pain before they die.

In her ruling, Newman relied on this testimony, including two physicians who said that an inmate “is likely to be conscious for a minimum of ten seconds after impact.” During that time, the judge wrote, “he will feel excruciating pain resulting from the gunshot wounds and broken bones,” sensation that “constitutes torture” as it is “exacerbated by any movement he makes, such as flinching or breathing.”

September 6, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Formerly incarcerated and advocacy groups write to new head of federal BOP

This webpage at the Sentencing Project has the full text of this letter from formerly incarcerated individuals and advocacy organizations to new Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters advocating for various reforms.  The full letter is worth a full read, and here are a few excerpts:

As people formerly incarcerated in US Bureau of Prisons facilities and organizations dedicated to civil rights and justice, we know well the challenges that await you and hope to share with you our concerns and advice for advancing the systemic reform you have pledged to achieve.  We have all witnessed the Bureau’s failure to provide adequate medical care, safe conditions, and rehabilitative programs.  We ask you to bring the Bureau into compliance with federal law and to lead the Bureau toward a more humane future grounded in transparency and accountability....

Federal prisons are plagued by inadequate medical care, overcrowding, staff shortages, unsanitary conditions, violence, and abuse.  These conditions are well-documented in media coverage, Office of Inspector General and Bureau reports, and congressional testimony.  Following a recent oversight hearing on July 26, Senator Ossoff observed within FCI Atlanta that “conditions for inmates were abusive and inhumane” and that “stunning failures of federal prison administration” “likely contributed to the loss of life.”5) FCI Atlanta is not unique; all federal prisons urgently need reform....

Compassionate release can save the lives of medically vulnerable people, ease staff shortages by reducing the prison population, and provide mercy.  Yet the Bureau rarely uses its power to file motions for compassionate release in extraordinary or compelling circumstances.... [O]ver the first 13 months of the pandemic, the Bureau only ultimately approved 36 compassionate release requests, fewer than in 2019.  You have the power to change that.  We urge you to normalize the use of compassionate release to save lives, reunite families, and make federal prisons safer....

In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, a vital piece of legislation that gave many people hope.  Congress recognized that people grow and change, and that it was in the interest of the American people and public safety to allow individuals to earn the ability to come home sooner by completing rehabilitative programs.  But today, almost five years later, the Bureau has still failed to fully implement the First Step Act....

Abuse, corruption, and misconduct have been apparent within the Bureau for decades, but leadership has too often failed to act. In 2019, the House Subcommittee on National Security found that misconduct in the federal prison system is widespread and routinely covered up or ignored, including by senior officials.  The recent oversight hearing on FCI Atlanta highlighted decades of corruption and abuse and inaction by the Bureau Director.  We urge you to set a new standard and lead the Bureau towards transparency and accountability.

September 6, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Lots of notable new briefings and other interesting items from the Prison Policy Initiative

The start of a new semester and other matters have left me behind on reading and blogging on various fronts, particularly with respect to a number of notable new items from the Prison Policy Initiative.  In an effort to catch up, here is a reprinting of links to notable recent PPI works:

September 3, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 01, 2022

First Circuit panel reiterates district courts' "broad discretion" and "holistic review" when resolving compassionate release motions

Today seems to be my day for catching up with circuit rulings regarding federal compassionate release decision-making.  My prior post today here about the Second Circuit's panel rulings limiting the consideration of certain arguments prompted a helpful reader to make sure I saw the recent First Circuit panel ruling running the other way.  In US v. Trenkler,  No. 21-1441 (1st Cir. Aug. 29, 2022) (available here), the panel stressed and reiterated a prior ruling setting out compassionate release rules:

Ruvalcaba convincingly set the standard for a district court reviewing a prisoner's proposed reasons for compassionate release, making it clear that district courts have the discretion to review prisoner-initiated motions by taking the holistic, any complex-of-circumstances approach we discussed earlier.  Indeed, this approach makes sense.  After all, it is possible that the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, and reasons that might not do the trick on their own may combine to constitute circumstances that warrant a finding that the reasons proposed are, in the aggregate, extraordinary and compelling.  This is not to say that a district court must find a certain number of extraordinary and compelling reasons.  Rather, in conducting their reviews, district courts should be mindful of the holistic context of a defendant's individual case when deciding whether the defendant's circumstances satisfy the "extraordinary and compelling" standard -- "any complex of circumstances" contemplates that any number of reasons may suffice on a case-by-case basis, whether it's one, two, or ten.

I noted here the remarkable district court opinion last year in Trexler, and this case and so many others serve as a remarkable reminder of just how many different federal prisoners can cite to so many different circumstances when seeking a sentence modification.  A huge federal prison system necessarily creates a huge number of questions in the wake of the First Step Act's change to the compassionate release rules. 

September 1, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Longest prison term yet — 10 years — given to Jan 6 rioter who assaulted police officer

As reported in this Politico piece, a " federal judge on Thursday sentenced former New York cop Thomas Webster to 10 years in prison for assaulting a police officer outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the longest sentence handed down yet in cases that arise from the attack."  Here is more:

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta described Webster’s assault on D.C. police officer Noah Rathbun as one of the most haunting and shocking images from that violent day.

“I do wish you hadn’t come to Washington D.C. I do wish you had stayed home in New York, that you had not come out to the Capitol that day,” Mehta said. “Because all of us would be far better off. Not just you, your family, country. We’d all be far better off. Yet here we are.”

Mehta said he viewed Webster’s conduct as among the most egregious of any defendant sentenced so far. Until Thursday, the lengthiest sentences had been given to Texas militia member Guy Reffitt and local Virginia police officer Thomas Robertson, who were convicted by juries of attempting to obstruct congressional proceedings.

It’s the latest in a string of steeper sentences that have been issued as rioters facing felony charges — some of whom have taken their cases to trial — learn their fate from the judges who have presided over their cases for more than a year.

Images of Webster attempting to rip the gas mask off of Rathbun’s face amid broader chaos at the Capitol are among the most indelible images to emerge from the Jan. 6 attack. Mehta expressed incredulity that Webster took the stand in his own defense and attempted to argue that his effort to rip the officer’s gas mask off was really just to show him his hands and prove he wasn’t a threat.

Notably, though this case represents the longest sentencing to date for a Jan 6 rioter, the sentence of 10 years is still a full 7+ years below what the federal sentencing guidelines recommended (and what the federal prosecutors requested).

Some of many prior related posts:

September 1, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Second Circuit panel rules evidence attacking underlying conviction "cannot be raised in a § 3582 motion" for compassionate release ... and reiterates point after Concepcion

UPDATE/Clarification:  A helpful reader flagged for me that on Aug 31, the Second Circuit actually reissued its Orena opinion after having issued its original opinion on June 15.  I have now corrected/amended this post accordingly.

---- 

Just today I saw a second version of a panel opinion from the Second Circuit issued which expressly invents another non-textual limit on what factors can be considered by district courts when deciding whether to grant a motion for compassionate release.  The per curiam opinion in US v. Orena, No. 21-2747 (2d Cir. June 15, amended Aug. 31, 2022) (original available here), get started this way:

As part of the First Step Act of 2018, Congress authorized courts to reduce a term of imprisonment upon motion by a defendant. See Pub. L. No. 115-391, § 603(b), 132 Stat. 5194, 5239 (amending 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)).  Section 3582(c)(1), colloquially known as the “compassionate release” provision, permits a district court to reduce a previously imposed sentence “after considering the factors set forth in [18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)] to the extent that they are applicable, if it finds that . . . extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.”  Appellant Victor Orena contends primarily that the district court erred in denying his motion pursuant to § 3582 by refusing to consider new evidence that he says calls into question the validity of his conviction.

We conclude that when considering a motion for sentence reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), a district court does not have discretion to consider new evidence proffered for the purpose of attacking the validity of the underlying conviction in its balancing of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors. Facts and arguments that purport to undermine the validity of a federal conviction must be brought on direct appeal or pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 or § 2241. Because the district court properly refused to consider such evidence here as to the § 3553(a) factors and otherwise did not abuse its discretion in denying Orena’s motion for compassionate release, we affirm.

Here is a key paragraph from the opinion:

Orena primarily contends that the district court erred by assuming the PSR’s accuracy and refusing to weigh his new evidence as part of the § 3553(a) factors.  We disagree. Section 3582(c)(1)(A) directs courts to “consider[] the factors set forth in section 3553(a).”  Section 3553 in turn provides “[f]actors to be considered in imposing a sentence.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) (emphasis added).  To impose a sentence, there must necessarily be a valid conviction.  If a defendant contends his conviction by a federal court is invalid, Congress has provided a vehicle to raise such a challenge through a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which imposes particular procedural limitations.  A defendant cannot evade this collateral review structure by attacking the validity of his conviction through § 3582.  Accordingly, we conclude, arguments challenging the validity of an underlying conviction cannot be raised in a § 3582 motion as part of the § 3553(a) sentencing factors.  Rather, such arguments are properly raised on direct appeal or collateral review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.  Other courts have reached the same conclusion. See e.g., United States v. Bard, No. 21-3265, 2022 WL 843485, at *2 (3d Cir. March 22, 2022) (unpublished per curiam); United States v. Miller, 855 F. App’x 949, 950 (5th Cir. 2021) (unpublished per curiam)

I get the logic of courts wanting to channel efforts to invalidate a conviction into 2255 or 2241 motions. But in some cases prisoners may be eager to highlight problems with the validity of an underlying conviction to bolster their arguments under § 3553(a) that a sentence reduction would produce a sentence that better "promote[s} respect for the law" or would help "avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct."  Because there is no express text in § 3582(c)(1)(A) that would seem clearly to bar this kind of evidence and argument, and because there is text in § 3553(a) that would seem potentially to invite this kind of evidence and argument, I think it problematic — at least for those of us concerned about textualist limits of judicial policy-making — to see another circuit court inventing another non-textual limit on what factors can be considered by district courts when deciding whether to grant a motion for compassionate release.

As I blogged here back in June, the Supreme Court's ruling in Concepcion seem to clearly indicated that circuit courts should not be creating extra-textual limits on the discretion that Congress has given to sentencing judges.  And the defendant in this Second Circuit cases sought reconsideration based on Concepcion, which led to the reissued opinion linked below.  Here is a key added footnote in the amended opinion:

The Supreme Court’s decision in Concepcion does not conflict with our decision in this case.  In Concepcion, the Court emphasized a “longstanding tradition” of discretion afforded to courts consider changes in law or fact when sentencing or resentencing a defendant. 142 S. Ct. at 2395.  However, the Court acknowledged that that discretion is subject to constraints imposed by Congress and the Constitution. Id. at 2400–01.  One such constraint is 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which provides the procedural mechanism for Orena’s arguments regarding actual innocence and the legality of his conviction.

Download Orena Aug 31 2022

This footnote makes my head hurt, because there is absolutely no language in 28 U.S.C. § 2255 which can be fairly read as a "constraint" on what may be valid considerations in the exercise of § 3582/3553(a) discretion.  There is language in § 2255 which limits when and how § 2255 motions are to be resolved, but nothing in that provision places any express or implicit "constraint" on what should be part of compassionate release considerations.  Sigh... Cf. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (1871) ("'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less'.")

September 1, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

"The Coherence of Prison Law"

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

In this essay, I explore the mechanisms by which, despite what is known about the reality on the ground in American prisons, courts hearing constitutional challenges brought by prisoners so persistently find in favor of the state.  In terms of doctrine, I show that, especially during the Rehnquist Court, the Supreme Court systematically deployed a set of maneuvers to construct doctrinal standards for prison law cases that strongly incline courts to rule for defendants.  Yet skewed doctrinal standards alone cannot explain prison law’s strong pro-state bent, since courts hearing prison law cases will often side with defendants even when plaintiffs’ claims are strong on the merits and even when defendants’ arguments strain credulity.  To achieve this effect also requires a judicial readiness to see the state’s case through an especially sympathetic lens and to exhibit a studied indifference to plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and lived experience. 

As I show, the Court’s prison law opinions persistently exhibit this orientation, which I term dispositional favoritism.  When federal courts hearing prison cases follow this lead, as they frequently do, they can wind up favoring defendant prison officials in any number of ways hard to square with either the record or the relevant legal rules.  These dynamics, hidden in plain sight, had been present in the prison law doctrine for decades.  Then came Covid-19.  As this essay shows, the methods courts used to deny the COVID claims of incarcerated plaintiffs were the same that have been used for years to deflect prisoners’ constitutional claims more generally.  COVID, in short, definitively confirmed the terrible coherence of prison law: it is consistently and predictably pro-state, highly deferential to prison officials’ decision-making, and largely insensitive to the harms people experience while incarcerated.  These features collectively embody the plainly divergent normative inclinations the Supreme Court routinely displays toward the parties in prison law cases.

August 31, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

En banc Eight Circuit reverses ruling that Missouri must improve its parole process to comply with Miller

In this post from three years ago, I noted a federal district court ruling finding that the Missouri's parole policies and practices failed to give juveniles subject to life terms a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as required by Eighth Amendment doctrines.  An in this post last year, I noted that a split Eighth Circuit panel upheld the bulk of this ruling over a dissent by Judge Colloton.  Yesterday, Judge Colloton got to turn the tables by writing a new majority opinion for the en banc Eighth Circuit that starts this way:

In 2016, in light of Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Eighth Amendment’s proscription on cruel and unusual punishment, the Missouri legislature modified state law regarding parole. The legislature enacted a statute permitting a juvenile homicide offender to petition for parole if he had been sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without parole. A class of inmates who were juvenile offenders sued the state officials responsible for administering the parole process.  The inmates alleged that the policies and practices of the parole officials violated their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and to due process of law under the federal and Missouri constitutions. The district court determined that the parole review practices were constitutionally deficient, and ordered the State to implement an elaborate remedial plan. The State appeals, and we conclude that there is no constitutional violation. We therefore reverse the judgment of the district court.

Here is a key concluding passage from the majority opinion:

In sum, the Supreme Court’s juvenile-specific jurisprudence under the Eighth Amendment does not warrant declaring a constitutional violation and imposing on the State the elaborate set of parole procedures endorsed by the district court.  A requirement to allow “some meaningful opportunity” for release, even if applicable to these juvenile homicide offenders, is satisfied here.  The juvenile homicide offenders in Missouri received more process than offenders under the regular parole process: they presented more documentary evidence than adult offenders, received longer hearings than the average parole hearing, and were entitled to consideration of statutory factors that apply only to juveniles who were formerly sentenced to life without parole.  Of course, a “meaningful opportunity” does not imply that every juvenile homicide offender must be released immediately upon eligibility for parole.  We do not believe the Court intended through its decisions in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery to judicialize the parole process in the manner urged by the inmates.

The dissent is authored by Judge Kelly and joined by Chief Judge Smith and Judge Arnold and it concludes this way:

Missouri’s parole policies and practices, when considered in combination as implemented, work to deprive Plaintiffs of their Eighth Amendment right to a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.  See Miller, 567 U.S. at 479. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that juvenile offenders are “constitutionally different” than adult offenders, id. at 471, and “should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential,” Graham, 560 U.S. at 79.  Because the parole review process in place under SB 590 fails to adequately “ensure[] that juveniles whose crimes reflect[] only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence,” Montgomery, 577 U.S. at 212, it violates the Eighth Amendment.

Prior related posts:

August 31, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 29, 2022

DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo makes still more law as top Maryland court says he must be resentenced in light of Miller

Though Lee Boyd Malvo is now 37 years old and serving a life prison term in Virginia, he was only 17 years old when he (with John Allen Muhammad) killed multiple people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington over a few weeks in 2002.  Malvo's juvenile status at the time of his awful crimes means that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting juvenile LWOP sentencing has been applicable to him.

The Supreme Court had granted cert to considering Malvo's Virginia sentencing, until Virginia changed its sentencing law and mooted that case.  And late last week, as reported in this AP article, Malvo's Maryland sentencing generated a notable ruling:

Maryland’s highest court has ruled that Washington, D.C.-area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo must be resentenced, because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to constitutional protections for juveniles made after Malvo was sentenced to six life sentences without the possibility of parole

In its 4-3 ruling, however, the Maryland Court of Appeals said it’s very unlikely Malvo would ever be released from custody, because he is also serving separate life sentences for murders in Virginia.

“As a practical matter, this may be an academic question in Mr. Malvo’s case, as he would first have to be granted parole in Virginia before his consecutive life sentences in Maryland even begin,” Judge Robert McDonald wrote in the majority opinion released Friday.

McDonald wrote that it’s ultimately not up to the Court of Appeals to decide the appropriate sentence for Malvo, or whether he should ever be released from his Maryland sentences.

“We hold only that the Eighth Amendment requires that he receive a new sentencing hearing at which the sentencing court, now cognizant of the principles elucidated by the Supreme Court, is able to consider whether or not he is constitutionally eligible for life without parole under those decisions,” McDonald wrote....

Judges Jonathan Biran, Brynja Booth and Joseph Getty joined McDonald in the majority. Judges Shirley Watts, Michele Hotten and Steven Gould dissented.  Watts wrote that the sentencing court took Malvo’s status as a juvenile into account.

“The record demonstrates that Mr. Malvo received a personalized sentencing procedure at which his youth and its attendant characteristics were considered, and the circuit court was aware that it had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence,” Watts wrote.

The full 108-page opinion in Malvo v. Maryland is available at this link.

August 29, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "The Organizational Sentencing Guidelines: Thirty Years of Innovation and Influence"

Though a full new US Sentencing Commission was confirmed earlier this month, the outgoing folks are continuing to release notable new research reports as we await new action from the newbies.  The latest USSC report runs nearly 100 pages under the title "The Organizational Sentencing Guidelines: Thirty Years of Innovation and Influence." This USSC webpage provides this background with key findings:

This publication summarizes the history of Chapter Eight’s development and discusses the two substantive changes made to the elements of an effective compliance and ethics program. It then provides policymakers and researchers a snapshot of corporate sentencing over the last 30 years. Finally, the publication describes Chapter Eight’s impact beyond federal sentencing.

Key Findings:

  • The major innovations of the organizational guidelines are (1) incentivizing organizations to self-police their behavior; (2) providing guidance on effective compliance and ethics programs that organizations can implement to demonstrate efforts to self-police; and (3) holding organizations accountable based on specific factors of culpability.
  • The most significant achievement of Chapter Eight has been the widespread acceptance of the organizational guidelines' criteria for developing and maintaining effective compliance and ethics programs to prevent, detect, and report criminal conduct.
  • During the 30-year period since promulgation of the organizational guidelines, 4,946 organizational offenders have been sentenced in the 94 federal judicial districts. The majority of organizational offenders are domestic (88.1%), private (92.2%), and smaller organizations with fewer than 50 employees (70.4%).
  • Six offense types accounted for 80.4 percent of all organizational offenders from fiscal years 1992 through 2021.
    • Fraud (30.1%) and environmental (24.0%) offenses, accounted for more than half (54.1%) of all organizational offenses.
    • Other common offense types were antitrust (8.4%), food and drug (6.6%), money laundering (6.1%), and import and export crimes (5.2%).
  • Commission data suggests that the lack of an effective compliance and ethics program may be a contributing factor to criminal prosecutions against organizations.
    • Since fiscal year 1992, the overwhelming majority of organizational offenders (89.6%) did not have any compliance and ethics program.
    • Only 11 of the 4,946 organizational offenders sentenced since fiscal year 1992 received a culpability score reduction for having an effective compliance and ethics program.
    • More than half (58.3%) of the organizational offenders sentenced under the fine guidelines received a culpability score increase for the involvement in or tolerance of criminal activity.
    • Few organizational offenders (1.5% overall) received the five-point culpability score reduction for disclosing the offense to appropriate authorities prior to a government investigation in addition to their full cooperation and acceptance of responsibility.
    • Since fiscal year 2000, courts ordered one-fifth (19.5%) of organizational offenders to implement an effective compliance and ethics program.
  • Since fiscal year 1992, the courts have imposed nearly $33 billion in fines on organizational offenders. The average fine imposed was over $9 million and the median amount was $100,000.
  • Since fiscal year 1992, courts sentenced over two-thirds of organizational offenders (69.1%) to a term of probation and the average length of the term of probation imposed was 39 months.

August 29, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Feds seeking (within-guideline) sentence of 17+ years for former NYPD Jan 6 defendant

As detailed in this Insider article, headlined "DOJ seeks the longest Capitol riot prison term yet — 17 years for 'eye-gouging' ex-NYPD officer who swung a flagpole at police," late last week federal prosecutors filed another notable sentencing memorandum for another notable Jan 6 defendant who was convicted after a trial.  Here are excerpts:

Federal prosecutors are seeking the longest sentence yet for a Capitol rioter, asking the judge to give a former NYPD officer 210 months — seventeen and a half years — in prison.

Thomas Webster was found guilty on all six charges in May, including assaulting an officer and entering restricted grounds.  His sentencing is set for September 1.

In a statement arguing for a shorter sentence, Webster's lawyer said that he had been under "an extraordinary amount of influence" from former President Donald Trump's election falsehoods on January 6, 2021.

The criminal complaint describes Webster elbowing his way through the mob to be among those leading the charge against the Capitol police barricade, shouting at one officer: "You fucking piece of shit," and "you fucking commie fuck." Webster also wielded a metal flagpole at the riot. The DOJ later released body camera footage of him repeatedly hitting the metal barrier next to the officer with it until it broke, the complaint said. The footage then shows him tackling the officer to the ground and appearing to gouge the officer's eyes.

The jury rejected Webster's argument at trial that he acted in self-defense. Webster's status as a former member of law enforcement — he had served as part of former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's security detail — was at odds with his conduct towards the Capitol police, his defense conceded in court documents seen by Insider.

Nonetheless, lawyer James Monroe asked the judge to consider a shorter sentence on the grounds of Webster's later remorse and the notion that former President Donald Trump misled him.  Election-fraud lies "championed by former President Donald Trump exerted an extraordinary amount of influence" over people like Webster, who had received "relentless disinformation" from Trump's supporters, Monroe said....

That 17 years and six months recommended by the DOJ stretches far beyond the longest sentence handed down to Capitol rioters so far, more than seven years given to rioter Guy Reffitt.  In that case, prosecutors sought a much longer sentence of 15 years, closer to what is being asked for Webster.

Here is a link to the Government's sentencing memo in US v. Webster.

UPDATE: I helpful commenter flagged this sentencing memorandum from the defense which makes this pitch for a much lower sentence:

Mr. Webster's Guideline range, as calculated by Probation, falls at a total offense level 37 and a criminal history category I.  At this range, the recommended sentence is 210 to 240 months.  Presumably, recognizing the disparity of imposing such a sentence, Probation has recommended a sentence of 120 months.  Mr. Webster was arrested on February 22, 2021 and remanded to Federal custody until his release on June 29, 2021, totaling 127 days of incarceration.  Upon being released by the Court on personal recognizance, Defendant has remained on a strict home confinement under the supervision of pre-trial services' High Intensity Supervision Program without incident for the last 421 days.  Regardless of the recommended range, Mr. Webster respectfully proposes a downward variance to time served together with a term of supervised release as a sufficient sentence, which is not greater than necessary, to satisfy the statutory criteria set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

August 29, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)