Sentence Explanation in the Seventh Circuit

I’ve had a couple of posts already about sentence explanations.  When explaining a sentence, a judge can make two different types of missteps: the judge can say too much (as I discuss in this post) or too little (as I discuss in this article).  In preparing for a recent talk, I spent a little time catching up with the Seventh Circuit case law addressing the latter problem.  I’ll summarize here.

In the leading case, United States v. Cunningham, 429 F.3d 673 (7th Cir. 2005), the court remanded for resentencing where the lower-court judge had passed over in complete silence the defendant’s main argument for a sentence below the advisory guidelines range.  As discussed in the article linked to above, I believe that Cunningham is in considerable tension with the Supreme Court’s decision in Rita v. United States, 127 S. Ct. 2456 (2007).  The Seventh Circuit nonetheless continues to cite and treat Cunningham as good law.   Continue reading “Sentence Explanation in the Seventh Circuit”

Mississippi Lifers Exonerated in Rape-Murder Case

Phillip Bivens was released yesterday after serving thirty years of a life sentence for a rape-murder in 1979.  As reported by the New York Times, Bivens and a codefendant pled guilty in the case, while a third defendant was convicted by a jury.  New DNA analysis of the rape kit exonerated all three men earlier this year, although only Bivens was still serving time — one codefendant died in prison, and the other had already been released for medical reasons.  Little evidence connected the men to the crime aside from their own incriminating statements, which had apparently been coerced from them. 

DNA exonerations in recent years have done a great deal to highlight the reliability problems with confessions that are uncorroborated by physical evidence.  I wonder, though, to what extent these problems have really sunk in with the lay public.  On their face, confessions seem such extraordinarily compelling evidence — what could be more reliable than a statement so directly and profoundly against personal interest?

The Mississippi case is also interesting as an illustration of reliability problems with guilty pleas, particularly when the death penalty is available.  Bivens entered his false guilty plea in order to avoid facing the death penalty.  My own views about the death penalty are neither strongly for nor strongly against, but I have long thought that the biggest problems with the death penalty are not in the very small number of cases in which it is actually imposed, but in the possibly much larger number of cases in which fear of the death penalty leads to a guilty plea and an undeserved life sentence.

Wisconsin Supreme Court on Extraneous Comments at Sentencing

In reviewing the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s opinion in State v. Harris for a talk I am giving later this fall, I was immediately struck by the similarities with United States v. Figueroa, the Seventh Circuit case I blogged about yesterday.  In both cases, the sentencing judge made numerous “colorful” comments at the sentencing hearing that suggested the judge may have been taking various irrelevant considerations into account.

In Harris, the sentencing judge seemed to be passing judgment on the defendant’s lifestyle.  He made a big deal of Harris’s domestic arrangements, which involved Harris staying home with his daughter while the daughter’s mother worked and attended college.  He also focused on Harris’s marijuana use (Harris’s conviction, though, was for possession with intent to deliver cocaine).  The judge then contrasted Harris’s lifestyle with the more laudable choices made by others: “People Mr. Harris’s age [are] enlisting in the Marines and Army and National Guard, putting their lives at stake while Mr. Harris sits at home, gets high while his baby mama works and goes to school.”  The judge also found it “appalling” that the twenty-one-year-old Harris lacked any employment history.

More generally, comparing Harris and Figueroa, one gets the sense that both judges were viewing the defendants as representives of particular social groups (Mexican immigrants in one case, and dissolute young men supported by their girlfriends in the other), and were using the sentencing hearing as an occasion to express critical judgments on the groups.

Why, then, did Figueroa win and Harris lose?  Continue reading “Wisconsin Supreme Court on Extraneous Comments at Sentencing”

Seventh Circuit Vacates Sentence Based on Judge’s “Inflammatory Remarks” at Sentencing Hearing

Convicted in the Eastern District of Wisconsin of trafficking in cocaine, Jose Figueroa was sentenced to 235 months in prison, which was at the low end of the applicable guidelines range.  The Seventh Circuit, however, vacated and remanded for resentencing in United States v. Figueroa (No. 09-3333) (Wood, J.). The problem was purely procedural:

[The district court’s] extraneous and inflammatory comments during the sentencing hearing . . . cast doubt on the validity of the sentence.  During the heraing, the district court digressed to discuss Figueroa’s native Mexico, the immigration status of Figueroa and his sisters, and the conditions and laws in half a dozen other countries — not to mention unnecessary referencs to Hugo Chavez, Iranian terrorists, and Adolf Hitler’s dog.  We have no way of knowing how, if at all, these irrelevant considerations affected Figueroa’s sentence.  We therefore must remand, to ensure that the district court’s choice of sentence was based only on the criteria that Congress has authorized.