Seventh Circuit Case of the Week: Sentencing Judges, You’ve Got Some ‘Splaining to Do


David Morrow was sentenced to an eye-popping 504 months in prison for conspiring to sell crack cocaine.  This extraordinary punishment was ordered despite the fact that Morrow was diagnosed with diabetes in 2006 and had a leg amputated a few months later.  At sentencing, counsel identifed Morrow’s health concerns as a mitigating factor, as did the presentence investigation report prepared by a probation officer.  Yet, the sentencing judge said nothing about Morrow’s health problems in imposing a sentence twelve years above the minimum recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines.

Not so fast, said the Seventh Circuit last week in United States v. Harris (Nos. 08-1192, 08-1543, & 08-1694).  The court, per Judge Williams, vacated Morrow’s sentence because the sentencing judge failed to address the health argument, which was not an argument “clearly without merit”:

[W]e cannot assure ourselves that the district court weighed Morrow’s health complications against other factors when it imposed the 504-month sentence, as we see no indication that the district court considered it.  We therefore remand Morrow’s case for resentencing.

In emphasizing the importance of thorough sentence explanations, particularly to demonstrate that the defendant’s arguments for lenience were at least considered, Harris indicates (contrary to an earlier prediction of mine) that the Seventh Circuit’s important decision in United States v. Cunningham, 429 F.3d 673 (7th Cir. 2005), is still alive and well.  Sometimes it is nice to be proven wrong. 

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Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week

seventh-circuit1With only one new opinion in a criminal case, there’s not much to choose from.  Unfortunately, United States v. Sainz-Preciado (No. 07-3706) was a fairly routine case that broke no new legal ground.  In its opinion, the Seventh Circuit (per Judge Tinder) affirmed the defendant’s 262-month sentence for cocaine trafficking over various objections to the way the guidelines sentence was calculated and imposed.

One aspect of the case merits at least brief comment.  The defendant was awarded only a two-point, not the possible three-point, reduction in offense level under the sentencing guidelines for “acceptance of responsibility.”  The third point requires a motion from the government, and the government did not make such a motion for Sainz-Preciado.  Normally, defendants who enter a timely guilty plea, as Sainz-Preciadio did, receive the full acceptance benefit.  However, Sainz-Preciado was penalized by the government for contesting his responsibility at the sentencing hearing for drug deals that he was not even charged with.  This is a nice reminder for defense counsel of the perils of challenging “relevant conduct” at sentencing — and, to invoke one of Justice Scalia’s favorite themes, of the extent to which the guidelines system has replaced the common-law values of adversarial testing of evidence with the bureaucratic values of efficient case-processing.

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Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week

By the default, the title “Case of the Week” must go to the only new opinion of the week: United States v. Gooden (No. 08-3240).  And even Gooden only barely qualifies, as the opinion is merely a slightly amended version of an earlier opinion in the case (noted in my post here).  The only difference I can see in the amended opinion is a clarification that the notice requirements of Rule 32(h) do not apply to post-Booker variances per the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Irizarry v. United States, 128 S. Ct. 2198 (2008).

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