Redefining Pyrrhic Victory

We’ve all been there—things didn’t quite work out the way we thought and the affected client demanded an appeal so the sentencing judge’s work could be reviewed. Occasionally, on appeal, the rabbit is pulled out of the hat, the judgment is reversed, and a better result is achieved on remand. More frequently than not, however, the judgment is simply affirmed. In US v. Sevilla-Oyola, the First Circuit Court of Appeals charted a new course—they sustained several of Sevilla’s assignments of error which resulted in an increase of his sentence from 405 months to life in prison.

The facts are bizarre. The district court conducted two plea colloquies and imposed sentences in Sevilla’s case three different times. The first sentence was 327 months plus a consecutive life term, the second one was shorter than the first, and the last one, which Sevilla appealed, was 405 months which is a long time, no doubt, but one which gave him a chance to walk a free man. Sevilla was unimpressed and appealed to the Second Circuit where he argued the district judge lacked authority to impose sentence after the first one was imposed thereby meriting vacation of the 405 month sentence.

The Second Circuit agreed that the district judge lacked statutory authority to impose the second and third sentences. However, the imperfections Sevilla cited with the first sentence did not justify setting aside that judgment. Accordingly, the first and most severe sentence imposed by the district judge — 327 months plus a consecutive term of life imprisonment became the sentence Sevilla must serve.

The Second Circuit noted that “[W]e acknowledge that our result may seem harsh. Where Sevilla once faced 405 months imprisonment, now he must grapple with a life sentence. But Sevilla chose to proceed with this appeal knowing he risked a higher sentence.” The Second Circuit telegraphed this result at oral argument by asking Sevilla’s counsel if Sevilla understood that this appeal could subject him to a life sentence. On the spot, counsel asserted that Sevilla understood these risks.

After argument, the court entered an order again instructing counsel to inquire whether Sevilla wished to pursue the appeal even though “re-sentencing in this matter presented the risk to [Sevilla] of receiving a sentence greater than his current sentence of 405 months and up to life imprisonment?” Counsel responded that he explained the risks to Sevilla, who still wanted to appeal.

Judge Torruella authored a lengthy dissent in which he stated: Sevilla “was sentenced by the district court to 405 months in prison. On appeal, he brings to our court’s attention numerous errors. The majority, finding several of these claims meritorious, has granted a most unusual form of “relief” — life in prison….” In footnote 36, Judge Torruella noted that. . .”I presume and expect that this defendant will not pursue en banc review and/or Supreme Court review. I wonder if he should worry that such further appellate efforts might risk earning him a death sentence.”