Many of us subscribe to the old adage “it ain’t what you know, it’s who you know.” Additionally, if you’re a federal prisoner serving an eternity in the BOP, it helps to have friends in high places. The following illustrates these truisms.
Federal trial judges have little leeway in sentencing when prosecutors trigger mandatory-minimum statues setting floors for punishment, and they have few means of revisiting closed cases, unless new evidence comes to light or a major legal error was committed. Nonetheless, judges can be persuasive.
Federal prosecutors have agreed in recent years to sentence reductions in a handful of cases, most after public pressure from judges. So far, the cases have tended to involve defendants who rejected plea deals, lost at trial and received prison terms several times larger than they would have if they had they pleaded guilty, sometimes called a “trial penalty.”
Francois Holloway became a free man this year, three decades earlier than planned, thanks to a well-placed ally- U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, N.Y., who put Mr. Holloway away in 1996 for participating in armed carjackings, had lobbied prosecutors for years to reduce Mr. Holloway’s 57-year sentence. Mr. Holloway balked at a deal that would have sent him to prison for about 11 years. He ended up receiving a mandatory minimum of 45 years because one of his co-defendants brandished a gun during the three carjackings. He earned the balance for stealing the vehicles, under federal sentencing guidelines that were mandatory at the time.
Last year, at the urging of Judge Gleeson, the U.S. attorney’s office withdrew its opposition to Holloway’s habease motion citing his “extraordinary” record while in prison, as well as the responses of Holloway’s victims, who supported his early release. Judge Gleeson vacated two of Holloway’s convictions and resentenced him to time-served.
Justice was done in another New York case, this time in the Bronx, where Randy Washington, who was convicted of armed robbery, found a friend in his sentencing judge. Last year Washington’s judge admonished prosecutors to consider whether the 52-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence Washington was serving was “worthy of the public’s trust and confidence.” As a result, this sentence was cut in half.
This type of benevolence has even surfaced in bastions of conservatism. In Oklahoma, prosecutors agreed to allow an Army National Guard veteran sentenced to serve life in prison for cocaine smuggling to leave prison after serving nearly three decades. In Atlanta, the government shortened from life to 25 years, the sentence of a man convicted of cocaine distribution. In Montana, prosecutors dismissed several gun and drug counts against a medical-marijuana grower, lopping off 80 years of an 85-year mandatory sentence.
Not all prosecutors are adept at taking social cues and have declined requests by federal judges for shorter sentences. In Philadelphia, U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois recently implored prosecutors for a penalty that “better serves the interests of justice” in the case of Tyrone Trader, who was convicted for his role as a street-level dealer in a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy. Trader received a mandatory life sentence under federal law, after the Justice Department filed a notice with the court showing he had prior felony drug convictions. The other street-level dealers who took pleas have been released from prison, Judge DuBois noted, adding that the average federal sentence for murder was less than 23 years in fiscal 2014. “It is difficult to see how a sentence of life imprisonment in Trader’s case is just.” In response, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said that the government carefully considers each case before making charging decisions and there was “no basis” for reducing Trader’s sentence. I hope Team Memeger doesn’t need Judge DuBois to exercise discretion in favor of the government anytime soon!