Monday, October 20, 2008

The Sad Case of Patrick Lett

This is the story of a US Army veteran who, after serving two tours of duty in Iraq, came home to a life in shambles. His fiancee died during his final year in Iraq. His father died shortly thereafter. Many of his friends had been killed in the war. He had trouble supporting his three children from a former marriage and he lapsed in and out of clinical depression. He developed a drinking problem. Tempted by his cocaine-dealing cousin, he began using crack and cocaine. Once addicted, his cousin talked him into selling small amounts of it in his neighborhood. Unfortunately for him, his major client was an undercover criminal informant. But before the sting could go down, Lett quit the drug selling business. He repented his ways, turned to God and begged forgiveness for his actions. He had begun to turn his life around; then he was arrested. Lett did not fight the charges, he plead guilty and begged for leniency. Character witnesses testified at his trial all about his heroic acts in the line of duty. The Court even found him to be an "exemplary NCO (non-commissioned officer)." The District Judge felt sympathy for Mr. Lett. He honestly believed that Lett had turned his life around and, noting that Mr. Lett had no prior criminal record, decided to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. Here's where it gets weird: unfortunately for Mr. Lett, the District Judge misread the sentencing statute. He mistakenly believed that he was statutorily bound to impose a 65 month sentence for this felony. Thus, in a noticeably regretful written opinion, the District Judge sentenced Mr. Lett to 65 months. Eleven days in, a friend of Mr. Lett's, who attended law school, caught the error. He notified Mr. Lett, Mr. Lett's counsel, the prosecutor and the Judge. The Judge rejoiced and changed his opinion: he re-sentenced Lett to "time already served" (11 days) and probation. The Government appealed. The Appellate Court overturned the District Judge's action, holding that it was against the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to amend a sentence after seven days and without "clear error." The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. And yesterday, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Stories like these make me sad to be heading into the profession I have chosen. Nobody attends law school with the belief that form should dominate substance and that justice is truly done when the rules are blindly obeyed. The preservation of order cannot trump substantive justice. Stories like these, wherein the legal system is so painfully ignorant of a universally recognized miscarriage of justice, do not inspire confidence in the "system."

It is simple: this man does not deserve to be in jail for 65 months. Why? Because the judge presiding over his case did not believe him to be deserving of that sentence. This unfortunate law took decision-making power out of the hands of the judge (or so he believed). Imagine the IRS having you pay $80,000 in taxes, only to find out that you actually only owed $500, at which point you are told that, even though the error was their fault, and even though they really don't want you to pay that much, it's against the rules to refund your money.

I do not know who to blame most in this situation. Many share in the shame of this case. The defense counsel should have read the statute. The judge should have re-read the statute. The Government should not have appealed. The Appellate Court and the Circuit Court allowed form to veil the merits of the case and for this they deserve blame. And finally, the Supreme Court, the citizen's last resort, the final bastion of justice, the arbiters we turn to when we're locked in the unjust machinations of federal law, declined to even consider this case. It does not matter who is most to blame, because what is readily apparent is that the system failed. The system broke.

I will not bore our readers with a detailed elaboration on the legal technicalities of the courts' decisions. But, to put it simply, the higher courts refused to overturn the case because the judge's mistake did not constitute an "arithmetical, mechanical or clear error" and because the judge tried to change the sentence after eleven days, not seven. Four days and the definition of the word "clear" is keeping Patrick Lett in jail for 65 months.

This case is, I believe, a clear sign that mandatory minimum sentences are a failed experiment and need to be repealed. There are numerous other reasons for doing so: simple fairness, lack of judicial discretion, prison overcrowding and it's failure to deter; but this case highlights the major problem with minimum sentence statutes: they are ambiguous and difficult to apply. There will be more Patrick Lett's.

Now, I realize that there must be SOME order to the judicial system. And of course rules are important. I am not advocating for the repeal of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. But in cases like these, where the merits of the case implore judicial circumvention of rules - and especially where the remedy does not prejudice the other party (here, the Government) - there ought to be a narrowly drawn exception. This would not open the prison doors. This would not involve new judges overturning rulings of other cases. It would simply be a tightly tailored equitable exception to overly strict rules of form and procedure.

Patrick Lett deserves at least that much.



I don't disagree with the absurdity of this case, and I also have my views on drug laws, but that's another issue. However, I don't come to the same general conclusion as you, that being that mandatory sentencing in principal should be repealed. This situation is similar to the idea of statute of limitations (before getting on my case I realize they are not the same thing; I am only comparing the general principal). Unless there is some other reason for this 7 day limit that I am unaware of, then I would be arguing for reforms in this area instead.

I know that JSK places a tremendous amount of trust in judges, which seems rather inconsistent with a scepticism of executive power that he has expressed. Minimum sentencing laws are a way to limit the arbitrary power of judges. It is a check and balance mechanism; the Constitution gives the Congress the power to control the jurisdiction and ranges of authority that courts have. Without this you also end up with equally absurd cases, such as a sex offender who was sentenced to only 60 days of jail time. Though the judge had his reasoning for this decision, basically being that he wanted to expedite the ability for this man to get rehab, the judge very arbitrarily decided that there was no need to punish this individual while at the same time reducing the deterrent to conduct such crimes. Though the efficacy of these two purposes is quite debatable, It doesn't change the fact that these decisions were not made by a legislature representing the people, but rather a single individual basing his decision on his person preferences.



EJB, I find nothing inconsistent with my mistrust of executive power and my desire for judicial autonomy. The two posts function in entirely different ways. The Constitution specifically deals with how to check the power of the President and thus foresees the myriad problems involving the separation of powers. But judges, when acting to sentence criminals for crimes they've committed, are not considered to be trampling on the separation of powers. It is within their exclusive purview to oversee these decisions. It is only when the Judiciary encroaches upon Congressional or Executive powers that Constitutional troubles are triggered.

I point specifically to the Constitution's prohibition of bills of attainder. This simple clause sheds light on the fact that the Framer's considered it the Judiciary's job to try and sentence criminals. By prohibiting Congress from passing judgment on individual criminals, the Constitution implicitly condemns mandatory sentencing statutes. For what are they, really, except large, all-encompassing bills of attainder? The judge was entirely within his Constitutional authority to sentence as he did. The Constitution does not envision the fate of criminals being left in the hands of "the people" at large. In fact, the notion of a jury is not evidence that democratic values are condoned in the trying of criminals, but is merely considered to be a criterion of fairness to the accused.

Sure there will be decisions that anger us, but there are indeed checks and balances. Putting political pressure on the legislature can force an impeachment or, in the case of elected judges, a new judge through recall. I'm not sure what your point is when you mention that Congress has the authority to place limits on the jurisdiction and authority to hear cases of the federal courts. Yes, that is true...but Article III does NOT give Congress the right to substitute their decisions for those of the judges they've put in place. Congress can only grant or revoke jurisdiction, not discretion.