Did you ever have a day when something good happens and you want to claim credit? Oh, you do a rain dance and it rains, you have a positive attitude and get the parking spot next to the mall door, that sort of thing? Then you want to reach for the purple pointy hat with the stars and chant obscure incantations that only you know and listen for the "oohs" and "aahs" of all the People.
That was my day.
“I” set a record for largest downward departure in sentencing in a criminal case in the Federal Northern District. An explanation for the benefit of the scattered normal people dispersed about the globe: When someone is convicted of a crime in the United States federal system, something called the United States Sentencing Guidelines come into play. They all focus on a big chart six columns wide and forty-three lines long. Going down the chart is bad. A Level 1 Offense isn’t bad. A level 25 gets you some long sentence. A level 43 gets you a Life sentence. Going from left to right is bad. A Criminal History Category I means you’ve not been in any significant trouble in the past, so your sentence at a Level 20 crime, for example, is presumed to be within a range of 33 - 41 months. A Criminal History Category III means you’ve been a bad boy, and for the same Level 20 offense, your guideline range is 41 - 51 months. And at a Category VI, you’ve been a REAL bad boy, and you catch “Career Offender” treatment, which bumps you up to Level 34 no matter what you did, and your sentence will bottom out at least at 150+ months.
One reason for the Guidelines is to have some uniformity in sentencing, so that it’s not just a luck-of-the-draw thing (what Judge a Defendant gets) which determines what happens.
My case Friday was a man with a long criminal record, therefore a Category VI. (By the way, all of this was discussed in open Court, so it’s a public record.) He came to West Virginia from Florida, and continued a little bit of criminal activity. Then, he saw a sonogram photo of his twins in utero, and that was his “Road to Damascus moment.” He figured out that he had been an idiot up 'til then, and he cleaned up his life. That included kicking drugs, dumping the druggie friends, embracing the church, embracing family, doing honest work and enjoying his life for the first time ever. Then he got indicted for the last bit of crime he did. Well, he was stuck - now being honest, he entered a guilty plea pretty quickly and awaited sentencing.
Prior to a sentencing, the federal probation officer does a thorough investigation of a defendant, and part of that is calculating a proposed sentencing range. With a career offender treatment, this guy was looking at a minimum recommended sentence of 151 months. He is married, has 4 children in the home (they are all “his,” biological or not), works, and is one of the steady people of the church. But a part of sentencing is to impose consequences and to show the public that there are consequences.
I have known the District Judge for 30 years, and very much like & respect her. She is hard-driving and takes no crap from anyone, but is thoughtful and fair. What more can you ask?
As this gentleman’s lawyer, I’ve been advocating all along aiming toward today. The last hearing is always nerve-wracking, though. What do you ask for? And I think I’ve become known over the years for putting more of “me” into cases, more of my philosophy and feelings than perhaps most other lawyers do. But at some point, if you ask for a fantasy, you have zero credibility. Well, I’m the guy’s lawyer, not his mother, and I had his clear instructions – present the case and put the result in God’s hands.
Most pundits will tell you that’s a bad idea. The late John Mortimer, Q.C., author of the Rumpole stories, said that bringing clergy to a sentencing is guaranteed to add two years to the sentence. Invocations of Deity are nearly taboo in American courts – rather a secularly cowardly thing in my view to pretend that God’s not there and we’re smart enough to figure this out on our own, but I’ll admit it can go overboard real fast in a lot of court situations. But there was no way to tell this Defendant’s story without God as the Prime Mover.
And so we had a focused, open and honest sentencing hearing where, rather than a formalistic set-piece production where a pre-determined result was trotted out on cue, we “came and reasoned together,” (LBJ used to quote that from Isaiah a lot) and the Judge made a decision on the spot to put this gentleman on probation.
So “I” got a wonderful result. Maybe word will get around that I’m some sort of gunslinger extraordinaire.
Except, when it became clear which way the judge was going, I printed in large letters a note to my client: “THIS IS NOT MY DOING. I AM NOT THIS GOOD A LAWYER. THIS IS GOD AT WORK.”
What an idiot I am - I blew a chance to claim powers of advocacy beyond mere mortals.
One problem, though: This time, it REALLY WASN’T ME.
I no longer do training for EMS field skills, but I still speak to EMS groups about philosophical lessons learned. One of these is “Cocky kills.” That applies in the law, too. Thank God that I’m getting older now and the knocks over the years have beaten most of the cocky out of me. I don’t know how good an advocate that makes me, but it makes me better than I was before. Hmm - line out of a Gospel song: I don’t know where He’ll take me, but it’s better than where I’ve been.