Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What was supposed to happen?

I am puzzled by your statement "all because the judge shot his mouth off at sentencing" in your last post. Were the statements harmless? How would we know that? Was the appellate court supposed to ignore what the judge said? First let us note that the "low end" of the sentencing guidelines is 235 months. Or as those of us who count years put it: more than 19 years. That is a long time. Some folks claim that bad things happen in prison. Government surveys support this claim.

But I digress. The trial court didn't shoot its mouth off by making one offhanded comment about Hitler. Instead, the judge engaged in a "lengthy and disconnected lecture" of "topics both outside the record and extraneous to any proper sentencing consideration." The judge talked about how "the southwest is being overwhelmed". He lamented the factors he believes motivate immigration to the United States. He commented on the immigration status of Figueroa, his wife, and his three sisters. He referred to them as "you people". As the opinion notes, the judge revealed an "odd focus on nation-states and national characteristics." The district court linked the drug trade to Mexico, Columbia, and Venezuela, and then to Iranian terrorists via Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela (a linkage that I doubt the prosecution proved at trial beyond a reasonable doubt). Then, apparently unaware of the survey or Norm MacDonald line I linked above, the judge told the convicted that he should be happy he was going to prison in America rather than Turkey, Mexico, Malaysia, or Thailand.

As the opinon notes, none of these comments are appropriately part of the sentencing. Maybe the defendant would have received a sentence below the guidelines if the judge wasn't concerned about the defendant's immigration status. While I suspect that the defendant's sentence will be the same on remand, I'm glad that the original sentencing was reversed and that the appeals court called out the trial court for its comments.

Finally, the judge's comments are a great example of something I wonder about every time I see a sentencing: why does the judge feel the need to berate the convicted defendant at the sentencing? The sentence reflects society's disapproval of the defendant's actions. What's the point of telling a defendant to "grow up" or that they "haven't got a clue what the difference is between a truth and a lie"? At a lot of sentencings, the judge is sending someone to an unpleasant place for a very long time. The defendant doesn't get to, normally, challenge or argue with the remarks made to him at the sentencing. Presumably the defendant deserves the sentence, but berating someone who can't speak back strikes me as pointless bullying.

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