Lawyers reassess sentence policies

High court ruling causes concerns on federal rules

`Don't know how to proceed'

6-year term rescinded in Chambers sex-sting case

July 03, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The June 23 sentencing hearing for George Paul Chambers, the former Navy physicist convicted of trying to seduce a girl over the Internet, was emotional, long and sometimes antagonistic.

Because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it was also moot.

This week, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis rescinded the six-year prison term he gave Chambers, saying the high court's ruling in Blakely vs. Washington forced him back to sentencing square one.

"It appears likely that the sentence was a result of `clear' (using 20-20 hindsight and the next day's Supreme Court action) error," the judge wrote.

Lawyers say the Chambers case will hardly be the only one in Baltimore's federal courthouse affected by the Supreme Court decision, which sets a higher standard for increasing a defendant's sentence. A number of high-profile cases -- including the trial of Nathan A. Chapman Jr. -- may be thrown into flux.

"This is huge. Huge," said defense attorney Gregg L. Bernstein. "Prosecutors and defense lawyers are sitting around scratching their heads. They really don't know how to proceed."

The sentencing guidelines have become central to the federal court system -- determining whether a defendant gets 20 years in prison instead of five, or probation instead of incarceration.

In the case of Baltimore County businesswoman Mary Ann Gray, prosecutors and defense attorneys have been fighting over whether the amount she stole from her venture capital group is closer to $200,000 or $400,000. Federal sentencing guidelines say her sentence will be significantly harsher if she caused a loss over $400,000.

If those guidelines are unconstitutional, as a number of lawyers believe, it could put a question mark on her sentencing.

"I think the guidelines as we know them are forever changed," said Maryland federal public defender James Wyda. "Everyone is going to have to think through the implications of Blakely for every case that they have currently, and in the recent past."

For the former Navy physicist, the judge is likely to schedule a new sentencing hearing.

Blakely vs. Washington involved a state case in which a man was sentenced for kidnapping his estranged wife. He had pleaded guilty to the crime, which usually carried a maximum sentence of 53 months.

But the judge increased the sentence to 90 months after deciding that the husband had acted with "deliberate cruelty," a legal ground in Washington state for enhancing the sentence.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said the sentence violated the man's rights because he was entitled to have a jury decide, beyond a reasonable doubt, all the factors that might lead to more time in prison.

The federal sentencing guidelines are similar to those Washington state procedures that were declared unconstitutional. Federal judges use the court system's weakest standard of proof -- preponderance of the evidence -- to decide whether a sentence-increasing factor exists. Although the court's ruling did not address federal sentencing, many are assuming the same logic will apply to the federal system.

Already, a federal judge in Utah has used the Blakely reasoning to declare the guidelines unconstitutional.

The Maryland state courts will not likely be affected by the decision because the state has a different sentencing process than either the federal system or Washington state.

But local federal court lawyers are scrambling. Changes in the guidelines can affect plea agreements, charging decisions, sentencings and more.

"There are just an array of potential decisions that need to be made that didn't exist a week ago," Wyda said. "We're all making the best guesses we can."

The Maryland U.S. attorney's office referred all questions about Blakely to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Obviously, the issues raised by the Blakely case are significant and complex," said Justice spokesman John Nowacki. He said the department was reviewing the decision "to provide guidance to our prosecutors."

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