Thursday, August 10, 2006

Court Vacates Life Sentences Under Booker

US v. Robinson: Robinson (aka "Heavy") and his codefendants Schuyler ("Sleepy") and Parros were all convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base (as well as substantive offenses) in 1999. Based on judicially found facts, the district court imposed life sentences on Robinson and Schuyler and a 360-month sentence on Parros. While their cases were on appeal, the Supreme Court decided Apprendi. The Fourth considered the application of Apprendi to Robinson & crew's sentences under plain error review and vacated.

At resentencing in 2003, Robinson, et. al., argued that Apprendi prohibited the district court from enhancing their sentences based on judicially found facts. The district court rejected that argument and reimposed the original sentences. On appeal for the second time, in the wake of Blakely, Robinson and friends made the same argument to the Fourth Circuit, which rejected it under Hammoud. The Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit's decision in the wake of Booker, remanding for further considerations.

On remand, the Fourth again vacated the sentences. First, the court concluded that the defendants avoided plain error review because they raised Apprendi/Sixth Amendment objections to the district court's fact finding at their 2003 resentencing hearing. Second, the court held that the district court's enhancement of their sentences based on judicially found facts constituted Sixth Amendment Booker error. Third, the court rejected the Government's argument that the error was harmless, specifically rejecting the Government's attempt to bring Cotton's "overwhelming" and "essentially uncontroverted" standard outside the plain error context. In a concurrence, Judge Neimeyer argued that plain error was the proper standard of review because the defendants had not raised an Apprendi objection at their original trial or sentencing proceedings (as, indeed, they couldn't since Apprendi had not yet been decided). Nevertheless, he joined the majority holding because even under plain error review the sentence required vacation.

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