US v. Dowell - In this appeal, the Fourth Circuit considered the propriety of a 960-month sentence, and whether the sentence violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment on the grounds that the sentence was disproportionate to the severity of his crimes, and secondly, whether the district court correctly applied an enhancement for a “vulnerable victim” here.
The Fourth Circuit recently rejected a similar as-applied 8th Amendment challenge in Cobler, where it had upheld a 1440-month sentence on a child porn offender whose appeal argument was indistinguishable from Dowell’s here. Cobler had, in fact, been convicted of fewer counts than Dowell. In Cobler, the Fourth Circuit determined that Cobler’s “shocking and vile conduct...failed to substantiate the threshold inference of gross disproportionality” and that Cobler’s crimes were “at least as grave” as possession of 672 grams of cocaine, which the Supreme Court had considered sufficiently egregious to justify a similar sentence (see Harmelin v. Michigan). The Fourth Circuit decided not to change that course in this case. Moreover, the 960-month sentence imposed was within the guidelines range of life imprisonment.
The Fourth Circuit found that the application of the “vulnerable victim” enhancement here was in error, but it was a harmless one. The district court applied the enhancement relying solely on age-related factors, which was an error. However, the application of the enhancement here did not affect Dowell’s ultimate sentence, so the Fourth Circuit found the error was harmless.
(Decided November 13, 2014).