Federal choose’s emails lead seventh Circuit to vacate jail sentence
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Federal choose’s emails lead seventh Circuit to…
By Debra Cassens Weiss
October 31, 2019, 2:54 pm CDT
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A federal choose who sentenced a drug defendant to greater than 17 years in jail ought to have recused himself as a result of his electronic mail communications with the U.S. lawyer’s workplace “invited doubt about his impartiality,” a federal appeals courtroom has dominated.
The Chicago-based seventh U.S. Circuit Courtroom of Appeals dominated final week that cocaine defendant James Atwood of Kankakee, Illinois, is entitled to be resentenced earlier than a brand new choose. Illinois Occasions and the Information Gazette have protection.
The choose who sentenced Atwood is U.S. District Choose Colin Bruce of Urbana, Illinois. He has communicated with the U.S. lawyer’s workplace in additional than 100 emails since taking the bench, in line with the appeals courtroom. The emails had been ex parte, which means protection attorneys weren’t included within the communications.
Bruce was a prosecutor within the workplace from 1989 till his affirmation to the bench in 2013. He was nominated by President Barack Obama.
Bruce’s emails by no means explicitly talked about drug defendant James Atwood’s case they usually principally involved ministerial issues, the appeals courtroom mentioned in its Oct. 24 opinion.
However the emails did present Bruce “cheering on workplace workers and addressing them by nicknames,” the opinion mentioned.
The appeals courtroom gave some examples. In a single electronic mail, Bruce corresponded with a secretary within the prosecution workplace about scheduling for Atwood’s co-defendant. “Roger-dodger. GO SONCHETTA,” he wrote, utilizing a nickname for the secretary.
In one other electronic mail, Bruce reassured a prosecutor a couple of submitting miscommunication, the appeals courtroom mentioned. “My unhealthy. You’re doing tremendous. Let’s get this factor performed,” Bruce wrote.
He additionally wrote to prosecutors to congratulate and thank them for persuading the seventh Circuit to affirm his selections, the appeals courtroom mentioned.
Choose Amy Coney Barrett, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote the opinion for the seventh Circuit panel. Her title appeared on Trump’s shortlist for the U.S. Supreme Courtroom earlier than the president nominated Brett Kavanaugh.
Illinois Occasions revealed in a narrative final 12 months that Bruce had been emailing former prosecution colleagues. Its story reported that Bruce had communicated with a paralegal within the U.S. lawyer’s workplace a couple of trial the place he presided.
Within the emails, Bruce expressed exasperation that a novice prosecutor’s weak cross-examination had turned the case “from a slam-dunk for the prosecution to a couple of 60-40 for the defendant.”
Bruce was faraway from all instances involving the U.S. lawyer’s workplace after Illinois Occasions revealed its story.
The Judicial Council of the seventh Circuit then examined two complaints filed towards Bruce. The council discovered no proof that the improper communications affected his determination in any case however admonished him for violating judicial conduct guidelines. He resumed listening to prison instances on Sept. 1.
Within the Atwood case, the seventh Circuit famous that the federal government conceded that Bruce’s conduct gave the looks he was biased in favor of the prosecution. However the authorities argued any error was innocent.
The seventh Circuit disagreed.
Atwood’s sentence fell inside the tips vary of 188 to 235 months in jail. However judges retain discretion when evaluating tips components, inviting threat that non-public biases might affect the choose’s determination, the courtroom mentioned.
Upholding Atwood’s sentence creates “an actual threat of unfairness to him,” whereas ordering resentencing creates little threat of unfairness to the federal government, the courtroom mentioned.
“Lastly, we contemplate the danger of hurt to the general public’s confidence within the impartiality of the judiciary,” the appeals courtroom mentioned. “In sentencing, probably the most vital restriction on a choose’s ample discretion is the choose’s personal sense of fairness and logic. When these qualities seem like compromised, the general public has little motive to belief the integrity of the ensuing sentence.”