Saturday, August 29, 2009

United States v Ray Decision Focuses on Sentencing and Speedy Trial (U.S. Constitution's 6th Amendment)

Judicial Council of the Second Circuit

Circuit Faults Unexplained 15-Year Delay in Sentencing
By Mark Hamblett, NY Law Journal, August 28, 2009

An unexplained 15-year delay in the sentencing of a woman who had already rehabilitated herself violated the due process clause, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.

The mail fraud case involving Shenna DeLoache Ray lay dormant until Eastern District Judge Thomas C. Platt sentenced her to one day in prison and six months in a halfway house in 2008.

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said "the delay is not justified by any legitimate reason and has caused her prejudice insofar as the custodial portion of it threatens to undermine her successful rehabilitation."

Ms. Ray's bizarre case led the Second Circuit to confront several issues for the first time, chief among them was its ruling that the right to a speedy trial in the Sixth Amendment applies only to trials, and not to sentencing proceedings.

Judges Pierre Leval, Jose A. Cabranes and Debra Ann Livingston decided the appeal in United States v. Ray, 08-2795-cr.

The Second Circuit decision appears on page 35 of the print edition of today's Law Journal.

On Dec. 27, 1991, Ms. Ray pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §371 and cooperated with the Eastern District U.S. Attorney's Office in its investigation of a 13-month scheme to defraud American International Adjustment Co. Inc. of $200,000.

The district court rejected her request for downward departures under the sentencing guidelines on the grounds that she was the "sole supporter of her two natural and two foster children," and she had committed the crime "at the insistence [of] and because of threats made by her former husband."

Ms. Ray also asked to be spared prison because she was pregnant at the time. The district court declined.

While her appeal was pending, the Second Circuit held in United States v. Johnson, 964 F.2d 124 (1992), that extraordinary family circumstances may be a proper ground for a downward departure from the guidelines range.

The circuit remanded resentencing, and then it disappeared.

Ms. Ray went on to be employed for 15 years, raised her children, remarried, bought a home, and enrolled in an associate's degree program at Queensborough Community College.

But when she was applying for a job as a claims examiner with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Bus Company, Ms. Ray, who thought her conviction and its consequences were long in the past, could not obtain the documentation she needed to prove her conviction had been resolved.

Alerted to the fact that Ms. Ray was never resentenced, Judge Platt set a resentencing date.

The judge was told by defense counsel that the case had been marked closed after the guilty plea and not returned to the defendant following the original remand, an explanation the judge refused to accept.

For its part, the government apologized to the court for not bringing the matter to his attention promptly.

Judge Platt resentenced Ms. Ray on June 3, 2008, saying mail fraud conspiracy was "a serious offense" that he would "not treat…lightly."

Judge Cabranes, writing for the circuit, said the panel disagreed with Judge Platt's contention that "the primary responsibility for the failure to come back" for resentencing lay with the defense.

He said the circuit was joining other courts in holding that "a defendant does not bear the burden of seeking her own sentencing."

Next, Judge Cabranes said that "no holding of the Supreme Court or our court resolves the question of whether the Speedy Trial Clause applies to sentencing proceedings."

But "in light of the historical evidence, we conclude that the word 'trial,' as understood at the time of the Founding, would not have encompassed sentencing proceedings"—and the last two centuries have "not changed this basic divide between trial and sentencing."

Moreover, the policy concerns that underlie the requirement of a speedy trial, such as "oppressive pretrial incarceration," do not apply to sentencing, he said.

But that does not mean there was no constitutional right to a "speedy" sentencing, Judge Cabranes said.

The U.S. Supreme Court, he said, has recognized that the due process clause has a role to play in protecting against unfair delay in criminal proceedings. With this in mind, he said, the Second Circuit had to examine the reasons for the delay and the prejudice to the accused.

As to the factors that led to the delay, he said, Ms. Ray's case was "allowed to languish due to ordinary negligence on the part of the government" and "her failure, or her attorney's failure, to seek more prompt sentencing."

Ms. Ray's failure does not help her to the extent she wanted her conviction vacated, he said, but it also does not hurt in her lesser request to have her sentence modified.

And there was little question Ms. Ray had been prejudiced, particularly in light of what appears to be her "complete rehabilitation" in the interim.

"The imposition of a custodial penalty at this stage of her life is far more disruptive to Ray's rehabilitation than it would have been 15 years ago, or even several years after her conviction," he said.

Judge Cabranes emphasized that the holding was narrow, for "even substantial delays in sentencing do not in all circumstances amount to a due process violation."

The court ruled that Ms. Ray does not have to go to the halfway house.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Charles P. Kelly and David C. James represented the government.

Yuanchung Lee of the Federal Defenders of New York represented Ms. Ray.


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