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Ninth Circuit Vacates Federal Prison Sentence Imposed by Non-trial Judge

by Derek Gilna

Federal prisoner William Harris’ 188-month sentence for assaulting a prison guard was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on May 25, 2012, based on a violation of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 25(b) “with prejudice.”

Harris, 35, a member of the Salt River-Maricopa Indian Tribe, had a long history of depression, mental problems and substance abuse, and suffered from schizophrenic behavior that was aggravated by a 2001 automobile accident. While incarcerated on an assault charge, and intoxicated after “drinking homemade wine,” he participated in a brawl with federal prison guards Brian Fitzgerald and Noel Pasillas, throwing chairs and stabbing Pasillas with a homemade knife.

After a plea bargain negotiated by defense counsel and the U.S. Attorney’s office was rejected by an Arizona federal district court, Harris went to trial and was found guilty.
Sentencing was scheduled for February 1, 2011, but the trial judge was not present. In her stead was visiting judge Linda Reade, Chief Judge of the Northern District of Iowa, who imposed a 188-month sentence.

On appeal, Harris first argued the trial judge should not have rebuffed his plea agreement. The appellate court rejected that argument, stating, “[A] district court properly exercises its discretion when it rejects a plea agreement calling for a sentence the court believes is too lenient or otherwise not in the public interest in light of the factual circumstances specific to the case,” citing In re Morgan, 506 F.3d 705, 708 (9th Cir. 2007).

Harris had better luck with his second argument, which was based on a Rule 25(b) violation. While the rule provides for another judge to conduct sentencing if the trial judge is absent due to death, sickness or other disability, there was no compelling reason why the trial judge could not have sentenced Harris upon her return.

The Ninth Circuit held that a defendant should be sentenced by the “judge who presided at trial,” quoting Rule 25(b), “Because only that judge has had the opportunity to observe every aspect of the trial and to take into account in sentencing what has been observed.”
The appellate court further stated, “Sentencing is an art, not to be performed as a mechanical process but as a sensitive response to a particular person ... the visiting judge was not sufficiently familiar with the record, [and] the visiting judge abused her discretion by conducting [the] sentencing.”

Harris’ 188-month prison sentence was thus vacated and the matter remanded to the original trial judge for resentencing. See: United States v. Harris, 679 F.3d 1179 (9th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, on August 23, 2012 the district court sentenced Harris to 120 months with credit for time served, plus 60 months of supervised release.

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Related legal case

United States v. Harris