Judge Reduces Pro Bono Client’s 106.5-Year Sentence to 28 Years
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In a victory for pro bono client Robert Rollins, United States District Court Judge Gary Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ “stupendously long” sentence of 106.5 years to 28 years and one day. The decision means that rather than serve the remainder of his life in prison, Mr. Rollins should be free in a couple of years.
When he was 25 years old, Mr. Rollins was convicted for a string of three robberies within a week’s time. No one was hurt during the offenses, and he stole less than $10,000. In 2001, he was convicted of these offenses under a mandatory sentencing scheme whereby the trial judge sentenced him to 106.5 years.
Jenner & Block joined with a team from New York-based Debevoise & Plimpton to file a motion to reduce his sentence under the First Step Act. Last year, Judge Feinerman initially determined that he did not have authority to grant Mr. Rollins’ motion for a reduction in sentence. The firm and Debevoise team appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which upon agreement of the parties, vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded for further consideration.
In the district court, the government continued to argue that Judge Feinerman was not empowered to reduce Mr. Rollins sentence under the statute, and that even if he was, the sentence should remain 106.5 years. On March 17, Judge Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ sentence. The court ruled that Mr. Rollin’s sentence was “exceedingly rare, resulting from the combination of the Government’s charging decision and Rollins’s decision to proceed to trial rather than cooperate and plead.” While acknowledging the seriousness of Mr. Rollins’ crimes, the judge wrote that “a de facto life sentence far exceeds appropriate punishment.”
Judge Feinerman expressly noted that Mr. Rollins has a clean prison disciplinary record, voluntarily participated in a course focused on helping inmates appreciate the severity of their crimes and the impact they had on their victims, and has worked as a cook in prison.
“In short,” the judge wrote, “he has demonstrated that he is committed to living a law-abiding life should he be given that chance.” Mr. Rollins, a veteran, very much looks forward to rejoining his family, the workforce, and contributing to society.
The firm team included Partners Andrew W. Vail and Monica R. Pinciak, Associate Joshua M. Levin, and Paralegal Katherine Mehaffie. Partners Michael T. Brody, Anton R. Valukas, Reid J. Schar, and Dean N. Panos assisted with the team with a Seventh Circuit moot court.
Amicus Brief Urges Seventh Circuit to Reverse Lower Court’s Dismissal of Pro Se Litigant’s Case
In Cordell Sanders v. Michael Melvin, et al., the district court dismissed a plaintiff’s entire case as a sanction based on imprecise allegations the plaintiff — who is mentally ill and had been housed in solitary confinement for years—had included in their years-old, pro se complaint, and did so despite that a pending summary judgment motion showed a factual dispute regarding those allegations. This dismissal is now on appeal.
Led by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, amici are five legal professors who are experts on civil rights litigation, civil procedure, federal procedure, and the application of pleading standards to pro se litigants. They urge the Seventh Circuit to reverse the lower court’s decision and remand for further proceedings. They argue that affirming such a dismissal would be contrary to the established principles of leniency afforded pro se and inmate litigants, would violate the well-known rule that sanctions be narrowly-tailored to misconduct, and would contravene the policy favoring resolving cases on their merits, among other things. The legal system, they note, is complex and challenging – “especially for those without legal training.” They argue that the Seventh Circuit has held “that courts have an affirmative obligation to ensure that a pro se litigant’s claims are not dismissed as a result of procedural unfairness.” In this case, they argue, the district court was “particularly harsh and unnecessarily punitive.” Regarding sanctions against the litigant, the brief notes that “less draconian” alternatives are available. And dismissal with prejudice, according to the brief, is the “most severe” sanction that should be meted out “only with extreme caution.” “Sanctions should be used as a scalpel to surgically address issues where appropriate, not as a sledgehammer to squash an entire case,” the brief reads.
The team writing the brief pro bono includes Partner Gabriel K. Gillett and Associates Grace C. Signorelli-Cassady, Jeremy M. Sawyer, and Elena M. Olivieri, with valuable assistance from Paralegal Mary Frances Patston.
Team Wins Seventh Circuit Victory for Illinois Prisoner
A firm team representing an Illinois prisoner achieved an important victory in the Seventh Circuit last week when the court reinstated the prisoner’s lawsuit challenging a private healthcare contractor’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The court’s opinion paved the way for the prisoner to pursue his constitutional claims against the contractor in federal district court.
Robert Williams brought suit against Wexford Health Sources in 2017, challenging the contractor’s “one good eye” policy, under which it refuses critical eye care to prisoners like Mr. Williams as long as they retain a modicum of visual acuity in one eye. Although healthcare providers inside and outside the prison recommended eye surgery for Mr. Williams, Wexford refused that surgery for several years. At the time he filed suit, Mr. Williams was completely blind in one eye and suffering from a host of conditions in both eyes. The district court held that Mr. Williams’s complaint stated a colorable claim against Wexford for violating his constitutional rights. Yet the district court granted summary judgment in Wexford’s favor, holding that Mr. Williams failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Illinois Administrative Code.
The Seventh Circuit reversed that decision last week. In a precedential opinion, the court clarified the standards applicable to prisoners like Mr. Williams who used the emergency procedures to seek expedited review of their grievances by prison officials. The court explained that while those emergency procedures were recently amended to require additional steps, those additional steps were not required of Mr. Williams, who submitted his grievances before the amendment. In reaching this result, the court emphasized the importance of transparency and clarity in the grievance process, and criticized the prison authorities for trying to “move the goal posts while [Mr. Williams] was in the middle of his case and suddenly announce that special new requirements applied to him.” The court also questioned Wexford’s “dubious” decision to refuse the surgery that Mr. Williams needed.
Seventh Circuit Unanimously Rules Pro Bono Client is Entitled to Evidentiary Hearing
A Jenner & Block team secured a significant win from the Seventh Circuit on behalf of pro bono client Anthony Lee, who has been incarcerated since 1995. On December 21, a panel of judges unanimously ruled Mr. Lee was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his claim for ineffective assistance of counsel based on his trial counsel’s failure to investigate and call five witnesses at trial.
In 1996, Mr. Lee was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping and sentenced to 100 years in prison. The trial had no physical evidence or eyewitness testimonies other than testimony from Mr. Lee and his accuser, L.M. Prior to Mr. Lee’s trial, five potential witnesses submitted affidavits to Mr. Lee’s trial counsel that corroborated Mr. Lee’s testimony and contradicted his accuser’s. However, trial counsel did not call any of the five witnesses to testify at trial and never contacted them.
In 1998, Mr. Lee began pursuing a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel in state court. Although Mr. Lee pleaded a prima facie claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the state courts rejected his claim without ever granting him an evidentiary hearing on the merits. The state courts reasoned that Mr. Lee suffered no prejudice from trial counsel’s apparent failure to investigate the witnesses because the affidavits did not necessarily demonstrate that the witnesses would have made a difference at trial.
Jenner & Block began representing Mr. Lee in 2013. In 2017, the firm filed a federal habeas petition in the Northern District of Illinois. Although stating that it was a “close call” and “perhaps not the result this Court would reach on a blank slate,” the federal court held that the state courts did not unreasonably apply Strickland, and therefore dismissal was required. The firm filed an appeal to the Seventh Circuit.
On October 22, 2018, Jenner & Block Associate Abraham M. Salander argued the appeal before a panel of judges. Judge Easterbrook led the court’s questioning and focused on whether Mr. Lee’s requests for an evidentiary hearing in state court were sufficiently detailed to entitle him to a hearing in federal court under the federal habeas statute. After oral argument, the court ordered the parties to submit copies of Mr. Lee’s requests for an evidentiary hearing in state court along with the state courts’ rulings on those requests. Jenner & Block submitted a brief supported by 37 documents demonstrating that Mr. Lee’s requests were sufficient under federal law.
On December 21, the Seventh Circuit unanimously ruled Mr. Lee was entitled to an evidentiary hearing because, if the witnesses were called to testify, it was “unlikely” they “would have parroted their affidavits and refused to say another word.” The court specifically praised the firm’s “enthusiasm” and collection of relevant information in response to the court’s post-argument order.
The firm team was led by Partners Bradley M. Yusim and Barry Levenstam, who, along with Paralegal Mary Frances Patston, were on the case since the beginning of the firm’s representation.
Partners Michael T. Brody, Anton R. Valukas, Randall E. Mehrberg and Megan B. Poetzel assisted with oral argument preparation. Partner Jessica Ring Amunson and Associate William L. Von Hoene worked on the case at earlier stages.
Team Wins Seventh Circuit Appeal for Defendant who Struggled with Mental Health Issues
A pro bono client will have an evidentiary hearing on claims that he was not competent to plead guilty to a firearms possession chargeand that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to seek a competency evaluation or hearing before he pled guilty, thanks to a Seventh Circuit decision on August 2, 2017. The client, Denny Anderson, suffered from a host of serious psychiatric disorders, including chronic schizophrenia. He pleaded guilty to a firearms possession charge. The district court accepted the plea and sentenced him despite his psychiatric problems, irregularly administered medical regimen, and unusual behavior in court.
Mr. Anderson moved for federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. s 2255 on the grounds that he was not competent to plead guilty and be sentenced and on the ground that his counsel was ineffective for failing to seek a competency evaluation and hearing. The district denied Mr. Anderson’s claims without an evidentiary hearing. In a published opinion, the Seventh Circuit unanimously reversed the district court, ruling in favor of the client, and remanding the case for a hearing on his claims. “Because the district court lacked a full picture of Anderson’s mental health, its finding that Anderson had the capacity to plead guilty rests on a flawed factual foundation that must be explored in a hearing,” Chief Judge Wood wrote in an opinion for the court.
The team representing Mr. Anderson included Partner Barry Levenstam and Associate Joshua M. Parker, who argued the appeal before the Seventh Circuit. Paralegal Mary Frances Patston provided invaluable assistance.