Thursday, July 19. 2001
Ninth Circuit Orders Sentence for Threatening Clinton Reconsidered
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Bay Area man sentenced to 41 months in prison for signing his neighbor’s name to a letter containing threats of violence against then-President Bill Clinton is entitled to a new sentencing hearing, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins should have taken evidence on Armondo Walter’s bid for a sentence reduction based on diminished capacity resulting from childhood abuse, the panel concluded.
Walter pled guilty to multiple offenses after admitting he sent the threatening letter, signed with the name of Ronald Merritt Jr. Walter said he meant the president no harm, but wanted to get Merritt in trouble because he believed Merritt had stolen several hundred dollars from him.
Facing a sentence of 41 to 51 months under federal guidelines, Walter asked for a departure. The request was based in part on Sentencing Guidelines § 5K2.13, which allows a departure based on “significantly reduced mental capacity” unless the crime indicates “a need to protect the public because the offense involved actual violence or a serious threat of violence.”
The request was also based on Ninth Circuit case law holding that the impact of child abuse on criminal behavior falls outside the specifics of the guidelines, and may thus form a basis for departure, if the abuse was “extraordinary.”
The Federal Public Defender’s Office offered a psychological report, which said Walter—who spent much of the 1990s behind bars as a result of drug and theft charges—had been beaten by his father, attacked with a knife by his mother, and sexually abused by a cousin.
But Jenkins said there was no reason to depart, and no basis for an evidentiary hearing, citing evidence that Walter was old enough and strong enough to protect himself from the family abuse. The judge also questioned the psychological report, citing “inconsistencies in the factual record.”
The judge accepted the conclusion that there was a link between the defendant’s past difficulties and his sending of the threatening letter. But he noted that Walter had been labeled “manipulative” by a psychologist who evaluated him in the past and concluded that the relationship between the past emotional abuse and the new crime was too tenuous to justify departure.
Jenkins instead sentenced Walter at the bottom of the guidelines range.
But visiting Senior Judge Donald P. Lay of the Eighth Circuit, writing for the appeals panel, said the district judge should have held an evidentiary hearing, at which Walter could substantiate his claims of abuse and present additional evidence in support of his psychologist’s conclusions.
Lay acknowledged that a district judge has non-reviewable discretion to deny departure. But Ninth Circuit precedent, he explained, supports reversal for a new hearing if the denial is based on a clearly erroneous factual finding.
While the district judge acknowledged that Walter was abused, Lay explained, he apparently concluded that there was no basis to depart because the abuse was not “extraordinary.” This was clear error, Lay said.
“The combination of brutal beatings by his father, the introduction to drugs and alcohol by his mother, and, most seriously, the sexual abuse he faced at the hands of his cousin, appear to us to be the type of extraordinary circumstances that may justify the consideration of the psychological effects of childhood abuse,” Lay wrote.
The district judge, Lay went on to say, also erred in determining that he could not depart under § 5K2.13.
Jenkins was wrong to conclude that Walter’s crime involved a “serious” threat, the appellate jurist wrote. “All of the evidence in this case shows that Walter did not possess any real intent to cause physical harm to the President or any other person,” Lay said.
The case is United States v. Walter, 00-10384.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company