Sentence Set Aside When Federal Judge Makes Mistake

Sometimes, justice truly does seem blind.  Lady Liberty, blindfolded and holding the scales of justice, still exists, even for a prison guard accused of crimes against prisoners.  Chino prison guard Robert McGowan was sentenced to four years and three months in prison for violations of federal laws prohibiting a prison guard from depriving an inmate of his constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. 

The conduct at issue was a 2007 incident where McGowan allegedly pushed two hand-cuffed and shackled prisoners out of a truck, causing them to suffer bruises and cuts.  The push was apparently in retaliation for an earlier incident when inmates fought with prison guards in a chow hall.

At the sentencing hearing, the U.S. Attorney’s office argued that McGowan deserved a high term because he had also been accused of using methamphetamine with prisoners and smuggling in drugs for inmates at Chino.  These arguments were based upon the claims made by another inmate who claimed to have seen such conduct by McGowan.  However, the inmate did not testify at the sentencing hearing and, once McGowan was sentenced to 51 months in prison, he appealed the sentence.

In McGowan’s appeal (U.S. v. McGowan, 2011 DJDAR 1072), McGowan argued that the inmate’s claims of drug use and smuggling were false or unreliable and were the basis for the sentence.  McGowan pointed out that since the inmate never appeared in McGowan’s court for cross-examination (the inmate did submit to an FBI interview and did appear in another trial), the sentencing judge never had the chance to weigh the credibility of his claims by observing the inmate.  Moreover, McGowan argued, the inmate had little to lose by implicating McGowan.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with Stephen Reinhardt writing, agreed.  The Court found the allegations sufficiently unreliable and that the allegations were clearly a factor in McGowan’s sentence, as it appeared that the district judge did rely upon the inmate’s allegations in imposing the sentence.

The case was interesting from the beginning.  After the allegations of abuse were made, state officials refused to prosecute McGowan.  The U.S. Attorney’s office then, apparently in response to well-publicized criticism by inmate advocacy groups, took over the case and filed both civil rights and conspiracy charges against McGowan. 
   
The case was tried before U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, then age 88, who has himself been the target of formal reprimands for his conduct on the bench.  McGowan was then found guilty, which was something of a victory over the “code of silence” that renders mute any accuser of police misconduct as well as the “disturbing ease and frequency with which jailhouse informants provide false testimony,” which one case noted. 

Real, however, granted McGowan an acquittal after the verdict, explaining the case “was at best an assault and battery.”

The acquittal was then appealed and Real was reversed.  Sentencing was then assigned to a different judge, who wrongly considered the claims of the absent inmate about McGowan’s use of methamphetamine and drug smuggling.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals then vacated the sentence and sent the case back down to the district court (trial court level) for further sentencing.

For more information about sentencing issues, click on the following articles:
  1. May a Sentence Enhancement Be Applied Twice on the Same Defendant for Acts on the Same Victim in the Same Day?
  2. Court Makes Mistake in DUI Case by Doubling Sentence Due to Prior DUI with Manslaughter
  3. May the State Require a Person, upon Release from Prison, to Register as a Sex Offender Even if Not Required in Original Sentence?
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