James Allen Strahl's future may depend on people he never met - the Singer-Swapp family.
If the Singer-Swapp defendants succeed in a constitutional battle they are launching Friday, it will likely mean far fewer years in prison not only for themselves, but for other criminal defendants like Strahl.Strahl, a California resident who was arrested in Utah, pleaded guilty in U.S. District to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. His lawyer, John K. Johnson, said he had three previous convictions - two for burglary and one for attempted burglary.
Under new federal sentencing guidelines imposed by Congress last November, the sentence for a felon with three prior felonies of a certain type is 15 years without possibility of parole. The previous convictions must be for violent felonies or those in which there is harm or threat of harm to an individual.
"That's not a burglary," which is theft from a house, said Johnson.
Strahl pleaded guilty to possession of the gun.
"I braced my client for the worst," Johnson said. "I said, `Jim, this is the shot we've got.' "
A probation worker talked to Strahl at great length, he said. She had a good impression and seemed willing to relay it to the judge.
Strahl "had some problems in the past. He was basically leading a pretty good life" before the latest conviction, Johnson said.
Before the guidelines, "if the guy is not a bad person, the judge usually has a chance to see that." A pre-sentence report by the U.S. Probation Department can bring out mitigating circumstances.
The judge can read the facts and have "some leniency in his heart," if justified. "My client is basically a very gentle man."
With his history, getting caught with a gun certainly meant going back to prison. But maybe not for a great length of time.
Johnson filed memorandums with the court about a favorable interpretation of the guidelines. "The judge (U.S. District Judge David K. Winder) summarily dismissed them," he said.
Winder received the pre-sentence report. "It was good for the judge to get a little bit of background, but it really didn't matter," Johnson said. "The point was moot."
The guidelines had removed the judge's flexibility. Winder sentenced Strahl to 15 years in prison without eligibility for parole.
In an unusual session Friday afternoon, all federal judges are jointly presiding over an appeal by lawyers representing the Singer-Swapp family. The lawyers will attempt to have the guidelines declared unconstitutional.
The U.S. attorney's office will defend the guidelines.
Across the country, other attacks are being launched. The guidelines have been declared unconstitutional by federal courts in Colorado and Atlanta.
G. Fred Metos, lawyer for Timothy Singer, said they are being attacked as a violation of a defendant's right to due process. "The guidelines don't allow judges to consider all of the relevant facts in imposing sentence," he said.
Under the new plan, points are established for such things as the nature of the offense, the type (or lack) of prior record and the severity of the offense.
Using this formula, "they come up with a sentence," Metos said. The judge has only a slight leeway - perhaps six months of the term.
Many important factors can't be brought up at the time of sentencing, like Timothy Singer's being crippled.