Compassionate Release Granted on Apprendi Error: West
Facts: West was sentenced as if "Death Resulted" When he was Not Charged with Death Resulting
West was charged with conspiracy to use interstate commerce in the commission of a murder for hire under 18 U.S.C. 1958. The base statutory maximum there is up to 10 years. If personal injury results, the statutory maximum goes up to 20 years, and if death results, then the punishment is life in prison or death.
West was charged with and convicted of “conspiring to travel in interstate commerce, and to use a facility of interstate commerce with the intent to murder” the victim, but the indictment did not include any allegation of personal injury or death that actually resulted from the conspiracy. Similarly, the jury was not instructed that death was an element, and there was no special finding that the government proved death. However, everyone at sentencing agreed that the court was bound to impose a life sentence on West. His sentence was affirmed on appeal, and the 2255 motion was denied.
West filed for compassionate release indicating that the sentence violated Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) (a case that indicates that facts that increase the penalty for a crime beyond the statutory maximum other than a prior conviction must be submitted to the jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt) and that the Apprendi violation was an extraordinary and compelling reason for a reduction in sentence.
Court: The Apprendi Error was Extraordinary and Compelling
The court agreed that Apprendi was violated here because “(1) 1958(a) imposes three distinct penalties; and (2) the alternatives under 1958(a) are elements for conviction that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Further, the court noted that courts rarely grant compassionate release based on sentencing errors, but “this this case is far from typical, and the vehicle West relies upon for a sentence reduction is a statute whose very purpose is to reopen final judgments.” In addition, the court discussed the need “to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct[,]” and that other defendants convicted of conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire back in 1998 that were not charged with the “death results” language had a statutory max of 10 years and West’s guideline range was 121-151 months.
The court also considered that no other options, including habeas, were available to him and that this was not the same as a habeas motion:
“Habeas is a distinctive vehicle for relief that deals with the legality and validity of a conviction. Habeas allows for the automatic vacation of a sentence through legal-based arguments. Compassionate release is different in purpose and scope. It gives courts significant discretion to exercise leniency based on the unique and individualized circumstances of a defendant.”
The court also noted that West had engaged in substantial rehabilitation and that while it alone is not enough for a reduction, it could be enough when combined with other extraordinary and compelling reasons. See 18 U.S.C. 994(t).
Finally, the court determined that the 3553(a) factors warranted release given that the life sentence did not “reflect the seriousness of the offense,” “promote respect for the law,” “provide just punishment for the offense,” and “afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct.”