Wednesday, August 08, 2007

“Guidelines-centric” approach “reasonable and effective” where sentence was reduced by downward departure

In United States v. Hankerson, No. 06-3291 (3d Cir. 7/31/07), the Third Circuit rejected as meritless appellant’s reasonableness and ineffective assistance of counsel challenges to his 121-month sentence. That sentence reflected a downward departure based on overstatement of criminal history from the career offender-enhanced advisory guideline range of 188 to 235 months.

The Court deemed the sentence procedurally reasonable in that the district court first correctly calculated the guidelines, then considered defendant’s requests for downward departures, and then meaningfully considered the § 3553(a) factors. In ruling the sentence substantively reasonable as well, the Court noted the district court’s granting of a downward departure and its consideration of defendant’s personal history and circumstances. Taking into account its "deferential posture" toward sentencing decisions and the Supreme Court’s instruction in Rita that a within-guidelines sentence is more likely to be reasonable than a non-guidelines sentence, the Court said it could not conclude that the district court "acted outside its ‘broad discretion’ in imposing this sentence."

Turning to the ineffective assistance challenge, the Court viewed trial counsel’s approach as both "reasonable and effective." Specifically, with respect to the career offender predicates, while acknowledging Third Circuit precedent on the issue, counsel argued that the two prior offenses should not be treated as related "in the interest of justice." In the alternative, counsel argued, a downward departure was warranted on the basis of overstatement of criminal history. In light of the district court’s granting of a downward departure on this ground, the Court deemed this an effective strategy. The Court also concluded that further development of mitigation evidence would not have produced a different result and that, therefore, appellant could not show the prejudice necessary to prevail on an ineffective assistance claim.

Finally, the Court rejected the claim that trial counsel’s focus was inappropriately "guidelines-centric" after Booker. The Court noted that counsel had presented evidence tailored to the § 3553(a) factors. Moreover, it said, given the integral role the guidelines continue to play in sentencing after Booker, "it was entirely reasonable for defense counsel to focus much of his argument on the guidelines and on his successful argument for a downward departure. . . . As such, counsel’s approach to sentencing was both reasonable and effective, and thus fails the Strickland test for ineffectiveness."

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