Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Court Rejects Habeas Petition Challenging Parole Commission’s Procedures

[This case summarized by Ahmed Soliman, legal intern, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.]

In Christopher Furnari v. U.S. Parole Commission, No. 07-2853 (3rd Cir. July 9, 2008), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals considered, and ultimately affirmed, an appeal of the lower court’s rejection of a habeas corpus petition for Christopher Furnari, a consigleire of the Lucchese crime family who complained that, in denying him parole five separate times, the Parole Commission mis-applied the law.

Furnari argued that (1) the Parole Commission violated the Sentencing Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 235(b)(3), when it scheduled a rehearing date after the Commission’s authority expired; (2) that the denial of parole was based on an improperly-calculated offense severity rating; and (3) that the Commission failed to give adequate weight to certain mitigating information.

The Court denied the Sentencing Reform Act challenge, holding that because Congress extended the life of the Parole Commission, the hearing was properly held on the date set. The Court also noted that, by statute, a release date may be set at a future time. So long as Congress continues to extend the expiration date, so too may the release date be tolled for future hearings.

The Court also held that the offense severity challenge was an abuse of the writ. Furnari had repeatedly litigated the Parole Commissions’s calculation of his offense severity rating, and the resultant parole denials. On this successive writ, the Court emphasized that the burden shifts to Furnari to demonstrate a "colorable showing of factual innocence" of the crimes for which he was convicted. Furnari’s claims related to his innocence of uncharged murders and other violent conduct, which is insufficient to establish that the Court should entertain the petition in the interests of justice.

Finally, the Court held that it would not interfere with the Commission’s discretion to evaluate mitigating evidence and determine what weight it deserves. With respect to Furnari’s sentence proportionality argument, the Court further held that the Parole Commission lacked statutory authority to review the sentence imposed by the sentencing court.

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The District Court's indication of the sentence it would impose before the defendant allocuted was not reversible plain error.

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