The Seventh Circuit Appeals Court seems a bit tired of the district court's shit. For the second time, it's remanding a case involving a convicted law enforcement officer because the lower court refuses to give the former officer the punishment he deserves. Terry Joe Smith has twice been sentenced for subjecting two arrestees to intentional and unreasonable excessive force. The facts of the case are this, as recounted by the Appeals Court's second run [PDF] at the same problem.
At trial, Smith’s fellow police officers testified against him, describing the unwarranted attacks. In the first incident, Smith punched the arrestee in the face with a closed fist, causing bleeding and swelling on his face. Two officers testified that the blow made the sound of a tomato hitting a concrete wall. At the time, the arrestee was fully under the control of four other officers, and the arrestee posed no danger to Smith. A fellow officer testified that he had been trained to refrain from striking anyone in the head with a closed fist unless he was in a “deadly force” situation because such a blow could be lethal. After that incident, Smith bragged about his behavior to other officers and mocked those who objected to his unjustified attack. The arrestee had to be removed from the scene in an ambulance.
That's only half the story. Here's the rest:
Several months later, in the second attack, Smith and other officers arrested an intoxicated man accused of battering a woman during a domestic dispute. Smith led the handcuffed arrestee to a patrol car. On reaching the car, Smith raised the man into the air, threw him face-first onto the ground and drove his knee into the man’s back with such force that the man defecated on himself. The man suffered injuries to his back and ribs. Smith later bragged that this was not the first time he had made someone defecate on himself. Again, Smith’s fellow officers testified that the arrestee was not actively resisting in any manner and that the use of force was unjustified and excessive.
Obviously, Smith liked throwing his weight around. And he had plenty of it, according to the decision's footnotes: 6' 3" and 270 pounds -- all of it apparently deployed to show these arrestees who was in "control" of the situation.
Sentencing guidelines called for 33-41 months imprisonment. The court considered some mitigating effects (community work, difficult childhood) and those calling for the harsher end of the sentencing spectrum (assaulting juveniles at a detention facility, "unaddressed anger issues," lying to investigators). For reasons not adequately explained, the district court sentenced Smith to less than half the minimum: 14 months.
Both parties appealed. In retrospect, Smith may have been better off letting the sentence ride. The Appeals Court sent the case back with instructions to either explain its downward sentencing departure better or to apply a sentence within the guidelines. It pointed out the lower court said Smith was unlikely to reoffend but did not show its homework as to why it had chosen to depart so drastically from the guidelines.
The lower court took another look at the case and… arrived at the same exact sentence. The court considered the time the officer had served as well as some steps he had taken to reintegrate himself into the real world again. It also pointed to the officer's statement as a proper expression of remorse for his wrongdoing. The Appeals Court notes the second sentencing attempt is basically a word-for-word replay of the first. It also notes Smith's "remorseful" statement mainly discussed how difficult things were for him rather than for his victims.
Smith did make a statement at his second sentencing hearing but it is difficult to find mention of his victims or much of a sense of ownership of his actions in his remarks. We reproduce in full the letter he read aloud:
Your Honor, as you may know, it is very dangerous being an ex-police officer in prison; but yet, there are little to no secrets in prison. Most inmates know why you are there before they even ask you. I had guys that hated me, not for being me but for my ex-profession. I made it clear I was no longer a sheriff’s deputy, and I was an inmate just like them; and I was there to better myself, just as they were…
There's more along these lines discussing his time in prison, but still nothing about the harm he did to the victims of his violence. Smith closed his letter by making it clear that only one person is on Smith's mind: former deputy Terry Joe Smith.
Why do I tell you this? I tell you this because you made the right decision when it came to sentencing me. I want to be an example to other judges, prosecutors that not every man that makes a mistake needs a long sentence and that when you have done everything to better yourself and when you have years left to serve – to sit and wait for your sentence to run out and the only thing you’re waiting for is an out date, it is the family, children and communities that are serving the sentence.
I can say that because of the sentence you handed me. You knew exactly what I needed to get back on track and I thank you. I hope my actions during and after my incarceration have validated your sentencing choice for me. I thank you for the opportunity you’ve given me.
Having been swayed by someone who showed no remorse for anything but his personal situation, the district court handed out the same sentence, which Smith had already served. It also stated extending his sentence would be unduly disruptive to Smith's new life. Undoubtedly so, but that's the nature of prison sentences, as the Appeals Court points out:
In addressing the need to promote respect for the law and deter others from committing similar crimes, the court mentioned that Smith had incurred two felony convictions,lost his job as a police officer, resigned his position on the city council, and lost his reputation within the community.
Losing one’s job and reputation are the normal consequences of committing a felony at work. It is unclear how these naturally occurring repercussions that are not part of any sentence would promote respect for the law and deter others from committing similar crimes.
As for the letter of regret that persuaded the lower court to do absolutely nothing about the absurdly low sentence it had imposed, the Appeals Court says this:
Smith’s statement to the court contained, at most, an acknowledgment that some—but not all—of his fellow prisoners were people like him, who had made mistakes and were seeking to better themselves. He also expressed his new-found belief that not all defendants required lengthy sentences, a principle he hoped the court would apply to him. He never mentioned his victims or his crimes unless one generously infers that the “mistake” to which he referred was senselessly beating arrestees who were already under control and posed no danger to him. He did not concede the facts of his offenses of conviction and he did not express regret for anything other than the length of a possible new sentence. It is certainly admirable that he learned in prison that prisoners are human beings like himself, but that is a far cry from an expression of remorse for the harms he caused or acceptance of responsibility for his crimes. There is nothing resembling the promised “ownership” in Smith’s remarks to the court.
With that, it's yet another trip back to the lower court to see if it can finally get its sentencing right. This court's extreme reluctance to apply the sentencing guidelines it gladly applies without question to normal defendants doesn't score it any points with the Appeals Court. The fact that the lower court needs to be told twice to do its job right looks even worse. The super-low sentence shows Deputy Smith isn't like the other prisoners he was forced to spend time with, no matter what his letter says. He's the beneficiary of judicial deference -- something lots of cops get, but is rarely enjoyed by members of the public they serve.