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Fourth Circuit sends terrorism case back for resentencing

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Bill of Rights (From public domain.)

In this post-Rita, Gall and Kimbrough world, the Fourth Circuit recently reversed the thirty-year sentence of a terrorism convict as too lenient, and seemed to call for the trial judge to look more closely at the sentencing guidelines before deciding whether to depart from them. U.S. v. Abu-Ali, ___ F.3d ___ (June 6, 2008). Although the Supreme Court has made the federal sentencing guidelines voluntary, the guidelines seem to be here to stay, at least for the time being. 

In reversing the sentencing of Abu Ali, the Fourth Circuit’s two-judge panel majority said:

Given the gravity of Abu Ali’s offense, and the district court’s erroneous application of § 3553(a)(6), we have seen nothing to justify a variance of the degree imposed here. It bears reminding that this is not some mere doctrinal dispute of surpassing abstraction. At some point, the debate risks becoming wholly divorced from the broader reality: that the defendant sought to destabilize our government and to shake it to its core. To this day, he wishes he had succeeded. Not only that, but the defendant gave no discernable thought to the personal loss and heartache that would have been suffered by untold hundreds or thousands of victims, spouses, children, parents, and friends had his plans come to fruition. This is a fact that any sentencing system, not just the United States Sentencing Guidelines, would take into account. It is not too much to ask that a sentencing proceeding not lose sight of the immensity and scale of wanton harm that was and remains Abu Ali’s plain and clear intention. Based on the foregoing circumstances of this case, we find the district court’s significant downward deviation not to be justified. Thus, the sentence imposed must be vacated. While we of course leave the sentencing function to the able offices of the trial court on remand, we trust that any sentence imposed will reflect the full gravity of the situation before us.

Stay tuned.

Jon Katz.