Suspended Sentencing

The Atlantic Magazine, October 26, 2004

When Dwight W. Watson first came before U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson for sentencing, on June 23, the judge gave him six years in prison. Watson was the North Carolina tobacco farmer who paralyzed a section of Washington, D.C., for two days last year by driving a tractor into a pond on the National Mall and threatening to detonate an “organophosphate bomb.” The federal sentencing rules suggested a maximum of sixteen months for Watson’s crimes of making threats and damaging federal parkland. But in a time of heightened terrorism fears Judge Jackson felt that the incident’s impact on the city—Washington, he said, had regarded Watson “as a one-man weapon of mass destruction”—justified a longer detention.

One day after Watson’s sentencing, however, the Supreme Court handed down its blockbuster decision in Blakely v. Washington, and Judge Jackson had to backtrack. In Blakely, a kidnapping case originating in the state of Washington, the Court ruled that judges cannot use facts other than those brought before a jury to increase a convict’s sentence beyond the standard set by state guidelines. So at a hearing a few days later Jackson cut Watson’s time to the fifteen-plus months he had already served. “The Supreme Court has told me that what I did a week ago was plainly illegal,” he told the defendant in court. “By my count, Mr. Watson, you’re a free man in a few hours.”

This was just the beginning. Within days of the Blakely decision the system of criminal sentencing in the United States was in turmoil. A few examples: A drug dealer in West Virginia saw nineteen of twenty years dropped from a sentence for conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine. In Tennessee a man convicted of raping an eighty-two-year-old woman got the minimum sentence of twenty-five years in prison. In Oklahoma a judge actually gave a bank robber three sentences for the same crime, saying he was unsure what was lawful under Blakely. By the time you read this, countless convicts will have had their cases affected by the ruling.

But Blakely did more than guarantee leniency for criminals in as many as 270,000 federal cases alone. It left state and federal legislatures wondering what the fundamental rules of sentencing were and which laws they would have to rewrite. Numerous states saw their sentencing rules imperiled, and the federal sentencing guidelines—the most ambitious effort to reform federal criminal sentencing in American history—were cast into grave constitutional doubt. The Justice Department was left unsure how to draft indictments so that people convicted of serious crimes would receive serious punishments.

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