A federal appeals court overturned a prison sentence of more than four years given to a local investment consultant on money-laundering charges, saying the judge in the case was improperly involved in plea talks.
A ruling last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit gives Kenneth C. Baker, 44, the right to a new trial on charges that he schemed to steal an 88-year-old woman's life savings last year.
The appellate court's ruling says that despite "good intentions," U.S. District Court Judge Emmett G. Sullivan committed an error in Baker's case that "reflects badly on the fundamental fairness of the judicial process."
At issue were statements made by Judge Sullivan in March 2006 after he requested an update on plea talks between prosecutors and Baker's defense attorney.
Prosecutors told the judge that they were offering 21 to 27 months if Baker, a former SunTrust Bank employee, pleaded guilty to bilking his client of her $96,000 life savings.
At that point, court records show, Judge Sullivan said he accepted a guilty plea months earlier from a 63-year-old man who embezzled about $100,000 from an employee pension plan.
Judge Sullivan said he had sentenced the man to one year and one day in prison and noted that "judges do try to be consistent."
"I would probably be just as consistent here," said Judge Sullivan. "I'm not going to do one thing in one case where the facts are similar and do something completely different here. I'm just not going to do it. I'm going to be consistent to the extent I can."
The rules of federal criminal procedure prohibit "all forms of judicial participation in or interference with the plea negotiation process."
The next day, Baker pleaded guilty. Four months later, at his sentencing in July, Baker explained his motivation to the judge.
"When I came in here on March 2 and fell on my sword, I was pretty much thinking in relation to a case that you had referenced prior to my making my guilty plea of an individual who, I think you said, he took a hundred and some odd thousand dollars and you gave him like a year and a day," Baker said.
Judge Sullivan sentenced Baker to 41 months in prison for federal charges followed by another 10 months on District- related charges. The 51-month sentence was nearly twice the maximum sentence that the government was offering for a guilty plea.
Baker appealed the sentence, arguing that Judge Sullivan violated his rights by improperly taking part in plea talks.
In an 18-page opinion written by Judge Janice Rogers Brown — a 2005 appointee of President Bush — the appeals court agreed, concluding that Judge Sullivan "unilaterally initiated and engaged in a lengthy plea discussion with Baker."
Prosecutors argued that Judge Sullivan, appointed to the federal bench in 1994 by President Clinton, later repeatedly said during the plea hearing that no promises were made.
"But the damage was done," Judge Brown wrote. "Baker had already forgone the government's offer, because he perceived the court had tacitly made him a better one."
The appeals court ruling remanded the case back to U.S. District Court to a different judge.