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Bipolar defense fails in wire fraud, tax evasion appeal

April 7, 2014

A woman sentenced to five years in prison after she pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud and tax evasion for swindling an elderly couple failed to persuade the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to revise her sentence.

The panel affirmed the 60-month sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the Southern District of Indiana in United States of America v. Stephanie L. Donelli, 13-2548. Stephanie Donelli was convicted of inducing a couple to “lend” her money more than 500 times, totaling almost $443,000. She peddled a phony story that her daughter was awaiting a $750,000 settlement for injuries sustained in a crash involving a drunken driver.

“Donelli asserts that briefly mentioning her bipolar disorder at sentencing was enough to require a response from the district court,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the panel.

“We disagree, and we affirm Donelli’s sentence for two independent reasons. First, she failed to present the fact of her diagnosis as a principal argument in mitigation relevant to her sentence,” Hamilton wrote. She also waived her claim of error “by telling the district court at the close of her sentencing hearing that she had no objection to her sentence apart from the fact that the sentence was above the guidleline range.”

Hamilton wrote the District Court didn’t fail to comply with its duty under United States v. Cunningham, 429 F.3d 673 (7th Cir. 2005), requiring sentencing judges to address a defendant’s principal arguments in mitigation when those arguments have recognized legal merit.

Counsel’s statement at sentencing, “'The defendant has a mental illness’ is an observation of fact, not an argument in mitigation,” Hamilton wrote. “The few statements about bipolar II disorder made by Donelli’s lawyer at sentencing did not amount to an argument in mitigation that the district court had a duty to discuss.”

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