Judge’s failure to address killers’ upbringings requires resentencing

Two men sentenced to life in prison for the 2000 murder of a 73-year-old nearly deaf Hammond gun store owner must be resentenced, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Keon Thomas and Styles Taylor were convicted of robbery and murder and ordered to spend the rest of their lives in prison after they robbed the Firearms Unlimited Gun Shop, killing owner Frank Freund.

Both defendants’ sentencing guidelines scores were at the maximum, but Circuit Judge Richard Posner wrote for the panel that the federal District Court neglected to address arguments that the defendants’ upbringings were so awful that they might have mitigated their scores.

“When substantial grounds for mitigation are presented, the sentencing judge must explain his reasons for rejecting them … and this the judge failed to do,” Posner wrote, sending the case back to Judge James T. Moody in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. “The government agrees that Taylor’s sentence must therefore be vacated and the case remanded for sentencing.”

The 7th Circuit rejected the defendants’ other claims on appeal in United States of America v. Keon Thomas and Styles Taylor, 13-2814 and 13-3469. The panel cited United States v. Morris, 775 F.3d 882, 886-88 (7th Cir. 2015) for the proposition that sentencing judges have a duty to rule on the merits of arguments for mitigation when substantial grounds are presented.

“Taylor had been born in 1980 to an unmarried woman who did not want to have a child. When pregnant with him she indulged in heavy drinking and consumption of marijuana and cocaine, and drank rum with quinine capsules in order to kill the fetus,” Posner wrote. He noted Taylor was beaten gratuitously as a child by his mother and aunt, and he was surrounded by prostitution, drug abuse and crime in his youth. By age 4, he was helping adults commit burglaries, and committed progressively more serious crimes before the gun store murder.

“The facts regarding Taylor’s personal history, if true (they have not yet been submitted to full evidentiary procedure), are possible grounds for mitigation – for reducing his sentence from life to a term of years. For they suggest external forces beyond his ability to control created cognitive and psychological impairments that greatly diminished his ability to resist engaging in serious criminal activity,” Posner wrote.

“Although Thomas’s upbringing was not as awful as Taylor’s, it was similar enough to persuade the government that he too is entitled to be resentenced,” the panel concluded, affirming the District Court in all other respects.


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