How should federal judges decide whether sentences in federal prosecutions should run consecutively to or concurrently with sentences in unrelated state prosecutions? The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals tackled that question in a Monday decision, affirming a man’s decades-long sentence for his part in a South Bend kidnapping.
In 2015, Lindani Mzembe and two other men attacked and kidnapped another man as he was approaching his car outside of his home. The three men demanded money, beat and shot the victim with their guns, and held him for ransom. When they thought the victim might die, the men abandoned him in an alley bleeding and blindfolded with duct tape.
The three men were all handed hefty sentences by separate juries, with Mzembe receiving 44 years behind bars. But intervening changes in the law required the 7th Circuit in August 2019 to vacate Mzembe’s and another man’s convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) for discharging a firearm in a crime of violence.
In its opinion, the 7th Circuit remanded for the resentencing of Mzembe and the other man on the convictions that still stood. Mzembe was the only one to appeal on remand.
Mzembe’s issues on his second appeal stem from a state court decision to impose an aggregate 62-year sentence for other serious and violent crimes he committed before the 2015 kidnapping. In 2014, Mzembe and an accomplice committed a brutal home invasion, beating and terrorizing a family to rob them of money and property.
Knowing that Mzembe had already been sentenced to 44 years in prison for his federal case, the state court ordered his state sentence to run consecutive to the original federal sentence. By the time Mzembe was ready for resentencing in federal court, the state sentence was final.
After the 7th Circuit set aside his firearm conviction, Mzembe still stood convicted of kidnapping, making a ransom demand and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Although Mzembe proposed that a new federal sentence of 34 years run concurrently with his state sentence, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana denied his request and ordered that a newly reduced 36-year federal sentence run consecutively with the state sentence.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit addressed three arguments posed by Mzembe: that the district court failed to provide an explanation sufficient to allow meaningful appellate review of this discretionary decision; that the district court erred by relying on a legally impermissible factor and failed to explain the decision in terms of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3584(b); and that consecutive sentences are substantively unreasonable because the combination of state and federal sentences is a de facto life sentence.
“In this case of resentencing, after an intervening and consecutive state-court sentence, we see no reversible error in the extent or the content of the explanation,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the 7th Circuit panel. “We rely here on the unusual circumstances presented by the sequence of Mzembe’s original and long federal sentence, the later and even longer state sentence that the state judge chose to impose consecutively for completely independent crimes, and our appellate remand for resentencing on the remaining federal charges.”
The panel further disagreed with Mzembe’s argument that “deference to the state court” is not a factor under § 3584 and that the district court’s consideration of that factor amounted to a legal error.
“The district court had the authority and discretion to reach a different result,” Hamilton wrote. “It was not compelled to do so, however, and could choose to respect and leave essentially intact the decision of the state court. That result was not unreasonable, given the nature and circumstances of both sets of violent crimes and the history and characteristics of the offender, who qualified for criminal history categories V and VI at the times of his original and second federal sentences, respectively.”
Finally, the 7th Circuit concluded that although making Mzembe’s consecutive sentences amount to a de facto life sentence, that fact did not persuade the panel that the new and consecutive federal sentence was substantively unreasonable.
“The choice was not binary and all-or-nothing — sentences may also be partially concurrent and partially consecutive — but where the crimes were so serious, so violent, and completely unrelated, it was not unreasonable for the judge to reject that proposed sentence,” the panel concluded.
The case is United States of America v. Lindani Mzembe, 20-1265.