For 2nd time, 7th Circuit faults district judge for insufficient explanation in sentence modification denial

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“Yet another” round of district court review has been ordered in a sentence modification case after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, for the second time, vacated an order denying a modification, finding the judge did not provide a sufficient explanation.

In 2001, Adam Tyrale Williams Jr. was convicted of conspiring to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, distributing more than 50 grams of crack and distributing more than five grams of crack.

As the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines required, the Indiana Northern District Court imposed three concurrent sentences: life imprisonment for Counts 1 and 2 and the statutory maximum 40-year term for Count 3.

The 7th Circuit dismissed Williams’ direct appeal.

Over the years, Williams has tried repeatedly to secure reductions in his sentences.

Two of his post-conviction motions were dismissed because the judge found he still posed a threat to public safety. The 7th Circuit affirmed each of those judgments.

But when Williams filed his third motion, the guidelines range for Counts 1 and 2 were 235 to 293 months’ imprisonment, rather than life.

Williams thus received a small reduction to 30 years’ imprisonment on all counts. The 7th Circuit affirmed that ruling.

Then in October 2019, Williams filed a fourth motion for a reduced sentence, this time relying on Section 404(b) of the then-recently enacted First Step Act.

The First Step Act yields statutory ranges of 60 to 480 months’ imprisonment for Counts 1 and 2 and a maximum of 240 months’ imprisonment for Count 3.

A new judge took over the case after the prior judge died, but the new judge, James T. Moody, declined to further reduce the 30-year sentence.

Williams again appealed, arguing that Moody’s explanation was insufficient because, rather than addressing his First Step Act motion, the new judge “relied excessively” on the previous judge’s rationale in his third post-conviction ruling.

“Nowhere did the order calculate the new statutory ranges for Williams’s three convictions, as the First Step Act requires; worse, it misstated the statutory maximum for Count 3 (indicating that it was 360 months, when it was actually 240 months),” Senior Judge Diane Wood wrote Tuesday. “Although Williams had forfeited this challenge, we concluded that the error was plain because it deprived Williams ‘of the benefit of any anchoring effect that the new statutory ranges could have had on Judge Moody’s decision’ and it ‘affect[ed] the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the proceeding.’”

The 7th Circuit thus vacated the order and remanded the case for reconsideration.

On remand in May 2022, the judge ordered the U.S. Probation Department to submit a revised addendum to Williams’ presentence report. The revised addendum stated William’s modified statutory penalties and his current guidelines range of 235 to 293 months’ imprisonment.

A year later, Williams renewed his First Step Act motion. That motion requested the guidelines maximums of 293 months for Counts 1 and 2 and the statutory maximum of 240 months for Count 3. If granted, the adjustments would allow him to immediately begin the supervised-release portion of his sentence.

A day after receiving Williams’ submission, the judge denied it in an order “nearly identical” to the previous order that was vacated.

“The only differences in the two orders are the addition of a paragraph stating the properly calculated statutory and guidelines range and trivial rephrasings of a few sentences,” Wood wrote. “Williams has appealed, again arguing that Judge Moody did not adequately explain his decision.”

Agreeing, the 7th Circuit again vacated Moody’s order.

The appellate court noted that Williams’ motions under the First Step Act, considered by Moody, were different than his previous post-conviction filings, considered by the late Judge Rudy Lozano.

“Yet Judge Moody’s order incorporates Judge Lozano’s rationale wholesale and refers repeatedly to it, without explaining how an explanation issued in 2015 and based on an outdated record and a different legal landscape automatically applies to a 2023 motion,” Wood wrote. “… Absent at least some explanation showing why Judge Lozano’s ruling maps onto a motion filed nearly a decade later under new legislation, we have no way to know whether Judge Moody considered how the relevant statutory framework, and the policy judgments that it reflects, applies to Williams’s current situation.”

Further, the 7th Circuit distinguished Williams’ case from Chavez-Meza v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1959 (2018). It also pointed to Concepcion v. United States, 597 U.S. 481, 501 (2022), where the justices held that “when deciding a First Step Act motion, district courts bear the standard obligation to explain their decisions and demonstrate that they considered the parties’ arguments.”

“Measured against those standards and taking into account the fact that we are dealing here with a substantially enhanced record, not a simple, discretionary choice about which point within an established guidelines range the judge thinks is proper, we conclude that the district court’s revised order fell short,” Wood wrote. “The court did not so much as nod at Williams’s new arguments, which are based on significant developments post-dating the now-vacated order.

“… It is regrettable that yet another round is necessary in the district court, but it is,” Wood concluded. “We trust that the district court will expeditiously complete the job, in light of the fact that Williams will be eligible for supervised release at the end of 2025.”

The case is United States of America v. Adam Tyrale Williams, Jr., 23-2313.

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