What Not to Say at Sentencing

Monica Conyers arriving at court for sentencing

Monica Conyers arriving at court for sentencing

Former Detroit councilwoman Monica Conyers, the wife of U.S. Representative John Conyers, was sentenced today in federal court on her guilty plea to charges of bribery. The 45-year-old was given 37 months in prison, the top end of the agreed-upon Guidelines range.

Having read the sentencing minutes, we can’t help but think she might have done better if she’d kept her mouth shut. There are some things one does not say during one’s sentencing. She seems not to have gotten the memo, and it may be that others out there don’t know either. So here are some tips:

First, do not imply that the judge is acting improperly, before the judge has even sentenced you. Don’t even hint that the judge is taking things into account that he should not be. For example, it is not a good idea to say “the newspapers have put pressure on you to try to make an example out of me.” Judges do not like to be told they’re committing an impropriety. You do not want to piss off the person who is about to decide your fate.

Seriously, people need to be told this?

Second, do not say it’s unfair that you’re going to jail, when the other people committing crimes with you got less time. If you’ve pled to taking bribes (Conyers admitted taking multiple payments in return for awarding a contract), it doesn’t matter what happened to anybody else. The only consideration is what you did, and what you deserve. So saying “all of the people who were bribing and giving the money, they got zero months, eleven months, and now they want me to go to jail for five years?” — that’s not really going to help you out. All you’re doing is calling the judge unfair to his face. And it’s irrelevant at best.

That leads right to point 3: If you’ve just got done saying you should get the same time as your fellow conspirators, it’s not a good idea to then insist that you’re innocent and your plea was involuntary. Arguing in the alternative, at least in criminal cases, only means both alternatives are wrong. Pick a story and stick with it.

Point 3-A is that you don’t react to sentencing by demanding your plea back. A plea that was negotiated, where you testified under oath that you committed specific conduct, and where there was no actual duress… sorry, you’re not getting it back. Merely being pressured to take a plea doesn’t count. Even being under a colossal amount of pressure isn’t enough. Everyone is under pressure when they take a plea. You weighed the odds, and decided to cut your losses. You don’t get a do-over unless someone else totally overrode your free will, you sincerely did not want to take the plea, under any circumstances, but someone forced you to do it anyway. And you’d better have some real, solid proof of it.

And point 3-B is that you never, never, never, NEVER plead guilty if you are in fact innocent. Do you hear me? NEVER!

Given all the evidence in Conyers’ case, it seems unlikely that she pled guilty despite being actually innocent, and the judge definitely didn’t think so. He’d just finished a trial against one of her fellow conspirators where there was a lot of evidence tending to confirm her guilt here. So her feeble claims of involuntariness here probably only rubbed him the wrong way.

Fourth, if you want the court to go down from the Guidelines, give the judge a reason. Do not simply say “I think that given everything that exists in this case, and I’m not going to elaborate on any of them, I think the court should depart from the guideline range and I think that would be fair.”

You know what? There are a bunch of factors the judge is allowed to consider. Many of them are listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553. Why not — we dunno — go through them and make arguments for the ones that actually apply? Just saying.

Fifth, if you want a downward departure for accepting responsibility, don’t proclaim your innocence at the last minute.

Sixth, if you want a downward departure for cooperating, you’re actually going to have to give the government something it can use. If all you’re going to tell the feds is stuff that is “conclusory and not firsthand evidence which can be used in a court proceeding,” you’re not going to get any benefit.

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Now there is plenty you can do at sentencing. You can challenge the government’s Guidelines calculations quite often. You can challenge the grounds and calculations for various enhancements. You can argue specific reasons for mitigation, downward departures, and even complete variance from the Guidelines if justice demands they not apply. There is a tremendous amount of room for good advocacy in a federal sentencing. We’ve succeeded in having the Guidelines completely disregarded, in getting judges to agree with us and not the government, so we know it happens.

You just gotta make sure the client gets the memo.

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2 Comments

  1. Comment from a Facebook friend, March 11, 2010:

    Interesting read. Thanks, Nathan.

  2. Comment from a Facebook friend, March 11, 2010:

    I like this one. Her comments are almost childish.

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