Federal judge's emails lead 7th Circuit to vacate prison sentence

  • Print.

prisoner behind bars

Image from Shutterstock.com.

A federal judge who sentenced a drug defendant to more than 17 years in prison should have recused himself because his email communications with the U.S. attorney’s office “invited doubt about his impartiality,” a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that cocaine defendant James Atwood of Kankakee, Illinois, is entitled to be resentenced before a new judge. Illinois Times and the News Gazette have coverage.

The judge who sentenced Atwood is U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce of Urbana, Illinois. He has communicated with the U.S. attorney’s office in more than 100 emails since taking the bench, according to the appeals court. The emails were ex parte, meaning defense lawyers were not included in the communications.

Bruce was a prosecutor in the office from 1989 until his confirmation to the bench in 2013. He was nominated by President Barack Obama.

Bruce’s emails never explicitly mentioned drug defendant James Atwood’s case and they mostly concerned ministerial matters, the appeals court said in its Oct. 24 opinion.

But the emails did show Bruce “cheering on office employees and addressing them by nicknames,” the opinion said.

The appeals court gave some examples. In one email, Bruce corresponded with a secretary in the prosecution office about scheduling for Atwood’s co-defendant. “Roger-dodger. GO SONCHETTA,” he wrote, using a nickname for the secretary.

In another email, Bruce reassured a prosecutor about a filing miscommunication, the appeals court said. “My bad. You’re doing fine. Let’s get this thing done,” Bruce wrote.

He also wrote to prosecutors to congratulate and thank them for persuading the 7th Circuit to affirm his decisions, the appeals court said.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote the opinion for the 7th Circuit panel. Her name appeared on Trump’s shortlist for the U.S. Supreme Court before the president nominated Brett Kavanaugh.

Illinois Times revealed in a story last year that Bruce had been emailing former prosecution colleagues. Its story reported that Bruce had communicated with a paralegal in the U.S. attorney’s office about a trial where he presided.

In the emails, Bruce expressed exasperation that a novice prosecutor’s weak cross-examination had turned the case “from a slam-dunk for the prosecution to about a 60-40 for the defendant.”

Bruce was removed from all cases involving the U.S. attorney’s office after Illinois Times published its story.

The Judicial Council of the 7th Circuit then examined two complaints filed against Bruce. The council found no evidence that the improper communications affected his decision in any case but admonished him for violating judicial conduct rules. He resumed hearing criminal cases on Sept. 1.

In the Atwood case, the 7th Circuit noted that the government conceded that Bruce’s conduct gave the appearance he was biased in favor of the prosecution. But the government argued any error was harmless.

The 7th Circuit disagreed.

Atwood’s sentence fell within the guidelines range of 188 to 235 months in prison. But judges retain discretion when evaluating guidelines factors, inviting risk that personal biases could influence the judge’s decision, the court said.

Upholding Atwood’s sentence creates “a real risk of unfairness to him,” while ordering resentencing creates little risk of unfairness to the government, the court said.

“Finally, we consider the risk of harm to the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary,” the appeals court said. “In sentencing, the most significant restriction on a judge’s ample discretion is the judge’s own sense of equity and good judgment. When those qualities appear to be compromised, the public has little reason to trust the integrity of the resulting sentence.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.