9th Circuit orders resentencing for troubled Salt River defendant

An Indian man with a troubled past will be given a new sentence as a result of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on Friday.

William Harris, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community of Arizona, was sentenced to 188 months in federal prison for assaulting a federal correctional officer. But the 9th Circuit said the judge who handed down the punishment shouldn't have done so because she was unfamiliar with the case.

"The sentence was imposed by a judge other than the trial judge, whose unavailability for sentencing was unexplained," the court wrote in a unanimous decision.

Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson handled the trial but she was absent on the day Harris was sentenced. Judge Linda Reade, who was visiting from the federal court in Iowa, stepped in.

A government attorney offered a potential explanation for the switch. The sentencing occurred less than a month after John M. Roll, the chief judge for the federal court in Arizona, was fatally shot at an event hosted by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who represented a district with several reservations.

The 9th Circuit, however, said the "turmoil" experienced by the court in Arizona was not grounds for Harris to be sentenced in the absence of the trial judge. "Sentencing is an art, not to be performed as a mechanical process but as a sensitive response to a particular person who has a particular personal history and has committed a particular crime," the decision stated.

"Lack of sufficient familiarity with the details of that person’s trial is prejudicial to him," the 9th Circuit concluded.

According to the decision, the 35-year-old Harris has a long criminal record, having first been convicted in federal court at age 18. But he also suffers from mental illness, which contributed to the charges he faced for assaulting a federal officer.

Harris was offered a 60-month sentence for the charges but Judge Jorgenson rejected the plea agreement. The 9th Circuit said she did not abuse her discretion in doing so.

9th Circuit Decision:
US v. Harris (May 25, 2012)

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