Sentencing is a vital component of the federal criminal trial process. It demands fairness, impartiality, and justification by the judge imposing the sentence following a determination of guilt.


84 Month Guideline Sentence


Billy J. Robinson, Jr. was a drug dealer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois. There is no doubt about that. He pled guilty to being part of heroin trafficking ring that transported the drug from Illinois to Wisconsin between 2012 and 2014. U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph T. Randa, Eastern District of Wisconsin, accepted the plea. The federal judge imposed a sentence of 84 months on Robinson, a term of imprisonment that fell within the guidelines recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.


It is well-established law pronounced by the U.S. Supreme Court that a federal judge must explain the sentence that he or she imposes under the sentencing criteria set out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).


Judge Berates Defendant, Cites Riots and Changes in Community


On July 22, 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion that, in many respects, berated Judge Randa for failing to fulfill this legal obligation when sentencing Robinson, an African-American defendant.


The judge was from the same neighborhood in Milwaukee in which Robinson distributed heroin. Over the years the neighborhood has been ravaged by drugs, violence and other forms of urban decay.


Before imposing the sentence on Robinson, Judge Randa took a journey down memory lane about the “old neighborhood.” He told the defendant that during his college days the neighborhood was “a safe place” but that that safety had been taken away “because of the omnipresent drug trade.”


Judge’s Personal Grudge


The Seventh Circuit found these references “troubling because they could be ‘understood as a personal grudge that the judge bore against [Robinson] for dealing drugs in his old neighborhood. They appear to attribute ‘issues of broad local [and] national … scope’—changing crime rates—to Robinson’s crime, when these issues at best ‘only tangentially relate to his underlying conduct. Robinson was not charged with a violent crime or a crime involving a firearm, nor did his criminal history include any such crimes.”


The inescapable fact is that Judge Randa inserted a personal bias—an anger and regret about his old neighborhood being changed, even destroyed, by violent drug crimes—into the sentencing proceedings and diminished even an appearance of impartiality.


Judge Links Defendant to 1967 Riots


Judge Randa’s impartiality was shattered when he actually linked Robinson’s criminal conduct to a riot the city of Milwaukee endured in 1967.


The appeals court explained:


“The district judge also went too far when he suggested that Robinson’s crime was related somehow to events elsewhere in the country. The court discussed its belief that Milwaukee today is similar to Milwaukee in 1967, and drew questionable—and irrelevant—parallels between Milwaukee’s 1967 riots and recent protests in Baltimore over police brutality. He noted in particular some protests in Milwaukee over the Vietnam War in 1967 (12 years before Robinson was born)—protests that got in the way of his deployment to a combat zone. He wondered what would happen if something similar were to take place today, and he bemoaned the general lack of discipline, responsibility, and self-direction.


“Robinson was convicted of a drug-related crime. He was not charged with or convicted of any crime involving inciting a riot. Moreover, events in Milwaukee before he was born, or recent protests in other cities, are not relevant to Robinson’s sentence. And it is hard to know what the judge meant by ‘pathology’ of the neighborhood. A reference to deterrence or protection of the neighborhood would have been proper, but blaming Robinson indiscriminately for everything wrong in that neighborhood would not.”


“Colorful Language”


Judge Randa was not content with attributing 1967 riots in Milwaukee and riots in a city in another state to people like Robinson. He trampled the cloth of fairness with personal, biased attacks against the defendant who tried to offer mitigating evidence. The Seventh Circuit outlined these inappropriate comments as follows:


“The district court also used ‘colorful’ language to ‘dispense with arguments that [it] did not appreciate.’ In response to Robinson’s statement that his family supports him, the court said, ‘I don’t care how nice you are. How much your family loves you. I mean, my family loves me, too.’ And in response to Robinson’s statement that he and his finance intended to move to Alabama in order to leave behind negative influences in Wisconsin and Illinois, the court pointed out that Robinson had five children by four different mothers, and questioned whether he was really prepared to support all five. Robinson’s childcare arrangements might be relevant to his sentence in some purposes. The fact that he has children with multiple murders is not, however, ‘the real problem’ (in the judge’s words) that his sentence is meant to address.”


  • 3553(a): Judge’s Duty to Ensure Fairness


The commands of § 3553(a) and the recommendations of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines notwithstanding, federal sentencing can be, and too frequently is, a flawed process. A federal judge has an inflexible duty to ensure fairness in the process and to explain how this duty is fulfilled in the choice of sentence he or she elects to impose. A federal judge’s political, social or religious views has no place in the process, nor is a judge’s personal bias against a particular kind of criminal activity appropriate in fashioning a sentence.


The Seventh Circuit vacated Robinson’s sentence and remanded the case back to Judge Randa for resentencing. The 84-month sentence may have been appropriate inasmuch as it was within the guidelines range, but the judge’s extraneous and highly inappropriate social commentary precluded the court of appeals from making that determination.


The Robinson decision offers constructive instruction for criminal defense attorneys—always remain vigilant at sentencing to protect a defendant from a judge’s personal views and biases that could compromise the fairness of the process. Judges are just as prone to mistakes as are prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.