Stu707 points out an error in an L.A. Times article about the length of Scooter Libby’s sentence. The article says:
Just last week, the Supreme Court upheld a 33-month prison sentence for a decorated Army veteran who was convicted of lying to a federal agent about buying a machine gun. The veteran had a record of public service — fighting in Vietnam and the Gulf War — and no criminal record. But Justice Department lawyers argued his prison term should stand because it fit within the federal sentencing guidelines.
The case referred to is United States v. Rita. Rita contested his 33-month sentence for lying to a federal grand jury about buying a kit that allegedly could be used to make a machinegun. Here is the passage from the Supreme Court’s decision that disproves the L.A. Times‘s characterization of defendant Rita as having “no criminal record”:
Rita was convicted in May 1986, and sentenced to five years’ probation for making false statements in connection with the purchase of firearms. Because this conviction took place more than 10 years before the present offense, it did not count against Rita [for purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines]. And because Rita had no other relevant convictions, the Guidelines considered him as having no criminal history points. Ibid. The report consequently places Rita in criminal history category I, the lowest category for purposes of calculating a Guidelines sentence.
The article could have said that that the Sentencing Guidelines treated Rita as if he had no criminal history. But it’s wrong to say that he had no criminal history.
I’m writing the Readers’ Representative right now. The correction on this one needs to be swift.
This is a significant point. As I pointed out recently with respect to this article:
It’s misleading to compare Libby’s sentence to that of all other defendants who committed the same crime. In the criminal justice system, several factors are used to determine the appropriate sentence, and among the most critical factors is the defendant’s criminal record (or lack thereof). By all accounts, Scooter Libby’s criminal record before this trial was spotless. So the relevant question is not what the average sentence is, but what the average sentence is for someone with no criminal record.
Given that Rita had a criminal record, the L.A. Times does not prove up even one single example of someone with no previous record who went to prison for obstruction. It may well have happened — but they haven’t proved it. Nor does The Times provide statistics on the average sentence for defendants with no criminal record.
I still believe Scooter Libby should have served time in custody. But the L.A. Times has not proved that his sentence was below the average for someone with no criminal record. By their own statistics, it appears that 1/4 of the defendants convicted of obstruction did not go to prison. I bet those tended to be the ones with no record or minimal records. The Times should do a better job of explaining that.