Lawyers argue over fairness of sentence; man's attorneys say 15-year prison term is cruel, unusual

Lawyers argue over fairness of sentence; man's attorneys say 15-year prison term is cruel, unusual

March 15th, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Ed Young was a felon convicted of possession of shotgun shells and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison. His lawyer is appealing the conviction.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

A Hixson man is getting some prominent help in appealing his 15-year federal prison sentence for possessing seven shotgun shells.

Edward Young's federal appeal has brought the assistance of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, a leading legal scholar on federal sentencing.

On Thursday, local attorney Chris Varner argued alongside Berman at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati that Young's mandatory sentence is "cruel and unusual" and not what lawmakers intended.

But local federal prosecutor Chris Poole argued that the punishment, though lengthy, fits Young's criminal history and how the law was written.

Young's case caught the attention of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote a column condemning the sentence in August 2013, shortly after the story was first published in the Times Free Press. Days after that column ran, Varner appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor," a political commentary television show hosted by Bill O'Reilly.

O'Reilly wholeheartedly refuted Kristof and supported the sentence.

Young served time in jail for burglaries in the early 1990s. When he got out in 1996 he got a job, married and started a family.

He pleaded guilty to charges of misdemeanor assault in 2005 and received court-ordered anger management counseling and a suspended sentence.

Then, in 2011, he was arrested on multiple burglary charges. Authorities said his 14-year-old son was present for at least one burglary. Police searched Young's home and found seven shotgun shells that had been in a piece of furniture he was helping a neighbor sell.

Young told police the shells were his but said he didn't know that, as a felon, he couldn't possess them. Convicted felons are prohibited from possessing weapons, explosives or ammunition.

Hamilton County prosecutors held state burglary charges in abeyance while awaiting the outcome of the federal charge involving the shotgun shells.

Young pleaded guilty and was classified as an armed career criminal, which triggered a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. Without that classification, his sentence would have been about 16 months. The state-level burglary charges were dismissed after the federal sentencing in May.

U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier called the sentence "Dickensian," a reference to harsh punishments portrayed in the 19th century novels of Charles Dickens.

Varner and Berman argued Thursday that Young's sentence hardly fit his crime.

Varner said his client didn't know that possessing the shells was a crime. It's not illegal under state law in 39 of 50 states, including Tennessee, Varner said.

Based on his legal research, he called the case unique.

"If you want to put him in prison for [burglaries], prosecute him for that," Varner said Friday. "Don't use this as some sort of end run."

Poole told the three-judge appellate panel that he met with investigators who saw Young as a man who'd committed a string of crimes, one with his son present. They thought he had a criminal history that matched what certain federal laws could address.

The prosecutor agreed, in theory, that the defense attorneys could have an argument, but not in this case.

"I could understand where this type of argument could be made," Poole told the judges. But Young's 19 felonies, multiple recent burglaries similar to his past convictions and the fact that his teen son was present for one meant Young fit the sentence.

"If he didn't think he was doing anything wrong he should have gone to trial," Poole said.

Berman argued that the sentence itself and Young's classification as an armed career criminal should be considered "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The thrust of Berman's argument is that the shells were in no way related to the burglaries and the law, by definition, forces the federal prosecutor to use an unrelated offense to more severely punish Young.

"I do think it's fair to say, 'well, defendants are getting off on a technicality,'" Berman said. "Essentially [Young's] getting hammered based on a technicality."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.