Federal appeals court upholds judge's lowest possible sentence in child-porn case
By Eric Heisig, cleveland.com
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on June 29, 2016 at 2:29 PM, updated June 29, 2016 at 4:23 PM
CINCINNATI, Ohio — An appeals court on Monday rebuffed the U.S. Attorney's Office's attempt to overturn a Cleveland federal judge's decision to give the lowest possible sentence to a man who downloaded and shared child pornography.
U.S. District Judge James Gwin sentenced Ryan Collins in February 2015 to five years in prison after he polled the jury. The jury said that it thought Collins should serve a sentence of a little more than a year for his crimes.
The U.S. Attorney's Office appealed the sentence, saying it was improper for Gwin, who was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1997, to give a sentence based on a jury poll. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected the appeal, saying that the judge gave many other reasons for the lower sentence.
The decision is a blow to federal prosecutors, who have expressed frustration over the basement sentence given to Collins, who refused to take responsibility after investigators found more than 1,500 child pornography files on his computers and evidence that he shared files with others.
In a statement, Acting U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon said, "Although we are disappointed with the 6th Circuit's decision and disagree with the sentence that was imposed in this case, we respect that the court has ruled on the matter."
(You can read the full decision here: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2929497/Collins-Opinion.pdf)
Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. The probation office had said a guideline sentence for Collins, a Dalton resident with no prior convictions, should be even higher.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan at sentencing asked Gwin to give Collins, 33, the maximum allowed.
But in an opinion authored by Senior Judge Ralph Guy Jr., the court ruled that judges are allowed to hand down sentences that are above or below the probation office's recommended guidelines if they disagree from a policy standpoint. Guy wrote that Gwin reasoned that the guidelines in this case show "how off the mark the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are."
Gwin's sentence is just one example of a larger discussion regarding mandatory minimum sentences and the way federal sentences are calculated.
The judge has also studied the disparity between the probation office's recommended sentence and what jurors feel is a just sentence. He wrote a paper for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, published in February 2010, that said juries in 22 cases recommended sentences that were significantly lower than the probation office's recommendations.
Robert Cheren, Collins' attorney, praised the 6th Circuit's ruling. He said Gwin's survey "was just one piece of the puzzle, and it was an important piece because it reflects community sentiment."
Collins is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Lisbon.
Updated with comments from Rendon and Cheren.