Wheel of Justice Goes Around and Around

The Ninth Circuit twice told the oft-reversed L.A. federal Judge Manuel Real to rethink his decision to sentence a former L.A. U.S. attorney’s office clerk to probation after she admitted to stealing more than $435,000. Both times, Real declined to change his sentence, accepting the argument that defendant Dorothy Menyweather suffered from post-traumatic stress after being abandoned as a child and later finding her fiancé’s corpse after he was murdered. So, on the case’s third trip to the Ninth Circuit, a split three-judge panel on Friday decided to uphold the ruling “in view of our belief that the court would impose the same sentence again, having steadfastly maintained its position in the face of two opportunities to revise its sentence,? Judge Susan Graber wrote for the majority in U.S. v. Menyweather. She was joined by Judge Michael Daly Hawkins.

Of course, there were other lines of reasoning — namely that under the new federal sentencing guidelines, Real was free to impose the seemingly light sentence. Indeed, on the criminal law-focused Ninth Circuit Blog, Steven Kalar, senior litigator in the San Francisco federal public defender’s office, explains that the Menyweather opinion is a landmark explanation for how criminal sentences should be determined post-Booker. But for entertainment value, Judge Andrew Kleinfeld’s dissent was by far the preferable composition.

“In addition to stealing for herself, Menyweather used stolen money to dramatize herself as a Lady Bountiful,? Kleinfeld wrote, explaining that in addition to buying things for herself, Menyweather purchased a computer for her sister-in-law and gave about $20,000 in stolen money to charities. “She took eight people to a church conference in Atlanta. She even bought eight plane tickets to Israel,? Kleinfeld wrote later. He went on to point out that “Nordstrom’s alone got $53,800 of Menyweather’s bounty.?

In the end, Kleinfeld wrote, the panel should have done what a separate Ninth Circuit panel did earlier this month in another case where Real had made a puzzling decision: Real should be reversed, “and the district court should be instructed to assign the case to another judge.?

Kleinfeld was most perturbed by his opinion that Real — and the majority opinion — failed to impose a reasonable punishment that would deter others from stealing from the government. “$435,000 is a substantial amount of money, a life-changing amount of money for most people,? he wrote. “Many people would eagerly volunteer to spend 40 days in jail on weekends to become that rich. They would earn almost $11,000 per night.?

— Justin Scheck

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