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7th Circuit berates Milwaukee federal judge over sentencing

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa (AP Photo/Courtesy of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin)

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa (AP Photo/Courtesy of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin)

A federal appeals court has taken Judge Rudolph Randa to task for comments made during a man’s sentencing hearing.

The decision stemmed from an appeal filed by Billy Robinson, who had pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from his participating in a drug ring that would buy heroin in Chicago and sell it in Milwaukee. Judge Randa of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Wisconsin accepted Robinson’s plea and, in April, sentenced him to 84 months in prison.

Robinson appealed, contending that Randa had made inappropriate comments that amounted to procedural errors. He also argued Randa had failed to consider various mitigating factors, such as that Robinson had taken part in the drug ring for only two months of its two-year existence.

In a decision handed down on July 22, a panel composed of three appeals-court judges agreed with Robinson’s first argument. The judges vacated Robinson’s sentence and remanded it back to the district court for re-sentencing.

The decision, written by Chief Judge Diane Wood, argued Randa had gone “far afield” in his comments during Robinson’s hearing and thus left the court of appeals “without the ability to say confidently” that Robinson was properly sentenced.

Federal statute requires sentences to be reached using criteria laid out in other statutes. Yet, according to the court of appeals, Randa’s statements related to Robinson’s sentencing were completely unrelated yet intertwined with the required statutory criteria, thus undermining the fairness of the proceeding.

“The sentencing hearing took a wrong turn by focusing on urban decay, social unrest, and the judge’s personal experiences in the relevant neighborhood,” according to the court’s decision. “As we have said before, ‘It is inappropriate to blame a (defendant) for issues of broad, local and national and international scope that only tangentially relate to his underlying conduct.’”

Before imposing the sentence, Randa, in the words of the appeals court, “engaged in several wide-ranging soliloquies” about urban decay and the connection between the 1967 Milwaukee Riots and protests in Baltimore, Md., related to the death of Freddie Gray, who died after he was handcuffed and placed in the back of police van. At one point, Randa commented that the “real problem” was that Robinson had children with more than one mother.

According to the court, Randa went too far by suggesting that Robinson’s crime was related to other events in the country and by correlating changing crime rates with Robinson’s crime, noting that Robinson was not charged with a violent crime and did not have a history of violent crime.

About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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