In 2011, I got a phone call from a man whose son had been convicted of a Violent Felony in Wayne County, New York. The judge sentenced him to a lengthy prison sentence, something he thought was unfair. His son was just 18 when he committed the crime, he had struggled with addiction and lost his way, but deep inside he knew his son was a good kid. His father asked me to take a look at the case, to see if there was anything that could be done. After reviewing the case, we told him that there may be grounds to appeal his son’s sentence, but the odds were against it and the process was lengthy. The issue we saw was that the Court had not placed its basis for denying the defendant youthful offender status on the record. If he had received youthful offender status, the sentence parameters would have been far more lenient. We laid out the possible routes to be taken and the costs of each step and asked him to think about it. I cautioned him that even if we prevailed on appeal his son would still return to court to be sentenced by the same judge, and I knew it was unlikely we would convince him he had made a mistake. Even the most conscientious judges hesitate to modify a sentence previously imposed.
The next day he called to let us know that he wanted to proceed with an appeal. I worked with a Law Clerk in my Buffalo Office to prepare an appeal before the Fourth Department in Rochester, New York. The issue we presented had been dealt with by a number of Appellate Courts, but there was no definitive authority on the issue. While we waited for the Prosecutor to file a response and the Court to schedule a hearing, the Court of Appeals issued a decision in case that was nearly identical to ours. That made the argument before the Fourth Department easy, but it meant we would have to head back to court, before that same judge.
We prepared a pre-sentence memorandum and provided the Court with reference letters. We also examined our client’s records while in custody, and discovered that he had used his time in prison to take classes, obtain treatment, and work on the skills he would need when he was released. A number of instructors and counselors that interacted with the client provided glowing letters that detailed our client’s earnest effort to become a better man. He was an 18 year old boy at the time of the offense, but since then he had clearly taken steps to be a man.
Prior to sentencing we met with our client, and it was clear that the boy that had been sentenced the first time was gone. The man that would be sentenced this time around accepted responsibility for his actions, he understood that no one else was to blame for his crimes, and provided insight on the steps he had taken to make sure that he never found himself in prison again. My talk with him at the Wayne County Jail before sentence was brief, but I had never been so convinced that a client deserved a second chance.
Two days before Thanksgiving, we appeared in Court and pleaded for youthful offender status and more lenient sentence. The nature of the crime was serious, we argued, and at the time the client was sentence in 2011, he likely deserved the sentence imposed. But the technicality that brought us back to his court for re sentencing provided a unique opportunity. It allowed the Court to see the impact of the sentence it had imposed, and the honest efforts the client took to be more than the boy he was.
Two days before Thanksgiving, our client was released from prison, with a new sentence of probation. He will spend the holidays with his family, together for the first time in nearly 30 months. Our client earned a second chance by using his time in prison to better himself and his father never doubted he would.
It was truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my career as an Attorney. While I’d love to claim he couldn’t have done it without me, it’s clear that’s not true.