Defendant in High Court Sentencing Case Killed, What Now?

The criminal law world has been awaiting the Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Claiborne and U.S. v. Rita, which address unresolved questions from the Booker case (argued in the Supreme Court by TalkLeft contributor TChris) which ruled the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory.

The issue in the Claiborne case is whether a sentence below the guideline range must be justified by extraordinary circumstances. Scotus Blog reports:

The case of Claiborne v. U.S. (docket 06-5618) was heard by the Court on Feb. 20, along with a second Guidelines case (Rita v. U.S., 06-5754). The cases were heard in tandem because they both test what sentence under the Guideline may be treated as "reasonable" when challenged on appeal. The Clairborne appeal asks whether a sentence below the Guideline range is presumed to be reasonable, while the Rita case asks whether a sentence within a Guideline range is presumed to be reasonable.

But today the Public Defender's office representing Claiborne confirmed he was shot to death in Saint Louis in recent days.

So what happens to his case?


Scotus Blog says:

Under Supreme Court Rule 35, when a party to a case has died, a personal representative may be named if the legal interests would survive the death. That would not be possible in a case involving a convicted and sentenced individual, who has the sole legal interest in the outcome. Thus, it would appear that the Claiborne case would simply be dismissed by the Court, leaving that aspect of the Guidelines reasonableness inquiry unsettled -- unless the coming decision in the Rita case goes beyond the single issue presented there.

Claiborne was given a 15-month prison sentence for a cocaine possession crime, and that was below the minimum Guideline range of 37 months. The Eighth Circuit Court ordered a new sentencing, finding that a below-range sentence was unreasonable. Claiborne had been released pending the new sentencing.

A commenter at Sentencing Law and Policy (first link above) says:

I don't think there's any doubt as to what happens. Claiborne's case is moot, and the petition is dismissed. It's a pity for the state of the law, because his was very obviously a test case the Justices could have chosen any case presenting the identical questions (and there are many). Now an opinion that was surely in the last stages of completion must be scuttled, and the whole process restarted with another defendant.
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    Yup. the case is moot. (none / 0) (#1)
    by scribe on Thu May 31, 2007 at 02:08:12 PM EST
    I've seen one or two state-law cases in which the appellate courts have gone ahead with deciding a criminal appeal after the defendant dies, but they had to work through all sorts of mootness-avoidance doctrines to get there.  You know, the one which says "capable of repetition yet evading review". Depending on whether I'm twitting the judge's nose or not, I might cite one of the leading cases for that principle - supporting review in the face of mootness.  That case?  Roe v. Wade.

    But, given the S.Ct. is notoriously strict in policing its docket through jurisdictional, standing and mootness dodges to deciding the actual case, I don't see them not mooting the case.

    Moot but not Forgotten (none / 0) (#2)
    by Peter G on Thu May 31, 2007 at 08:05:59 PM EST
    Under Supreme Court precedent the Claiborne case is moot.  No exceptions could or will apply.  However, there is no doubt that the Court wants to get the issue decided, and feels that it takes two cases to cover the territory.  (I believe, on the other hand, that they could say whatever they want to or need to in the Rita case alone.)  Assuming they don't change their minds, the Court could easily pick -- as early as tomorrow, Friday, when they have a conference anyway -- any of dozens of similar cases now pending, consolidate that case with Rita, dispense with further briefing and oral argument (they decide half a dozen or more cases a year on the cert papers alone; that would not be problematic), and decide the two cases right on schedule by the end of June.    
         The issue, after all, is what the Supreme Court is after, not the case per se.  The issue is fully briefed by the Federal Defenders on one side and the Solicitor General on the other, with excellent amicus briefs to supplement them (I co-authored one for Families Against Mandatory Minimums).  None of the briefs saw any major distinction to draw in the principles governing Rita's case as compared with Claiborne's.  

    shorter sentence (none / 0) (#3)
    by diogenes on Thu May 31, 2007 at 08:16:07 PM EST
    If he had gotten the longer sentence, he would have been in prison today and thus wouldn't have been involved in the repeat offense that led to his death.  Maybe this wasn't the best case to use to attack mandatory minimums.

    Is it the cruelty or dishonesty, I can't decide (none / 0) (#4)
    by Peter G on Thu May 31, 2007 at 11:20:27 PM EST
    ... Where to start?  How do you declare the deceased 23 year old former crack addict guilty of involvement in a new crime?  He drove to the gas station, according to the news story, with a male friend, a woman and a child.  The friend spotted a truck left running at the gas station while its owner went inside, jumped from Claiborne's car and drove off in the truck.  Couldn't have been planned.  Claiborne took off following his friend in the stolen truck.  Truck owner pulls a gun and shoots after them, striking Claiborne, who later dies in the hospital.  Police arrest the theft victim for this unjustified shooting.  Claiborne's family calls police and turns in the "friend" who stole the truck.  What makes you so sure, Dio, that Claiborne was culpably involved in any "repeat" crime?  And what makes you so cruel?