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No Break for Prison Guards Who Sanctioned Fights, Beat Inmates

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By William Peacock, Esq. on August 27, 2013 3:55 PM

They beat "youthful offenders" with broken broomstick handles. They allowed inmates to box one another, and beat them when they tried to quit or didn't use proper technique. Corrections Officers Butler, McQueen, and Griffin were all allegedly involved in the beatings, while a fourth C.O., Dawkins, sat by idly and watched.

The brutality can't be understated. At one point, after an inmate sucker punched his boxing opponent, McQueen beat the inmate with a broomstick before Griffin choked the inmate until he passed out. At least five inmates were beaten by the officers, yet even when reports were filed, they made no mention of violence involving the prisoners.

In the end, McQueen was convicted of conspiring to violate an inmate's civil rights and of obstructing justice for filing a false report. He faced a recommended sentence of 151 months. He was given twelve. Dawkins was convicted of only an obstruction charge, faced a recommended fifteen months in prison, yet was sentenced to only a single month.

Butler was found not guilty by a separate jury, while no verdict could be reached on the charges against Griffin. Instead of a retrial, Griffin pled guilty to a misdemeanor, leading to a sentence of one year.

The court, taking notice of the disparity in the sentencing recommendations between Griffin, McQueen, and Dawkins, used this as justification for the latter two officers' lenient sentences.

This, per the Eleventh Circuit's opinion, was a mistake. Though the court stopped short of saying that no variance was appropriate, they did state that a variance of 92 percent for McQueen and 93 percent for Dawkins was inappropriate:

We simply hold that downward variances of more than 90 percent where one corrections officer brutalized more than five young prisoners and then lied about it, and another intentionally sought to conceal these serious crimes are unreasonable.

In addressing the disparity between Griffin and the other two convicted officers, the court emphasized the difference in the cases' dispositions. McQueen and Dawkins were convicted of felony offenses, while Griffin pled guilty to a misdemeanor. While the District Court concluded that all three were similarly situated, and deserved similar sentences, "that conclusion is not at all clear to us," Judge Marcus stated.

Instead, the Circuit Court compared the sentences for McQueen and Dawkins with other corrections officers convicted of similar offenses to show that, while variances did occur (both upward and downward), variances are never this dramatic.

When evaluating the fairness of a sentence, a court is empowered to consider any of the plethora of factors found in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), but here, the leniency shown actually weighs against many of those factors (such as deterrence and respect for the law).

The dramatic departure from the guidelines, unusually lenient sentences, and conflicts with § 3553(a), in total, amounted to an abuse of discretion and require a remand for resentencing.

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