Obama Appellate Court Nominee Gave Lenient Sentences for Sex-Related Crimes

By Fred Lucas | June 14, 2010 | 8:56 PM EDT

U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny of Connecticut

(CNSNews.com) – Federal sentencing guidelines called for Matthew Dole, who pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in U.S. District Court in Connecticut in 2006, to serve from 33 to 41 months in prison. However, U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny sentenced him to one year and one day, followed by supervised release for 10 years.

“A traumatic brain injury substantially reduced the defendant’s ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his offense conduct,” said Chatigny, President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, to Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a questionnaire explaining his departure from the guidelines. (See questionnaire, page 27)

In another case, the guidelines stipulated 51 to 63 months (4.2 to 5.2 years) for Louis Graziani, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to a child pornography case in U.S. District Court in Connecticut (Case No. 07-CR-262.). Chatigny again departed from those guidelines, instead sentencing Graziani to 24 months (2 years) followed by supervised release for 10 years.

“The sentence was based on the defendant’s extraordinary post-arrest rehabilitation from drug addiction and alcoholism and family circumstances,” Chatigny wrote.

In all, Chatigny departed from the federal minimum sentencing guidelines in six of the 12 child pornography cases he presided over, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Based on available records, I believe the defendants had a reduced capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct or control their conduct,” Chatigny wrote in explaining his sentencing decisions.

Chatigny’s rulings in sex-related crime cases are a major point of contention against his nomination. The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, sent the confirmation vote to the full Senate, with every committee Republican opposing the nomination.

In a case involving sex tourism, which involves traveling across state lines to have sexual contact with someone underage, Chatigny also departed from the sentencing guidelines.

In his questionnaire, Chatigny cited four other sex-related crimes in which he applied the maximum sentence stipulated under the guidelines.

In one of Chatigny’s more well-known decisions, he struck down Connecticut’s Megan’s Law in the 2001 case of Doe v. Lee,  ordering state police to shut down Connecticut's sex offender registry.

His ruling was upheld by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, but reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chatigny told the Judiciary Committee in his written response that he ruled with the plaintiff, who argued that he was entitled to a hearing to prove he was not dangerous.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Megan’s Law is constitutional,” Chatigny wrote in his questionnaire.  “I have implemented and enforced Megan’s Law by sentencing criminal defendants to comply fully with Megan’s Law and have had no difficultly doing so. This is not inconsistent with my decision in Doe v. Lee.

“That case involved a challenge to an undifferentiated registry by an individual who claimed he was not dangerous,” Chatigny continued. “For reasons explained in my decision, I concluded that applicable precedents of the Supreme Court and Second Circuit entitled the plaintiff to a hearing to prove he was not dangerous. The Court of Appeals agreed. The Supreme Court disagreed. I have no difficulty accepting the Supreme Court’s decision.”

In response to a written question from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Chatigny gave the citation for each child pornography case he passed sentence on, compared to the federal sentencing guidelines in his questionnaire.

For example, Christopher House pleaded guilty to an offense of possession of child pornography (Case No. 09-CR-26.) with federal sentencing guidelines of 37 to 46 months. Chatigny sentenced him to one year and one day followed by supervised released for 10 years.

In explaining himself, Chatigny wrote: “The sentence was based on the following combination of factors: with one exception the images possessed by the defendant were of children in poses in contrast to pictures of children being sexually assaulted; the defendant, who was very remorseful, had been unusually cooperative with law enforcement; and, as a result of his offense conduct, the defendant had been discharged from the U.S. Navy, which was significant because he had planned on a military career.”

In some cases, Chatigny cited the “mental and emotional conditions” as reasons for reducing the sentences of those convicted in sex-related crimes.

However, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, for which Chatigny was nominated to serve, ruled that child porn defendants do not warrant downward departure for mental or emotional reason where the defendant “shows no evidence of psychosis,” “his sense of morality is significantly intact,” and “he appreciates both the societal and moral constraints of his behavior.” This resulted from the U.S. v. Barton case from 1996.

In response, Chatigny explained his decisions were consistent with the Second Circuit’s standards and that he considers “whether the defendant had a ‘significantly reduced mental capacity’ that ‘contributed’ substantially to the commission of the offense.”

“Based on available records, I believe the defendants had a reduced capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct or control their conduct,” Chatigny wrote.

In 2004, Stephen Festa pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Connecticut (Case No. 04-CR-233.) to a child pornography charge that had sentencing guidelines of 21 to 27 months. Chatigny instead sentenced Festa to 18 months and supervised release for three years.

In 1997, John Salmon pleaded guilty on U.S. District Court in Connecticut (Case No. 97-Cr-77.) to publishing notices online seeking to exchange child pornography. The sentencing guidelines for this crime were 15 to 21 months. Chatigny sentenced Salmon to nine months followed by supervised release for two years.

Chatigny said he considered “the impact of the case on the defendant” because “he had resigned from his position as a police officer, his wife had divorced him, and he had been hospitalized as a protection against suicide.”

The 1999 guilty plea of Paul Musacchio for a child pornography charge (Case No. 99-CR-120.) with 15- to 21-month sentencing guidelines received a sentence of probation, four months of home confinement and a $4,000 fine.

“A downward departure to a sentence of probation was recommended by the Probation Office based in part on the defendant’s diminished capacity resulting from his extraordinarily traumatic upbringing,” Chatigny wrote in explaining the Musacchio sentencing.

Cornyn asked, “Do you believe the sentencing guidelines are too harsh on child sex crimes?” Chatigny responded that his personal feelings have nothing to do with the sentencing.

“In my work as a district judge, I have faithfully applied the guidelines in accordance with Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent and will continue to do so,” he wrote in response to Cornyn’s question.

In 2007, Chatigny sentenced Jason Palmeira, convicted of sex tourism (Case No. 07-Cr-116.), to 36 months in prison, well below the federally recommended 57 to 71 months.

Palmeira pleaded guilty to taking a 15-year-old girl across state lines overnight to have sexual contact with her. Chatigny reduced the sentence because of the “nature and circumstances of the offense/history of the defendant.”

In explaining his sentencing decision, Chatigny wrote: “In this instance, I concluded that a below-guideline sentence was sufficient based in part on the following facts concerning the nature and circumstances of the offense: there was no sexual intercourse; the illicit sexual conduct took place in the course of one night without significant planning on the part of the defendant; the defendant did not misrepresent his age to the victim or groom her to engage in sexual activity; the defendant informed the victim in writing the next day that he deeply regretted his wrongdoing; and the defendant subsequently discouraged the victim from having any further sexual contact with him.”

He added, “The defendant appeared to be truly remorseful and his offense conduct represented a marked deviation from an otherwise law-abiding life, which included service as a youth counselor without incident.”

Chatigny further stated that, “Under 18 U.S.C. Section 3553, the history of the defendant must receive careful consideration in all cases.”

Chatigny sentenced two other sex tourism convicts in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, Dennis Calheim (Case No. 01-CR-77.) in 2001 to 34 months and Michael Albertson (Case No. 05-Cr-10.) in 2005 to 78 months. In both cases, the judge was within the federal sentencing guidelines. (See questionnaire, page 29.)