A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Wednesday set aside a nearly 3 1/2-year prison sentence for a man who sent a threatening letter to former President Bill Clinton.
A district judge failed to adequately consider the defendant's plea for a lighter sentence on grounds that he had an extraordinary history of childhood abuse and suffered from diminished mental capacity, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
The appeals court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins of San Francisco for an evidentiary hearing on the issues.
Armondo Walter, 36, pleaded guilty last year to sending the 1998 letter threatening to kill Clinton, his wife, Hillary, and their daughter, Chelsea. He signed the letter with the name of a former employer whom he believed had cheated him out of several hundred dollars.
Confronted by authorities, Walter said he had no intention of hurting the Clintons, but just wanted to get even with his former boss.
At his sentencing, Walter's federal public defender asked Jenkins to take into account her client's long history of childhood abuse, which, she said, had left him with a diminished mental capacity.
Defense lawyer Shawn Halbert argued that Walter's father was an alcoholic who regularly beat him, once sending him to the hospital with a broken nose. His mother once cut him with a knife, Halbert said, and encouraged him to use drugs and alcohol. And, Halbert said, a cousin sexually abused him, forcing him to also have sex with other boys, including Walter's own brother.
Ultimately, Walter became addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol and he spent most of the last decade in jail on various drug and related theft convictions, according to court records.
Under a 1992 federal appeals court decision, the psychological effects of childhood abuse can be considered by a sentencing judge only if the abuse is extraordinary.
Jenkins concluded that Walter's abuse as a child was not extraordinary. He noted that when Walter was 13, he was able to fend off his father during one beating and knocked him to the ground, indicating he was not helpless.
The appeals court disagreed. "The simple fact that when he was 13, Walter defended himself against his father's attack does not appear to us to be in conflict with Walter's alleged history of prior abuse," the panel said in a unanimous opinion.
It also found that the district judge erred in determining that Walter's crime constituted a "serious threat of violence." The judges said the evidence indicates that Walter had no intention of harming the Clintons.
The appellate court ordered Jenkins to conduct a hearing so Walter can present evidence of childhood abuse. After that, the appeals court said, the judge can reevaluate Walter's request for a departure from federal sentencing guidelines.
Walter's conviction was not contested. He has been in custody since his arrest.