Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Criminal defense lawyers in federal courts in this nation on an average plead 35 defendants guilty for every one they take to trial. Accordingly, many criminal defense lawyers are not much more "trial lawyers" than the many big firm "litigators" who have never selected a jury or cross-examined a trial witness. However, one area in which federal defense lawyers have plenty of experience is crafting the expressions of remorse made at sentencing by virtually every criminal defendant (save those who were convicted after trial and intend to appeal and do not wish to make any sort of admission because it might later be used against them). The expression of remorse, a near uniform ritual in every federal sentencing proceeding, is made in order to ensure that the court grant a reduction in the Sentencing Guidelines level of two or three levels for "acceptance of responsibility" (USSG Sec. 3E1.1) and to demonstrate that the defendant is truly sorry and contrite for having committed criminal acts, a factor many judges consider in the sentencing determination.
To be sure, the incantation of remorse is often less than fully sincere, and the defendant is actually only sorry that he was caught and is now facing punishment. An astute defense lawyer will counsel her client that the expression of remorse should reflect his realization of and sorrow for the wrong he has done and harm he has caused to his victims and to society in general, and not only to his family and friends, and not to excuse or justify his acts, or minimize the damage. She will counsel her client not to use weak words like "regret" or stiff ones like "remorseful." Thus, it is difficult for a judge to distinguish the absolutely genuine shame and sorrow some defendants feel from the false impression of remorse others present.
Some judges do suspect or realize that the expression of remorse is not genuinely sincere, but feel that the mere expression of remorse is itself a step forward. Others, while perhaps doubtful of the defendant's sincerity, accept the expression of remorse without comment or much consideration. Some judges accept the apology at face value and credit it. Some few listen carefully and skeptically, and, if they detect a false note, sometimes comment on the defendant's lack of genuine remorse to justify, in part, a severe sentence (which they had probably decided beforehand to impose in any case). I have not heard of a judge who denied an acceptance of responsibility reduction solely because of the defendant's presumed insincerity. (I wonder whether such a determination would be upheld on appeal; I suspect, depending on the facts, that it might.)
Last week, two notable men, presidential candidate Donald Trump and Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte (neither of course criminal defendants) made widely-publicized "apologies" of sorts. Both "apologies" would trouble a judge considering whether to credit the speakers for "acceptance of responsibility" or genuine remorse.
Mr. Trump. who in the course of his campaign has insulted the parents of a heroic soldier who died in action, a woman Fox television commentator, a federal judge of Mexican ancestry, a U.S. Senator who was a prisoner of war for five years, a disabled reporter, and, generically, Mexicans and Muslims, chose to use the word "regret" rather than "sorry" or "apologize." And his "regret" was for an inadvertent slip of the tongue, rather than a deliberate slur, and without any specificity of what statements he regretted or whom he may have harmed and no direct admission that they did harm anyone. He said, "Sometimes in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words or say the right thing. I have done that, and, believe it or not, I regret it, I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain."
Mr. Lochte, in a television interview and at least one social media post, presented a fictitious account of robbers in police uniforms pulling over a taxi he and fellow swimmers were in and robbing them at gunpoint. This account received widespread publicity (perhaps to Mr. Lochte's surprise)and was a great international embarrassment for Brazil, a country which with its many troubles appeared to have demonstrated competence and provided adequate safety for the Olympics. In fact, as Mr. Lochte's swim team colleagues later admitted, they were drunk, urinated on a wall, and vandalized the gas station, and that the guns were drawn by security guards who demanded they pay compensation for the damage before they left. Faced with the contradictory statements by his colleagues, Mr. Lochte then said, "I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend - for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning." He went on to excuse himself even for that minor transgression by seemingly claiming he was victimized: "It's traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country - with a language barrier - and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave." While Mr. Lochte did use the word "apologize," his apology minimized his misbehavior by describing it as lack of carefulness and candor rather than lying, and omitted any mention of the intoxication, urination and vandalism.
Similar "apologies" by criminal defendants would both cause scrutiny and little impress federal sentencing judges. Mr. Trump's was limited by the use of the wishy-washy word "regret." Both Mr. Trump's and Mr. Lochte's played down their own seeming misbehavior. And, both contained defenses or excuses to justify or mitigate the limited degree of impropriety they admitted. Defense lawyers should keep copies of these "apologies" to show their clients how not to do it.
Were Mr. Trump or Mr. Lochte criminal defendants who had offered "apologies," a federal judge might have some difficulty finding, even if they had pleaded guilty, that they had "clearly demonstrate[d] acceptance of responsibility for the offense." USSG Sec. 3E1.1(a).