Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"Excessive"? Not

In commuting the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, President Bush said that the former vice presidential aide had suffered enough and that the 30-month prison term ordered up by a federal judge was "excessive."

But records show that the Justice Department under the Bush administration frequently has sought sentences that are as long, or longer, in cases similar to Libby's. Three-fourths of the 198 defendants sentenced in federal court last year for obstruction of justice — one of four crimes Libby was found guilty of in March — got some prison time. According to federal data, the average sentence defendants received for that charge alone was 70 months.

Just last week, the Supreme Court upheld a 33-month prison sentence for a decorated Army veteran who was convicted of lying to a federal agent about buying a machine gun. The veteran had a record of public service — fighting in Vietnam and the Gulf War — and no criminal record. But Justice Department lawyers argued his prison term should stand because it fit within the federal sentencing guidelines.

That Bush chose to make an exception for a political ally is galling to many career Justice Department prosecutors and other legal experts. Federal prosecutors said Tuesday the action would make it harder for them to persuade judges to deliver appropriate sentences.

The critics included some Republicans who said Bush's decision did not square with an administration that had been ardently pro law-and-order. "It denigrates the significance of perjury prosecutions," John S. Martin Jr., a former U.S. attorney and federal judge in New York, said of the commutation.

On Tuesday, Bush, speaking to reporters after visiting with wounded military personnel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, refused to rule out the possibility that he might later grant Libby a full pardon. That would wipe out the felony conviction and allow Libby to retain his law license.

"As to the future, I rule nothing in or nothing out," Bush said — his first public comments on the case since announcing the commutation late Monday.

Sentencing experts said Bush's action appeared to be without recent precedent. They could not recall another case in which someone sentenced to prison had received a presidential commutation without having served any part of that sentence. Presidents have customarily commuted sentences only when someone has served substantial time.

"We can't find any cases, certainly in the last half century, where the president commuted a sentence before it had even started to be served," said Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardon attorney at the Justice Department. "This is really, really unusual."

<< Home