Bank Robber Asks 11th Circuit for Lighter Sentence

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) — Attorneys for an Alabama man sentenced to 37 years in prison for a bank robbery asked an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to reduce his punishment in light of the criminal-justice reform law passed by Congress last month.

On the afternoon of Jan. 25, 2007, Roderick “Bullet” Pearson robbed a Compass Bank in Birmingham at gunpoint, stealing over $12,000. He was apprehended by police later that day.

Four months later, Pearson pleaded guilty to armed bank robbery, brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was later convicted by a jury and sentenced to 47 years in prison.

But a federal judge vacated Pearson’s sentence in 2017, finding that it was enhanced beyond the statutory maximum under a repeat violent offender guideline that was found not to apply to him. He was resentenced to 37 years.

With the passage of the First Step Act in December, Pearson’s attorneys now argue that his new sentence should be overturned.

The new criminal-justice reform law reduces mandatory minimum sentences, gives judges discretion to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum for qualified offenders, and restricts the practice of “stacking” gun sentences on top of drug or violent crime sentences.

“Pearson’s sentence is unreasonable and unjust, especially under the First Step Act which was passed three weeks after resentencing,” attorney Alexander Vlisides argued in front of a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit on Tuesday morning.

“The sentence was unreasonable when [it was] imposed, but the court should consider it especially under the passage of this act,” he continued. “If Pearson was sentenced today, he would get 14 years.”

Although Vlisides acknowledged that the new law does not apply retroactively to criminal sentences, he argued that Pearson’s sentence “exceeds a reasonable range” and encouraged the panel to “look at other factors such as the rehabilitative steps” his client has taken to determine the “substantive reasonableness” of the sentence.

Vlisides argued that although U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor “took the procedural steps required” in vacating the original sentence, he abused his discretion by imposing “an unreasonable sentence.”

But attorneys representing the government argued that Pearson’s 37-year sentence is reasonable and should be upheld.

“You have to determine whether the sentence is reasonable without considering the First Step Act because it’s not retroactive,” attorney Michael Billingsley told the panel.

He added, “Congress knew how to make it retroactive, but it did not do that. The statutory change was not in effect at the time of the resentencing so we can’t take that into account to overturn the district court.”

The panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Kevin Newsom and Gerald Tjoflat and Senior U.S. District Judge John Antoon II, sitting by designation. The judges did not indicate when they might reach a decision in the case.

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