Seventh Circuit Vacates Cop’s Short Sentence, Again

CHICAGO (CN) – For a second time, the Seventh Circuit vacated a 14-month sentence for an Indiana police officer convicted of brutally beating two unresisting arrestees, questioning once more why he deserved such lenient treatment.

In September 2012, Officer Terry Joe Smith of the Putnam County, Indiana Sherriff’s Department set out in pursuit of Cletis Warren, a man with an outstanding arrest warrant.

When police caught up with Warren’s truck and boxed him in, Warren got out of the driver’s seat, climbed into the bed of his truck, and lay down on his back.

Several officers picked him up and handed him to officers on the ground.

They later testified that Warren was not resisting arrest when suddenly Smith punched Warren in the face, making a sound that two officers described as that of “a tomato hitting a concrete wall.”

Smith was overheard bragging, “I guarantee I broke that motherfucker’s nose.”

Several months later, Smith and another officer were dispatched to a call about a domestic dispute turned violent.

Smith handcuffed the man involved in the dispute, Jeffrey Land, and as he led him to the patrol car, drove his knee into Land’s back so hard Land defecated on himself.

He again bragged about his use of violence, telling the other officer that it was not the first time he had made someone defecate.

Both victims testified at Smith’s trial, as did Smith’s fellow officers, on charges of excessive force brought by the government.

Smith was convicted in a five-day jury trial, but U.S. District Judge William Lawrence sentenced him to only 14 months in prison – less than half the time recommended under sentencing guidelines.

On the government’s first appeal last year, the Seventh Circuit sent the case back for resentencing, requesting that Lawrence better explain his reasons for giving Smith such a light sentence.

In that 2016 opinion, Judge Richard Posner cited several other cases in which police officers had been sentenced for crimes similar to Smith’s, and were given sentences from 27 months to 188 months in prison.

“Were Smith’s crimes so slight a fraction of theirs?” Posner asked.

On remand, Lawrence again sentenced Smith to 14 months, but the same Seventh Circuit panel found his reasoning deficient on Monday.

“The record is devoid of any actual expression of acceptance of responsibility or remorse by Smith,” Judge Illana Rovner said in a withering 23-page opinion.

In his written statement to the court, Smith “never mentioned his victims or his crimes unless one generously infers that the ‘mistake’ to which he referred was senselessly beating arrestees who were already under control and posed no danger to him,” Rovner continued. “He did not concede the facts of his offenses of conviction and he did not express regret for anything other than the length of a possible new sentence. It is certainly admirable that he learned in prison that prisoners are human beings like himself, but that is a far cry from an expression of remorse for the harms he caused or acceptance of responsibility for his crimes.”

Smith has already served his 14-month sentence, and on remand Judge Lawrence cited the burden additional prison time would put on Smith’s children, as well as the fact that it would interrupt his anger management class.

But “these are thin rationales for a significantly below-guidelines sentence, especially because these factors would apply to most defendants,” Rovner wrote for a three-judge panel.

The Seventh Circuit again vacated Smith’s sentence and remanded for full resentencing.

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