A Tale of Two Judges: Sentencing Issues in the Michael Jackson and Joseph Lally Cases

In two courtrooms on separate coasts, judges are being asked to consider stepping in on decisions that are often left for the Legislature (via statute) or corrections officials to decide: the actual venue where punishment will be served. In a blistering statement yesterday in a Los Angeles courtroom, Superior Judge Michael Pastor sentenced Michael Jackson’s personal physician Dr. Conrad Murray to 4 yrs in state prison for his conviction on involuntary manslaughter for his role in the icon’s death only to learn that a recent change in California law designed to relieve prison over-crowding means Dr. Murray will not only serve less than two years of the four imposed, but will do the time in a county jail instead of state prison. As a result, the LA County District Attorney is considering asking Judge Pastor to modify Murray’s sentence to classify the crime on which he was convicted as a "serious felony" necessitating incarceration in state prison.

By contrast, in Boston, Chief (federal judge) Mark L. Wolf yesterday postponed the self-reporting date to federal prison for convicted cooperator Joseph P. Lally, Jr. upon learning that the US Bureau of Prisons had classified Lally to serve his 18 month sentence at FCI Brooklyn, a maximum security facility. In asking the Bureau of Prisons to re-consider placing Lally in FCI Brooklyn, Judge Wolf stated that "Lally’s reduced sentence [for cooperating against powerful former Speaker of the MA House of Representatives Salvatore F. Dimasi] was expressly intended to encourage other defendants to plead guilty and substantially assist the government in obtaining convictions of even more culpable defendants."

As a former Sheriff and former state and federal prosecutor, and now long-time state and federal criminal defense attorney, the questions raised about judicial boundaries are intriguing. In my opinion, Judge Wolf is correct in asking (he cannot require) the Bureau of Prisons to reconsider its classification based on his reasoning that "requiring that Lally serve his sentence under more onerous conditions than Dimasi [who is designated to serve his 8 yrs sentence at a medium security hospital in Kentucky]...would also injure public confidence in the fairness of the administration of justice." On the other hand, I do not think Judge Pastor in California would be correct if he ignored the legislative intent on where and how certain sentences are to served, just because he finds Murray "a disgrace to the medical profession."

Both questions are governed by fundamental fairness, a concept that does not waiver from state to state, coast to coast, or sovereign to sovereign. Judge Wolf understands this. Here’s to hoping/guessing Judge Pastor does too!