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U.S. District Court Grants Compassionate Release Based Entirely on Nearly Three-Decade-Old Sentencing Error, Reduces Life Sentence

The bombing happened in Roslindale, Massachusetts, after Alfred Trenkler and Thomas Shay planted a bomb in the car of Shay’s father to kill him and collect insurance money. But the father found the bomb and called the police. The bomb went off as the police were trying to disable it. Both Trenkler and Shay were charged with illegal receipt and use of explosives and attempted malicious destruction of property by means of explosives. The two were convicted at separate trials but sentenced quite differently: Trenkler to life without parole and Shay to just over 15 years. The injustice was further compounded by the fact that the sentencing judge did not have the legal authority to impose a life sentence on Trenkler (which has since been changed to allow such sentences in these types of cases).

Trenkler, unaware at the time of the illegal sentence, exhausted his appeals and postconviction remedies without success. Then, in 2007, he discovered the illegal sentence and notified the court. He was appointed counsel, and the district court granted relief by reducing his sentence to a term of years just below his life expectancy. But the Government appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reinstated Trenkler’s erroneous life sentence. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Government that the grant of relief was a second bite at the postconviction apple, which is barred by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (“AEDPA”) strict prohibition on second or successive 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motions.

When the First Step Act was signed into law in December 2018, it gave federal prisoners—for the first time—the right to file for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). Prior to this, only the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) could file for compassionate release, and it rarely ever did so. Trenkler then filed his own compassionate release motion after waiting the 30 days from request for the BOP to do so, as required by the First Step Act.

To obtain compassionate release, Trenkler had to show an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for the court to grant relief. While not expressly defined in the compassionate release statute, Congress did point to U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”) § 1B1.13, which provides some examples of extraordinary and compelling reasons due to medical or family conditions. It further provides a “catch-all” category of reasons. But USSG § 1B1.13 has not been updated since the First Step Act expanded compassionate release to prisoners and still erroneously says that only the BOP can file such a motion. As an initial matter, the Court agreed with at least seven circuits that have held USSG § 1B1.13 does not apply to prisoner-filed compassionate release motions but only to those filed by the BOP.

Trenkler attempted to establish extraordinary and compelling reasons with his well-documented heart problems. The Center for Disease Control has said that those with heart problems are high risk for death from COVID-19, and the Court acknowledged as much. But the Court did not rely on any of Trenkler’s medical conditions to grant relief, only his illegal sentence.

The Government argued that the district court was constrained by the First Circuit’s prior ruling that Trenkler’s illegal sentence was beyond challenge. It was too late, according to the Government. While courts applying the AEDPA have stressed “finality” as the goal in barring continuous attacks on a sentence, “little in life is actually final,” the Court said. Congress created the AEDPA to close the revolving door on challenges but then, “twenty-plus years later, Congress has directed through the First Step Act, that the district court should use its discretion to either grant compassionate release or reduce a sentence where the movant establishes extraordinary and compelling circumstances.”

The legislative history of § 3582(c)(1)(A) supports this view. In 1984, Congress abolished parole under the Sentencing Reform Act but created an avenue through § 3582(c)(1)(A) to give courts broad discretion in granting relief where “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist. That has not changed, only the method for invoking that relief has changed under the First Step Act. The Senate Committee cited some situations that constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons but also recognized “cases in which other extraordinary and compelling circumstances justify a reduction of an unusually long sentence.” Thus, even absent medical conditions, the court can reduce a sentence that’s simply wrong.

As for Trenkler’s sentence, he argued that (1) he was actually innocent of the offense, (2) the jailhouse informant lied to the jury and said he was not being rewarded for his cooperation at trial but the Government in fact filed a motion for reduced sentence after he testified, and (3) the judge lacked the legal authority to impose a life sentence. The Court agreed with Trenkler on the third point.

“There is a growing consensus among courts that there are few if any limitations on what may be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason warranting release, even those claims that have been rejected on direct appeal or collateral attack,” the Court observed. It cited numerous compassionate release cases that granted relief based on stacked sentences under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Since Trenkler’s sentence was illegal when it was imposed, the Court reasoned that his case was “on even firmer ground” than those cases.

The Court also recognized that federal sentencing law “has changed dramatically” since Trenkler’s sentencing decades ago. The Sentencing Guidelines, which caused the great disparity between Trenkler and Shay were mandatory at the time. Trenkler’s Guideline range was “life” while Shay’s was just 15 years, based on different facts. The original sentencing judge was bound by the Guidelines, but now the Court is not.

Prior to granting Trenkler relief, the Court was clear that his crime was serious. “It was a heinous crime that required forethought and planning,” and a “bomb of this nature had a very high potential to kill or injure,” the Court said. It also noted that the victims and their families opposed the sentence reduction. “I feel their pain.... Sentencing is the most difficult task that judges perform,” Judge William Smith wrote. “My duty is to look at the entire picture including the law as discussed herein, and including the impact on victims, and to the best of my ability, do justice.”

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Related legal case

United States v. Trenkler



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