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United States v. Cheape

as amended.: November 14, 1989.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Crim. No. 88-143.

Becker, Cowen and Seitz, Circuit Judges.

Author: Becker


BECKER, Circuit Judge.

Section 5K2.12 of the Sentencing Guidelines provides that the sentencing court may depart below the applicable guideline range if the defendant committed the offense because of serious coercion or duress, under circumstances not amounting to a complete defense. In this case, defendant Karen Klinefelter was convicted by a jury in the district court for the Western District of Pennsylvania of bank robbery, see 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a), and bank robbery by use of a dangerous weapon, see id. § 2113(d), despite her defense that she participated in the offense because of coercion and duress imposed by her codefendants, Johnny Wade Johnson and James Cheape.*fn1 At sentencing, the district court expressed its belief that a sentence within the guideline range was unjust under the circumstances. However, the court declined to depart below the range on the ground that to do so would be inconsistent with the jury verdict. Klinefelter appeals from that determination. Concluding that the district court misapprehended its authority, we vacate and remand for resentencing.*fn2


The bank robbery took place in a rural area of central Pennsylvania. It was planned and executed by Cheape and Johnson. However, Klinefelter's car was used, and she was in the back seat of the car during the robbery, in a parking lot out of sight of the bank. Klinefelter introduced evidence at trial that Cheape had put a gun to her head at one point, and that she was unduly influenced by Johnson, with whom she apparently had a relationship for three years. The district court charged on the issues of coercion and duress. Because the jury found Klinefelter guilty, it obviously concluded that the government had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Klinefelter's actions were wilful, and not the product of coercion or duress (as defined in the jury charge).*fn3

At sentencing, the district court calculated the guideline range at 27 to 33 months,*fn4 and sentenced Klinefelter to a term of 27 months. Klinefelter argued that the mitigating circumstances of coercion and duress justified a downward departure from the Sentencing Guidelines, notwithstanding the jury verdict. The district court obviously wished to depart from the guidelines, but believed that it was precluded from doing so. The district court's beliefs are clear from at least three documents. First, the transcript of the sentencing hearing contains the following observations:

I feel the Court has no choice. Personally I believe Ms. Klinefelter was taken advantage of by her co-defendants, although I must disagree with the position that she was coerced or forced into this situation. She was in the backseat of the car in a parking lot down the road from the bank and not even in sight of the bank during the robbery. She was properly convicted however. There is no question about that.

Except for this instance she has led an exemplary life so far as anyone can tell. I have no doubt at all if it were within my power to place her on probation, she would never be in difficulty again and would be a better citizen because of this experience. This case cries out for justice to be tempered with mercy.

While I am generally sympathetic with the efforts of Congress and the Sentencing Commission to achieve some sort of uniformity in sentencing, I believe the Court should not have its hands completely tied in a situation like this. I realize that strict stance [sic] on law-and-order issues are universally popular these days. I hope either the Congress or the Sentencing Commission or both will consider giving judges a bit more leeway in cases such as that of Karen Klinefelter.

App. at 95-96.

Second, appended to the district court's statement of reasons for imposing sentence is a personal letter echoing the sentiments expressed above.

Finally, the court's April 11 memorandum mentions not only the court's desire to depart in Ms. Klinefelter's case, but also the reasons why it felt precluded from doing so.*fn5 ...

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