Does a Tragic Case Merit a Fifteen Year Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentence?

In a decision that “should be written with tears,” Judge Jack Weinstein has scheduled a remarkable hearing for August 3 to explore how to handle a gut-wrenching case of a child-abuse survivor who apparently went on to use and produce child pornography himself. Last month, 26-year-old Darnell Washington pled guilty to charges of possession of child pornography and sexual exploitation of a child, and now faces a mandatory 15-year minimum prison sentence. At Darnell’s arrest more than two years prior, he admitted to possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography. At the plea allocution, however, Judge Weinstein adjourned the sentencing and raised two issues sua sponte: whether Darnell has the mental capacity to plead guilty and whether sentencing him to the mandatory minimum constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Darnell was raised by the state. At a young age, he exhibited symptoms of fetal exposure to illicit substances. He was apparently raped by multiple foster parents. His mental development was poor, resulting in a “truncated education.” Darnell viewed child pornography repeatedly as an adolescent. At 20 years old, he pled guilty to sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child, based on his admission that he gave three young boys wedgies and showed one of them child pornography. During his three year incarceration, he was raped by fellow inmates. After he was released, he was diagnosed with various mental disorders including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Keeping in mind Darnell’s background, the psychological evaluations, his courtroom demeanor, and the legal principles at issue, on June 25 Judge Weinstein ordered an evidentiary hearing to explore five issues: 1. why Darnell decided to plead guilty rather than go to trial on an insanity defense given that the mandatory minimum sentence for a conviction at trial is the same as for a guilty plea; 2. whether Darnell has the mental capacity to plead guilty and forfeit his right to trial; 3. whether sentencing Darnell under the statutory minimum sentence is a violation of the Eighth Amendment; 4. alternatives to the mandatory minimum sentence if there is an Eighth Amendment violation; and 5. the risks posed by Darnell if released back into society before or after mental health treatment. The hearing remains scheduled for August 3, at which point Judge Weinstein will also consider Darnell’s July 6 letter to the Court, submitted under seal, requesting to be sentenced forthwith.

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