U.S. v. Irey: Divided En Banc Eleventh Circuit Holds Criminal Child Pornography Sentence Substantively Unreasonable And Remands for Sentencing at Statutory Maximum

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, decided United States v. Irey. The 142-page majority opinion recounted gruesome sex crimes that Mr. Irey admitted to committing against as many as 50 Cambodian girls, some as young as four years old. The Court held that the 17½ year sentence ordered by the federal district court judge was a substantively unreasonable downward variance and remanded for sentencing within the Sentencing Guidelines range, which was 30 years at both the top and bottom. As one of the dissenting judges noted, “hard facts often lead to bad law” and we worry that this case will unduly limit district court judges’ discretion in imposing variances in future sentencing decisions.

The lengthy majority opinion began with an account of Mr. Irey’s criminal conduct and case. In short, Mr. Irey repeatedly traveled to Cambodia and China, where he bought underaged Cambodian girls to abuse in horrific ways that the Court said set Mr. Irey apart from “many examples of man’s inhumanity” that steadily flow through the Court of Appeals. During that abuse, he produced “some of the most graphic and disturbing child pornography that has ever turned up on the internet.” He later distributed those images, which have become widely known as “the Pink Wall series.” He was charged with and pleaded guilty to one count of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2251(c), which prohibits producing such images of child pornography elsewhere, then transporting them into the United States.

Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the adjusted offense level for Mr. Irey’s conduct would have led to an advisory sentence of life imprisonment. However, the statutory maximum for his crime as charged was 30 years. For that reason, the Guidelines range was 30 years.

At sentencing, the defense introduced the reports and testimony of two experts in the fields of psychology and psychiatry to address Mr. Irey’s diagnosis of pedophilia. The court also heard from Mr. Irey’s friends and family, who characterized him as a “hero.” The government did not introduce any experts or other witnesses. The sentencing judge focused on Mr. Irey’s diagnosis and otherwise good character in sentencing him to 17½ years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release.

The majority opinion extensively reviewed the history of sentencing law, concluding that it must apply an abuse of discretion standard to its review. The Court held (and the dissenting judges disagreed) that an appellate court may, in its review, itself weigh the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors to be used in imposing a sentence to determine whether the district court’s balancing of the factors was substantively unreasonable. Based on its own protracted analysis of the § 3553(a) factors, the Court held that the district court’s major variance from the Guidelines sentence was substantively unreasonable.

While the sickening facts in this case make a 17½ year sentence surprising, we worry that the law that the Eleventh Circuit had to make to substitute its reasoning for the district court judge will negatively impact sentencing decisions in this circuit. As Paul Kish commented to the Daily Report, “It is a message to district judges that there are boundaries beyond which you cannot go or you will incur the wrath of certain judges whose views differ from yours.” Judges will be less likely to stray from the Guidelines, despite their advisory status since U.S. v. Booker.

The full opinion in U.S. v. Irey is available here, along with concurring and dissenting opinions, totaling more than 250 pages.

The Daily Report article regarding this case is available here.