|Joshua A. Levine|
|Nihara K. Choudhri|
After 22 years, David Spicer walked out of a Colorado federal maximum security prison a free man on Aug. 10 after a Mississippi district judge reduced his term from six consecutive life sentences, plus 10 years, to the mandatory minimum of just 24 years and one day in prison after Spicer's legal team proved an error triggered the original sentences.
Joshua Levine, a partner at Simpson Thacher who worked on the case, told Law360 on Wednesday that Spicer was able to get released only one day after the ruling with good time credits.
"It was both thrilling and startling that after 20 years of incarceration, the wheels of justice could turn so quickly," Levine said. "And it was something we'll never forget."
Levine, along with Simpson Thacher pro bono attorney Nihara K. Choudhri and associate Conor Mercadante, argued the judge had committed a "grave sentencing error" by misapplying Mississippi's "three strikes law," which states that a person can be sentenced to life in prison after a third conviction for a violent crime.
Spicer was given two strikes and served 11 years in prison after being convicted of taking part in a series of armed purse snatchings over a three-week period in 1987. He struggled to find employment after his release in 1998 and less than two years later he was arrested again and charged in connection with three bank robberies that occurred in a one-month span. Spicer was given six consecutive life sentences for the robberies, plus 10 years for being a felon possessing a weapon.
"While defendant's criminal activity in the offenses of conviction herein was undoubtedly serious, the sentence he received is probably the harshest the undersigned has imposed in nearly four decades on the bench," U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee wrote in his opinion.
The Simpson Thacher team got involved in July 2021 after it was referred to by the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Mississippi, according to the firm. They moved for a sentence reduction under the compassionate release provisions of the First Step Act, contending that the quick succession of purse-snatchings in 1987 should have only counted for one strike and that the court erred by sentencing Spicer to six life sentences.
"The facts were extremely compelling," Levine told Law360. "David Spicer was given a mandatory life sentence due to a clear legal error and based on conduct that occurred when he was only 17."
The state agreed with the motion for compassionate release in part, agreeing the sentence was too long but arguing that the judge gave out those life sentences because he deemed it was fair at the time, and not because it was mandated by the three-strikes law.
"That is not the case," Judge Lee wrote. "The court imposed life sentences for the convictions because that is what the court mistakenly believed the law required."
Judge Lee wrote that he believes Spicer has shown "genuine remorse" for his crimes and that he's spent his time in prison wisely by earning a GED diploma, paying restitution and "positively impacted the lives of individuals with whom he has come in contact."
"Maintaining defendant's current sentence for defendant's offense conduct would not promote respect for the law," Judge Lee wrote. "Rather, it would tend to lead the public to view the criminal justice system as treating similarly situated defendants unfairly."
The Simpson Thacher team hopes that Spicer's compassionate release can be a blueprint for other inmates currently serving life in prison due to a sentencing mistake.
"There are definitely other individuals who were the victims of federal sentencing errors," Choudhri told Law360. "The court's decision in David Spicer's case may serve as useful precedent if such individuals move for compassionate release, as it supports the argument that a sentencing error may constitute an extraordinary and compelling reason for a sentence reduction."
The case is United States v. David Spicer, case number 3:00-cr-00141, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
--Editing by Alex Hubbard.