William Trudeau recently marked his 57th birthday in prison at the federal minimum security camp adjacent to FCI Devens in Massachusetts. He had hoped to be back home with his wife and four children as a result of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ efforts to release some inmates to home confinement to serve the remainder of their sentences. However, that opportunity has alluded him.
Trudeau, who has been in prison for over eight years and has almost 5 years remaining on his 188 month sentence, sees compassionate release (or home confinement) as a way to right the wrong of his inordinately long prison term. His case brings to light a disturbing flaw in our criminal justice system.
Trudeau was indicted in Connecticut on charges that he was the kingpin in a mortgage scheme. He was a builder and developer of high-end homes in southwestern Connecticut when a number of loans funding his projects started to become delinquent. Prosecutors stated that Trudeau’s actions were more than just a small business that came on tough times, they said it was fraud.
The indictment contained 9 criminal counts …. Count 1 was for the conspiracy of aiding and abetting a fraud with five others members named in the scheme … Counts 2 through 8 were for the mortgage scheme acts …. and Count 9, a wire fraud, was for a $50,000 loan Trudeau received from a family friend under false pretenses. A jury acquitted him of the mortgage fraud charges, the most severe, but charged him for conspiracy and lying on conditions associated with the personal loan in the amount of $50,000 … a loan Trudeau repaid. Despite that sole criminal conviction, U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall not only imposed the long prison term but also mandated restitution of $4.2 million, an amount associated with the acquitted conduct.
Trudeau’s case is unique because the judge was allowed to consider “acquitted conduct,” charges for which Trudeau was acquitted. While such a sentence might seem unconstitutional, it is the way the law works. The Appeal, an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative, a person’s sentence can be increased at sentencing by a judge’s determination that the defendant more likely than not committed additional criminal conduct, even if a jury already found the person not guilty of that very conduct. In May, Trudeau asked for compassionate release from prison but in part because of the risks of COVID-19, he’s older and not in good health, and to allow the judge to reconsider the harsh sentence. Judge Hall denied his request and now Trudeau filed a motion for her to reconsider her ruling.
According to Trudeau’s motion, prior to trial he offered to plead guilty to the very charge for which he was ultimately found guilty. However, what the government wanted was a plea that would send him to prison for a range of charges and a sentenced of 11 years in prison. Trudeau states that he would already be home now if he had taken that deal.
While Trudeau’s case seems like an anomaly that could be corrected, it has not been that simple. Last July, a case was appealed to the Supreme Court (Vincent Asaro v U.S.) where Asara went to trial in 2015 for charges related to his alleged participation in a 1978 robbery and a 1969 murder. The jury acquitted him of all charges. Two years later, Asara pleaded guilty to a separate offense that should have put him in prison for 33-41 months (Federal Sentencing Guidelines) but the same judge who had presided over the earlier trial sentenced him to 96 months. In February 2020, the Supreme Court denied the petition.
There are few ways to get back in front of a judge to reconsider a sentence but COVID-19 and the onslaught of compassionate release cases offer that opportunity. While many people would be appalled that a person can be sentenced to prison for crimes for which they were acquitted, it is a terrible flaw, among others, in our criminal justice system. A judge could look at Trudeau’s case and cite COVID-19 relief, but have the effect of righting a sentence that was far too long.
As Trudeau wrote in his pending motion, he “does not want any further trouble with the law, he simply wants to go home to spend his time with his family, his children and his dying mother, and to be a productive parent, a law abiding citizen and an asset to the community. Everyone deserves another chance.”
He is done with appeals and recent Supreme Court cases have yet to specifically address the issue of acquitted conduct. Letting Trudeau serve the remainder of his sentence at home would not reduce his sentence but it would certainly be a more humane punishment … and it would shine a light on the issue.