Patrick Lett returned to south Alabama when he finished an unblemished 17-year Army career, including two tours in Iraq. Then his father died, he couldn't find work to support his two daughters and his life took a wrong turn.
Lett pleaded guilty in federal court to cocaine possession for his involvement in a cousin's drug operation and was sentenced in 2006 to five years in prison.
U.S. District Judge William Steele didn't want to order Lett to serve time at all, but he thought the law required it. Steele noted at the sentencing Lett had led "an exemplary life up until the time of the offenses and even after," when Lett re-enlisted and served another 17 months before his indictment.
Lett, 39, probably would be in prison today if a friend hadn't helped Steele realize that he had misunderstood the sentencing requirements. Steele changed the prison term to three years of supervised release, and Lett was free to go, the judge's honest mistake apparently cleared up.
But that didn't satisfy prosecutors, who appealed the lighter sentence on the grounds that Steele didn't have the authority to change the initial five-year sentence. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying Steele couldn't undo his own error.
Supreme Court asked to hear case
The bizarre scenario may end with the former soldier reporting to prison unless the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to take on the case and decide whether a judge can go back and change a mistakenly issued sentence.
One of Lett's former Army pals, Matthew Sinor, was attending law school at Ohio State University after leaving the military and was on hand for the sentencing. Sinor thought the judge had another option and went to Douglas Berman, an expert in the field at OSU. Sinor then faxed the judge and prosecutors some legal documents suggesting the five-year sentence wasn't mandatory after all.
The fax was diplomatic, as Berman advised.
"Judges don't like to be accused of making a mistake," Berman said.
Steele acknowledged the error and changed the sentence to the 11 days already served, plus three years of supervised release.
The appeals court nixed the fix, leaving Lett to hope the Supreme Court will hear his case. If it doesn't, prosecutors will argue at a new sentencing set for Oct. 24 that he must be ordered to serve the full five years. Lett's lawyers may have some new arguments if the Supreme Court decides to pass.
A U.S. Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the appeal because it's pending before the Supreme Court.
In a response filed in July, acting Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre contended Lett should have to appeal the sentence after it's finally imposed rather than have it rectified right away. Prosecutors also argue, however, that Lett waived his right to appeal his sentence when he pleaded guilty.
Now working at shipyard
Lett works full-time doing fiber optics work at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. His two children, who live with Lett's mother, visit him on weekends. He supports his family as a single parent, according to his court-appointed lawyer, Douglas R. Cole of Columbus, Ohio.
Cole asked the Supreme Court to clarify whether a judge can correct a legally erroneous sentence if he admits misunderstanding the sentencing authority given by law.
"We believe that the system works better if such errors are fixed promptly and efficiently, without the need for wasting resources — the defendant's or the government's — on appeal," Cole said.