Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Earl Silbert told a packed room Monday night that federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are “a threat to our crown jewel of trial by jury.”
About 100 people jammed into the ceremonial courtroom at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to hear Silbert speak during the third annual Thomas A. Flannery Lecture. Silbert's speech compared the Washington's U.S. Attorney's office of today to the office during his tenure, which ended more than 30 years ago.
Silbert, of Watergate fame, contrasted the time when he first started as the U.S. Attorney in 1974, when prosecutors were not part of the sentencing phase of a trial, to today, where they’re an integral part of the process.
He called the minimum sentencing guidelines “beyond draconian.”
“Faced with the minimum sentence, I fear that a number of defendants may have pleaded guilty in order to take advantage of a generous offer by prosecutors,” Silbert said. “The irony is that the new guidelines have created a new disparity.”
Silbert said too many defendants are unwilling to take the risk of a trial for fear of the imposed minimum sentence. This, he argued, penalizes defendants for exercising their right to a trial and for holding the government accountable to present proof of guilt.
“I think he articulated what a great many defense attorneys and courts feel,” said Roger Zuckerman, chair of the lecture committee and a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder. “We got too far away from what was a pretty reasonable balance of tension.”
The district’s current U.S. Attorney, Ronald Machen Jr., provided opening remarks along with Chief Judge Royce Lamberth. Lamberth and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were the Flannery Lecture keynote speakers in 2009 and 2010, respectively.