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Op-ed: This injustice would make Kafka blush

Published April 18, 2014 5:57 pm

The New York Times
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No one disputes this fact: Ceasar Huerta Cantu was wrongly sentenced to 3 ½ extra years in federal prison because of a typo on a court document. Not his lawyer, not the prosecutor, not the judge. And yet it still took President Barack Obama's intervention to fix the error — six years after Cantu himself discovered it.

On Tuesday, Obama used his clemency power — which he has exercised more rarely than any other president in modern history — to reduce Cantu's sentence to 11 ½ years, as it should have been without the error. Cantu will be eligible for release in May 2015.

This is a scenario that would make Kafka blush.

In 2006 Cantu pleaded guilty to money laundering and drug trafficking charges and was sentenced to 17 ½ years in prison, later reduced to 15 years after he helped the government in an unrelated case. But his presentence report miscalculated his sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines. Six years later in 2012, when Cantu's family sent him a copy of the report (which under federal prison policy he was not allowed to possess), he found the mistake and promptly brought it to the attention of U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser, who had sentenced him.

The Justice Department asked Kiser to dismiss Cantu's claim because it was filed after the one-year statute of limitations for challenging the validity of a sentence, and Kiser agreed in March 2013. Cantu then petitioned the White House for clemency. Now the department says the sentencing error was so "clearly unjust" that Cantu's petition was processed with "unusual speed."

The department should not have fought Cantu's request to have his sentence corrected in the first place, even if it could rely on the statute-of-limitations argument. Obama, normally stingy with his expansive clemency power, was right to remedy this absurdity.