It’s been nearly a year since a federal judge ruled that Kepa Maumau should be released from prison four decades earlier than anyone expected.
But the Utah man — convicted more than a dozen years ago of armed robberies as part of a sweeping prosecution of the Tongan Crip Gang — has remained behind bars as federal prosecutors appealed the decision.
On Thursday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals again cleared his way for early release.
The judges affirmed U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell’s decision, and ruled she had the authority to reduce Maumau’s sentence under criminal justice reform signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Maumau faced a mandatory 55 year sentence for the three armed robberies. He’s been locked up for nearly 13 years, and he would have remained imprisoned until 2057 if Congress didn’t pass the First Step Act. That 2018 overhaul gave Campbell the flexibility she lacked in 2011 when she reluctantly sentenced Maumau the first time.
Last May, Campbell was much more lenient. She ordered him to time served.
In making her ruling, the judge said she considered that Maumau’s sentence was extraordinarily long compared to his co-defendants, that prosecutors had offered him a plea deal with only 10 years in prison ahead of his trial, and that Maumau was young when he committed the crimes.
Federal prosecutors appealed the ruling, and asked the 10th Circuit Court to weigh in.
They had argued that Maumau should never have been eligible for compassionate release, saying he’s not elderly or terminally ill or meets any of the traditional requirements. Campbell had ruled that she had the power to grant him compassionate release based on the First Step Act.
The appeals court ruled Thursday that Campbell was right.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah declined to comment Thursday, and Maumau’s defense attorney wasn’t available.
In 2010, Utah’s federal prosecutors used the RICO Act, which stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, in an attempt to decimate the Tongan Crip Gang. Maumau was one of 17 young men charged. Many of the men took plea deals, getting sentences of a decade or so in exchange for cooperating with the government. Maumau, too, had an offer to plead guilty.
He decided to go to trial, taking a risk most people don’t — 97% of federal criminal cases end in plea deals, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers reported in 2018. Many defendants choose a plea deal to avoid a substantially more severe penalty if convicted. And that’s what happened to Maumau.
He was convicted by a jury of racketeering conspiracy, robbery, assault with a dangerous weapon and multiple counts of using or carrying a firearm during a violent crime.
Maumau was one of 12 accused Tongan Crip Gang members who either pleaded guilty or was convicted — and was given one of the harshest sentences, 55 years.
The last person to go to trial for his alleged ties to the gang, Siale Angilau, was shot and killed by a federal marshal after Angilau grabbed a pen and a mechanical pencil and ran toward a witness who had started testifying about the gang.
Maumau’s second chance came years later, when in 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform co-written by Utah Sen. Mike Lee. It aimed to reduce the burgeoning federal prison population, lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, expand job training and boost early-release opportunities. It also allows defense attorneys to argue that lengthy sentences don’t match the crime.