Mimesis Law
23 October 2021

Crafting Dennis Hastert’s Sentence

Apr. 29, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The New York Times reports that Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has been sentenced:

Dennis Hastert, once among this nation’s most powerful politicians, was sentenced to 15 months in prison on Wednesday for illegally structuring bank transactions in an effort to cover up his sexual abuse of young members of a wrestling team he coached decades ago.

Mr. Hastert, 74, who made an unlikely rise from beloved small-town wrestling coach in Illinois to speaker of the House in Washington, sat in a wheelchair in a federal courtroom here as a judge announced his fate.

Here at Fault Lines, Noel Erinjeri  has already discussed some of the issues likely to come up in sentencing the disgraced politician. He wasn’t convicted of sexual abuse, after all, but rather a crime related to covering up the abuse. And as the New York Times also explains, he also has his share of health issues:

Mr. Hastert has suffered a series of ailments in recent months including a stroke, a blood stream infection and a spinal infection. “There are no guarantees that the defendant won’t get sicker in prison,” the judge said. “There are no guarantees that he won’t get sicker at home.”

Hastert’s lawyers probably had a fairly easy time preparing mitigation. He’s no spring chicken, and his health is bad. Hastert has also lived an impressive life. He certainly possesses some redeeming qualities, and he has important people willing to stand up for him. It wasn’t like his lawyers had to go to great lengths to find someone with something half decent to say about the guy.

But then again, while the offense of conviction might not be the worst thing ever, the crime he was trying to hide was pretty darn ugly. That was obviously a major factor for the judge:

“The defendant is a serial child molester,” said Judge Thomas M. Durkin of Federal District Court in a tough rebuke of the former speaker before issuing his sentence. The judge added, “Nothing is more stunning than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.”

Judge Durkin pointed out the vulnerability of Mr. Hastert’s young victims, and said they had been damaged for years. “If there’s a public shaming of the defendant because of the conduct he’s engaged in, so be it,” he said.

The argument that Hastert was convicted of illegally structuring transactions and not child abuse may influence some judges, but Judge Durkin clearly based his sentencing decision not just on the offense at hand, but also on the offense Hastert was trying to hide. He could, and he did. Furthermore, the argument that Hastert will be publicly shamed as well is an appealing one, though Judge Durkin made it quite clear he felt Hastert brought that on himself.

Hastert’s health issues are similarly solid mitigation, but it seems they had more influence how he’s to serve the sentence rather than the sentence itself:

He said he would recommend that Mr. Hastert be sent to a prison hospital. “This is not meant to be a death sentence,” he said.

Like most mitigation, those things are all understandable and worth presenting. A lawyer might even be ineffective for failing to raise them. On the other hand, Hastert seems to have presented some mitigation that might not have been such a good idea:

A long list of supporters — from Mr. Hastert’s wife Jean to Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader — sent letters of support for Mr. Hastert to Judge Durkin, who is the brother of a Republican state lawmaker in Illinois. “He doesn’t deserve what he is going through,” Mr. DeLay wrote.

Coming from a defense witness or letter-writer at any normal sentencing involving allegations of sexual abuse of children, DeLay’s comment would immediately trigger something akin to that awkward DJ-scratching-a-record sound effect. To say that Hastert, who by all accounts molested vulnerable kids who trusted and looked up to him and then later shelled out money withdrawn in a manner that violated federal law to buy their silence, does not deserve to suffer a criminal prosecution is ridiculous. He’s already avoided a more serious sex crime prosecution, and he isn’t looking at that much time, really.

DeLay is exhibiting what most people submitting sentencing letters exhibit. DeLay knows and likes Hastert, and people hate seeing bad consequences for people they know and like. DeLay probably thinks child molesters who aren’t his friend and the former Speaker of the House should go to prison for a very long time.

Arguing what someone deserves requires not just a perspective with some credibility, but also some detachment, something friends and family rarely have. In any other situation, it comes off like DeLay’s statement hopefully came off to the judge; Hastert is someone who matters to DeLay, and people who matter shouldn’t have to go through unpleasantness even if they caused horrible harm to people who don’t matter so much. DeLay’s letter is only helpful to the extent it shows DeLay’s fondness for Hastert. Personal relationship aside, if Hastert doesn’t deserve fifteen months for illegally structuring bank transactions, who does?

The prosecutor also had some problematic arguments for mitigation:

Prosecutors have argued that a sentence for Mr. Hastert must balance Mr. Hastert’s years of public service with a need to “avoid a public perception that the powerful are treated differently than ordinary citizens when facing sentencing for a serious crime.”

Though it may not be the most obviously flawed reason for leniency, touting Hastert political career for mitigation is a double-edged sword. First, consider that some of Hastert’s mitigation is his rags-to-riches story. As the article explains, he was a “kid from the cornfields” who grew up delivering feed for the family business. He didn’t go to Harvard or Yale, but to a small Christian school and then a public university. He then became a teacher and coach before skyrocketing to the top politically due in large part to his small town persona.

Then, consider the payout to his victim: three and a half million dollars from a former rural school teacher, coach, and “public servant” turned lobbyist. Hastert certainly wouldn’t have had that sort of cash had he never spent all of that time serving the public.

Although it may be an appealing argument to some and in particular seem like a pretty good thing to say for a public servant Assistant United States Attorney with a decent, steady salary, a good bit of power, and lots of potential for upward career mobility, public service that results in the servant having liquid millions to shell out shouldn’t really be that mitigating at all. The public service of a man who used it to make millions seems like an aggravating factor, not a mitigating one.

In the end, Hastert’s sentence isn’t anything remarkable. That’s a good thing. It would’ve been nice if the judge had specifically dismissed DeLay’s comment and the public servant argument the way he dismissed arguments about Hastert’s health and the potential shaming he might receive, but mitigation is more gray than black and white. There are reasons to hate Hastert and reasons to show lenience. Judge Durkin chose what mattered to him and sentenced accordingly, which is about all we can really ask.

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  • Chris
    29 April 2016 at 11:13 am - Reply

    I’ve never heard of a better case to throw the book at someone. Even if it is one of those non-crime Federal Crimes.