NEW YORK – Once annually, sometimes less, the full federal appeals court in New York meets to confront a perplexing legal question. Most recently, it was to decide whether shooting somebody point-blank in the face and stabbing somebody to death are violent acts.
The 14 judges of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan who heard arguments in U.S. v. Gerald Scott were left to decide how to label the 1998 killings that they agreed were “undoubtedly brutal."
Ultimately, the full court voted 9-to-5 this week to conclude that Scott’s crimes were indeed violent. But their votes came with a robust debate over a legal puzzle that has vexed multiple federal courts — even if, they agreed, the answer might seem like common sense.
A lower-court judge had decided that Scott’s convictions — on manslaughter charges — meant he had not been convicted of a violent crime. He was freed after serving just over 11 years of a 22-year sentence.
The decision did not shock judges who considered the appeal in November in a unique gathering known as an “en banc” meeting of the full 2nd Circuit.
That’s because two laws at stake — the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Career Offender Sentencing Guideline — do not define a violent crime by what the defendant actually did. Instead, the crime is defined by the minimum acts someone might have committed and still been convicted of the offense.
In Scott's case, the lower court judge concluded that manslaughter can be a crime of omission in which no force is used — if somebody fails to feed someone who dies of starvation or fails to tell someone that their food is poisoned, for example.
A three-judge 2nd Circuit panel later agreed, prompting federal prosecutors to seek the rare full-court proceeding to try to overturn the appeals finding.