July 13, 2020

Appeals court reduces sentence> Judge erred in case of Skowhegan man

BANGOR — A Skowhegan man got his prison sentence reduced by 34 months this week in federal court after a higher court determined a judge erred when he considered one of the felon’s crimes violent in sentencing him a year ago.

Ira Damon III, 40, was sentenced to 50 months in prison Tuesday after he pleaded guilty 18 months ago to being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. In December 1996, he had been sentenced to seven years in prison for the offense, but the sentence was struck down by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 6.

In reducing Damon’s sentence, U.S. District Judge Morton Brody abided by the decision by three 1st Circuit judges in Boston.

Damon, through his attorney, Jeff Silverstein, who works in Brewer, had appealed six issues regarding his sentence determination to the higher court.

Judges at the appeals court dismissed five of the issues, but agreed with Damon and his attorney that his sentence had been improperly calculated using federal guidelines. When a convicted person has a crime on his record that is determined to be violent, it usually results in a heavier-than-usual sentence for the current crime under consideration.

In Damon’s case, the judge apparently determined his aggravated-mischief conviction in 1996 was violent because it involved a fire that destroyed Damon’s house. Although no people were inside the house when the blaze broke out, court officials argued the flames threatened the safety of firefighters called in to battle the fire.

After hearing arguments in August, the three-judge appeals panel concluded that Brody “sensibly concluded” that the defandant’s conduct was the “equivalent of arson,” but ordered Brody to look at the conviction only. Since aggravated mischief is not considered a crime of violence under federal law, the judges vacated the sentence and the violent-crime enhancement and ordered a resentencing.

Damon was stopped in early 1996 by Newport police and was found to be carrying several weapons and rounds of ammunition in his car. Eventually he was charged with knowlingly carrying only one of the weapons, a .45-caliber pistol, after his wife testified that she had hidden three shotguns in the cars’ trunk to get them out of her house.

When police checked Damon’s record, they found he had been convicted of 22 crimes ranging from theft to criminal mischief.

During the initial sentencing hearing, Brody told Damon’s former attorney, J. Hillary Billings, that he found objections related to Damon’s criminal history category — a number important to the federal sentencing process — “not only to be without merit but stretching the bounds of credulity as far as the guidelines are concerned.” The attorney initially claimed Damon was a gun collector who used guns only for sport hunting or for gifts for family members.

The issue apparently caused a division at the appeals court. One judge declared he was bound by 1st Circuit law to uphold the resentencing, but feared that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” message was being conveyed by the decision.

“I do not dissent from our requiring sentencing judges to ignore the reality of the prior offense in determining whether the offense is a crime of violence,’ said James C. Hill, a visiting judge serving on the appeals panel.

“We import instructions `Don’t ask. Don’t tell,”‘ to sentencing judges, Hill said.

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