After Jose Medina Jr. served 18 years in the Army, a federal judge in Baltimore wanted to honor his patriotism even after the war veteran committed a crime.
Medina, a federal civil employee from Aberdeen, was caught with child pornography on his work computer in 2004 and later pleaded guilty to a single charge of possessing 10 images. At his sentencing, the judge credited Medina substantially for his military service and imposed prison time well below recommended guidelines.
"I start with the understanding that vets should get a break," U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. said before sentencing Medina to one year plus a day behind bars.
Last week, an appeals court disagreed.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., sided with prosecutors in ruling that Quarles had been too lenient when the judge gave too much weight to one factor -- Medina's military record. The judge, the panel decided, violated the principle of a "reasonable" sentencing and ordered the case back for resentencing using the recommended guidelines of about 3 1/2 to less than five years in prison.
The case illustrates a still-simmering, two-year-old debate in the federal judiciary over how much discretion individual judges should have in crafting sentences.
In January 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the complicated calculus that has determined criminal sentences for nearly two decades in federal court must be considered advisory instead of mandatory.
As a result of the so-called "Booker decision," federal judges have found themselves with greater freedom in sentencing criminals -- and a flood of difficult new questions.
"The Supreme Court's 2005 decision making the federal sentencing guidelines advisory has generally allowed for greater flexibility and a more rational sentencing process," Baltimore defense attorney Larry A. Nathans, who has studied federal sentencing issues, said in an e-mail. "However, because the decision is relatively new, case law is evolving as to what appellate courts deem to be reasonable."
Hundreds of long-closed cases have been sent back for resentencing. But as the Medina case shows, judges sometimes have a tough time knowing what constitutes a reasonable deviation from the recommended guidelines.
Last week, Quarles said he understood and accepted the ruling vacating his sentence. But the judge in Baltimore also lamented the fact that a defendant's military service could not serve as a greater benefit.
"It appeared to be an appropriate case for mercy," the judge said.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told Congress in January that the advisory guidelines system must be improved.
He singled out federal statistics showing that in more than 20 percent of cases involving possession of child pornography, defendants are being sentenced below the guideline range.
"Sentences should be fair, determinate and tough. I call upon this body to enact legislation to restore the mandatory nature of the guidelines to ensure that our criminal justice system is both fair and tough," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A closer look at those numbers collected from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows a more nuanced picture.
In the last fiscal year, federal judges imposed sentences within the recommended guidelines slightly more than 60 percent of the time. But federal prosecutors asked for -- and judges adopted -- those reduced sentences in almost one of every four cases.
While there is little likelihood in the near future for the kind of new mandatory-minimum sentencing law endorsed by Gonzales, the nation's appeals courts continue to wrestle with the individuals cases to decide the fate of men like Medina.
The father of two had been married for 25 years at the time of his sentencing, court papers show. Medina enlisted in the Army in 1980 and received an honorable discharge after 18 years, including a deployment for the first Persian Gulf War.
Before his arrest, court papers show he worked in the computer field at the Department of Defense and Office of Personnel Management, according to documents filed by his attorneys.
The doctors who examined him did not find him to be a pedophile.
"Mr. Medina has insisted that he did not purposely download graphic child images, yet the FBI reports recover[ed] 1,000 such images and it is difficult to understand how this accumulation could proceed without Medina being somehow aware of his action," Dr. John R. Lion wrote in one report.
Another doctor concluded that Medina posed no danger to the community and presented little risk of committing more crime. Medina's attorney, Paul James Krawczyk Jr., did not return a message seeking comment Friday.
Court records also show Medina was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the death of a fellow soldier during a training accident in which he participated. Advocates for veterans have long stressed that more treatment must be available for former soldiers.
"I don't know that [vets] deserve special treatment under the law, but I think they deserve special treatment for any mental health issues discovered, especially for those returning from combat," said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Prosecutors in Baltimore said they received personal approval from the solicitor general at the Justice Department to appeal Quarles' sentence in the child-pornography case -- a crime now among the top priorities of the Justice Department.
In his ruling, Quarles inappropriately created an "overarching sentencing benefit for all veterans, regardless of the individual, the crime, and the nature of the military service," assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie S. Greenberg wrote in her brief to the appeals court, She added that the judge did not fully appreciate the seriousness of Medina's crime because he imposed such a light prison term.
There were images of underage children engaging in sexually explicit conduct, including children younger than 12, and images involving children in bondage, Greenberg wrote.
For Medina, the appeals court decision could be especially difficult. Prosecutors confirmed Friday that Medina has already been released from prison after serving an undisclosed term -- meaning he'd likely have to go back behind bars after the judge sentences him again.
No new sentencing date has been set.