Federal Sentencing

Federal Sentencing

Motions Before Sentencing

After conviction and before sentencing in federal court, there are several motions that can be filed.

Common post-trial motions include:

Motion for a New Trial – The court can vacate the judgment and allow for a new trial. This is rarely granted, but may be done “if the interest of justice so requires.”
Motion for Judgment of Acquittal – Court may set aside the jury’s verdict and allow the defendant to go free.


A few months after the defendant is found guilty, they return to the same federal judge to be sentenced.

The judge receives guidance and assistance from several sources in order to sentence a defendant. Congress has established minimum and maximum punishments for many crimes which the judge uses to craft a sentence. The United States Sentencing Commissions has produced a set of sentencing guidelines that recommend certain punishments for certain crimes while considering various factors. Further, the judge will look at a presentence report and consider statements from the victims as well as the defendant and lawyers.

The judge may consider a variety of aggravating or mitigating factors. These include whether the defendant has committed the same crime before, whether the defendant has expressed regret for the crime, and the nature of the crime itself.

Role of Your Attorney

Aside from the defending your innocence or negotiating a plea agreement, arguing for an appropriate sentence is perhaps the most important function of a federal defense attorney. It is defense counsel's job to minimize the aggravating circumstances and emphasize the mitigating circumstances, while also humanizing the defendant. If counsel does not do this, sentencing will be based on an aggravated PI (Presentence Investigation) report, and that report will follow the convicted individual throughout the criminal justice system and affect chances for parole and less restrictive custody.

A federal defense attorney can have a significant impact on the PI report by conducting a background investigation, working with probation and parole personnel in preparing the PI report, dealing with the victims, preparing and presenting a defense PI report, and making timely legal attacks on erroneous information presented to the sentencing authority. By vigorously representing their clients at the sentencing phase,federal defense attorneys can help ensure that their clients lives are not ruined by unnecessary and undeserved punishment.

Death Penalty

The death penalty can only be imposed on defendants convicted of capital offenses – such as murder, treason, genocide, or the killing or kidnapping of a Congressman, the President, or a Supreme Court justice. Unlike other punishments, a jury must decide whether to impose the death penalty. Many states have stopped using the death penalty, though the federal government may still use it. The Supreme Court has found that imposing the death penalty on those under age 18 at the time of the crime or the intellectually disabled to be “cruel and unusual punishment” under the United States Constitution.


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