People For the American Way

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Uphold a Sentence More than 60 Years Longer than Usual

News and Analysis
Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Uphold a Sentence More than 60 Years Longer than Usual

In March 2019, Trump Eighth Circuit judge Steven Grasz cast the deciding vote to uphold a sentence for Eddie Cox that was more than 60 years longer than the ordinary maximum, which effectively became a life sentence. This was despite the fact that Cox’s previous life sentence for the same offenses had previously been vacated as illegal.

Eddie Cox had been convicted in 1990 of drug trafficking and related offenses and was sentenced to life imprisonment.  That sentence was vacated as illegal after he filed a petition for post-conviction relief, and a different federal court in Missouri, was responsible for his resentencing in 2018. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the maximum sentence would ordinarily have been just under 18 years, more than the amount of time he had already served in prison. But the court handed down a sentence of an additional 63 years, more than three times the ordinary maximum sentence. In United States v. Cox, in an unsigned opinion joined by Grasz, an Eighth Circuit panel issued a 2-1 decision affirming the sentence, claiming that it was not an “abuse of discretion” and deferring to the district judge.

Judge Jane Kelly, however, strongly dissented. She explained that the trial judge appeared to have improperly based the “63-year variance” from the guidelines, at least in part, on the fact that Cox had previously received a life sentence. Even the factors properly considered by the judge did not provide the “significant justification” necessary for the huge upwards increase, she went on, especially since Cox had “demonstrated post-offense rehabilitation by maintaining a clean disciplinary record in prison for nearly three decades.” Kelly concluded that the sentence was “substantive unreasonable” and should have been reconsidered by the district judge.