United States v. Seneca Harrison (8th Cir. September 2020)

The Federal Docket

October 6, 2020

Guilty Pleas – A district court improperly participates in plea agreements when it suggests a defendant may receive a lesser sentence by proceeding to trial because the defendant would then be in front of a more lenient judge.

Seneca Harrison complained to the district court about his lawyer’s performance in negotiating a plea agreement for a felon-in-possession charge.  Both sides were arguing the recommended Guidelines range of 70-87 months when the judge jumped in with his own opinion suggesting Harrison would receive a lesser sentence by proceeding to trial since a less lenient judge would sentence him under the plea agreement.  Harrison was convicted by a bench trial, sentenced to 92 months, and did not receive acceptance-of-responsibility points under U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1 cmt. n.2.

The Court reviewed Harrison’s complaint that absent the district court’s advice, he would likely have accepted the government’s offer and received a lighter sentence.  The Court held that the district court clearly erred by excusing the prosecutor from the courtroom and telling the defendant that the federal system “sucks” and is “really harsh.”  The Court found prejudice because the defendant stated in the record that he did not want to go to trial and wanted to get the matter out of the way that day.  The Court held the proper remedy was re-sentencing to neutralize the taint caused by the district court’s error.  The Court vacated the sentence and remanded for re-sentencing before a different judge.

Appeal from the Western District of Missouri – Kansas City.

Opinion by Stras, joined by Kelly and Wollman.

Click here to read the opinion.


Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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