Federal District Court Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. was angry that a 20-year-old man convicted of burning a cross on an interracial couple’s lawn faced a lengthy prison term under mandatory federal sentencing rules.
“They’re wanting seven years for a young man that got drunk,” Pickering said, referring to prosecutors at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He went on to affirm in open court nine years ago that the defendant, Daniel Swan, “committed a reprehensible crime . . . and he’s going to pay a price for it.”
But Pickering was so incensed about the length of the sentence that he telephoned a friend at the department’s headquarters in Washington, and demanded in a sealed order that Attorney General Janet Reno review the case. According to a Justice Department memo obtained by The Washington Post, he also threatened to overturn the jury’s verdict even though he agreed it was lawful.
Pickering’s pressure on the government in the case — highly unusual for a federal judge — has sown controversy over his nomination by President Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. A review by The Post outlines Pickering’s activity in the case and shows a discrepancy between court records and his publicly stated rationale for intervening.