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Third Circuit upholds conviction in Pennsylvania juvenile sentencing scandal

The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] on Friday upheld [opinion, PDF] the conviction and 28-year sentence for former Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas [official website] judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. In February 2011 Ciavarella was convicted by a jury [JURIST report] in the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania [official website] of racketeering, mail fraud, money laundering, tax fraud and other related crimes. The convictions stemmed from a juvenile sentencing scandal [JURIST news archive] in which Ciavarella and judge Michael Conahan allegedly received $2.8 million in kickbacks from a commercial builder, an attorney and a businessman in exchange for helping to construct and operate two juvenile detention centers, and placing hundreds of juvenile offenders there. In August 2011 the court sentenced [JURIST report] Ciavarella to 28 years in prison despite his eligibility for a life sentence under federal sentencing guidelines. On appeal, Ciavarella specifically challenged denial of his motions to disqualify the district judge, arguing that the judge had "improperly relied on extrajudicial statements" by commenting to the media and public before denying Ciavarella's plea agreement. The appellate court, however, found that the district judge's statements did not constitute the requisite bias required for disqualification under 28 USC § 455(a) [text] because they did not display "a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible." Pursuant to the ruling, Ciavarella will continue to serve his 28-year sentence in federal prison in Illinois.

Ciavarella's trial began [JURIST report] in early February 2011. In December 2012 a federal judge approved a settlement [JURIST report] of almost $18 million in a lawsuit brought by juveniles wrongfully incarcerated by the two judges. In July 2010 Judge Edwin Kosik accepted [JURIST report] a plea agreement from former judge Conahan for his involvement in the juvenile sentencing scandal. Conahan now faces a 20-year prison sentence, a fine of up to $250,000 and disbarment. Kosik had previously rejected [JURIST report] joint plea agreements from Conahan and Ciavarella, finding that plea bargaining to honest services fraud and tax evasion charges demonstrated that the men did not accept responsibility and that the disbarment and 87-month prison sentences were too lenient [JURIST op-ed]. In October 2009 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned 6,500 juvenile-offender convictions issued by Ciavarella [JURIST report]. Conahan and Ciavarella were indicted in September 2009, following a withdrawal of the guilty pleas they entered [JURIST reports] in February 2009.

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