The two men pleaded guilty to two counts of the same crime, had the same "sentencing total" and the same "lowest permissible sentence," but a judge sentenced the black defendant to 26 years in state prison while sentencing the white defendant to under two years (time already served) in county jail.
The race of the defendant was not the only relevant difference between the two cases.
Racial disparities have long been a contentious element of the United States justice system, with black and ethnic minority suspects statistically more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested and charged, and to face stiffer penalties, even in similar circumstances.
The Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization that researches and lobbies for fairness in the American criminal justice system, summarized the phenomenon in a 2015 study, writing that "Once arrested, people of color are also likely to be charged more harshly than whites; once charged, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences –- all after accounting for relevant legal differences such as crime severity and criminal history."
From time to time, examples emerge which appear to shine a light on those racial disparities, especially in sentencing. One particular case re-emerged on social media in the summer of 2018, which promoters claimed was a stark illustration of racial discrimination in sentencing. The "I Love Africa" Facebook page was one of many social media accounts which posted a widely-shared meme comparing the widely disparate sentences of Chase Legleitner (who is white) and Lamar Lloyd (who is black) for similar offenses:
The clear statement made by this meme and those who shared it is that with two similar sets of circumstances involved, only the differing races of the two men could account for their very different sentences.
The comparison between Legleitner and Lloyd was first brought to light by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as part of a 2016 series of articles titled "Bias on the Bench," about racial disparities in sentencing by Florida judges. One article focused on the record of Sherwood "Chip" Bauer Jr., a judge on the 19th judicial circuit in Florida:
Chase Legleitner was 19 when he robbed three men in a 2008 drug deal. Lamar Lloyd was 21 when he stuck up a Pizza Hut and gas station the following year. Both men pleaded no contest to two counts of armed robbery. They went before the same judge, in the same courthouse. Each had a single misdemeanor on his record. They tallied the exact same points on the scoresheets used to determine criminal punishments in Florida. But their sentences could not have been more different.
Legleitner spent less than two years in county jail. He is now free to golf and fish on the weekends. Lloyd got 26 years in prison. He will be 47 upon his release in 2034. That disparity is not unusual in the courtroom of Judge Sherwood “Chip” Bauer Jr.
Since taking the bench a decade ago, Bauer has been tougher on those with a darker complexion, often sentencing blacks to two or three times longer than white defendants who committed the same crimes. Or in the case of Lloyd and Legleitner, 13 times longer.
Florida's 12th Judicial Circuit Court firmly rejected many of the claims made in the Herald-Tribune's series, publishing a lengthy and detailed rebuttal. In March 2017, the New College of Florida published an audit of the Herald-Tribune's methodology, calling it "deeply flawed." In response, the Herald-Tribune published a detailed fact check of the claims made in the New College study.;
This article will focus exclusively on the factual claims made in the viral meme comparing the sentences given to Legleitner and Lloyd, and the underlying claim that the vast discrepancy in their sentences was due to their differing races.
- Legleitner (born in September 1989) was 19 when he committed an armed robbery, along with five other people, on 3 November 2008. He was arrested in February 2009.
- Lloyd (born in July 1987) was 21 when he and another man committed two armed robberies in Stuart, Florida (of a Pizza Hut and a Sunoco gas station), on 18 March 2009. He was arrested later that night.
- Both Legleitner and Lloyd were charged with two counts of "robbery with a deadly weapon," a Class D felony.
- Legleitner pled "no contest" to the charges against him on 18 November 2009, and Lloyd pled likewise on 11 March 2010.
- Both Legleitner and Lloyd had 138.2 "sentence points," which yielded a minimum sentence of 82.65 months (just under seven years.)
- On 23 July 2010, 19th Judicial Circuit Judge Bauer sentenced Lloyd to 13 years in state prison on each of two counts, yielding a sentence of 26 years.
- On 23 June 2011, Bauer invoked a "mitigated departure" from the minimum sentence calculated from Legleitner's sentence points and sentenced him to time already served of 722 days in Martin County jail (one year, 11 months and 27 days).
So the meme has the basic facts right. The two men were charged with the same crime, in the same court, had an equal number of sentence points, and were sentenced by the same judge -- but one was committed to state prison for 26 years while the other spent just under two years in county jail.
"I Love Africa's" Facebook post was off in one respect: the sentences were handed down a year apart, not on the same day, and the meme did not clearly explain that Legleitner spent no time in prison after his conviction because he was given a sentence equal to time already served in jail (just under two years).
In Florida, sentencing guidelines involve a "scoresheet" of sentence points which correspond to various details about the crime in question, any injury suffered by victims of the crime, the defendant's criminal history, and other contextual factors. Higher points are added, for example, where a crime is committed with a firearm, or when the defendant is on probation or is an escapee from incarceration during the commission of the crime.
After tallying these sentence points, the judge uses a set formula to calculate the "lowest permissible sentence" in months. In the case of both Legleitner and Lloyd, this minimum sentence was 82.65 months (just under seven years), with a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.
So Lloyd's sentence (13 years in prison, doubled for the two counts of armed robbery) was actually within the range of sentencing guidelines in Florida. Damien Louissaint, who committed the Pizza Hut and Sunoco robberies with Lloyd in March 2009, faced the same charges as Lloyd, but Bauer gave him a life sentence. (Louissaint was found to have threatened civilians with a gun whereas Lloyd was merely in possession of one, and Louissaint pled not guilty and was convicted by a jury whereas Lloyd pled no contest to the charges.)
What's most notable about the discrepancy in Lloyd and Legleitner's sentences, then, is the relative leniency shown to Legleitner, to whom Bauer gave a much lower sentence than the minimum set out in the sentencing scoresheet. According to the guidelines in place in Florida at that time, the "lowest permissible sentence" was defined as "the minimum sentence that may be imposed by the trial court, absent a valid reason for departure."
So if a judge thinks good reasons exist, he can depart from the minimum sentence yielded by the scoresheet, but he must put those reasons on the record. The factors listed in the guidelines as legitimate grounds for a "downward departure" from the minimum permissible sentence include instances of plea bargains, cases in which the defendant was too young or did not have the mental capacity to appreciate the criminality of their conduct, cases in which the defendant was an accomplice to a crime and not a major participant in it, and instances of a defendant's cooperating with prosecutors.
According to 19th Judicial Circuit Court records which we obtained, the race of the defendant was not the only difference between the cases of Legleitner and Lloyd. During the 23 June 2011 sentencing hearing for Legleitner, the defense attorney and the prosecutor agreed that he qualified for a downward departure in his sentence.
David Lustgarten, the prosecutor, said Legleitner had been "contrite and remorseful" and that his testimony had been crucial in convicting the "real bad guys" within the group that committed the armed robbery:
[Legleitner] was more than cooperative with us in his pre-trial, his deposition, provided truthful statements at trial ... Mr. Legleitner understands the seriousness of the crime and the severity of the situation that he got himself into. He...was the last to join this party, if you will. He is...the least culpable of the entire group. He knows he should have left the situation. He knows he should have not partook [sic] anything. He did not touch anybody. He did not hurt anybody.
And I think that is important for Your Honor to understand that without his assistance we would not [have] been able to get secure convictions, get past a judgment of acquittal, and certainly not to get to the real bad guys here. So ... I would agree that based on what I just represented to you that he qualifies for a downward departure, I would have no good faith basis to object to a downward departure ...
Judge Bauer accepted these recommendations and sentenced Legleitner to time served, meaning that he walked free after his sentencing, having already spent 722 days (just under two years) in Martin County Jail. Bauer explained his reasons for ordering a downward departure from the minimum permissible sentence by saying that "[Legleitner] cooperated with the state to resolve current offenses ... The offense was committed in an unsophisticated manner and it was an isolated incident. Of course, the defendant showed remorse and at the time of the offense the defendant was too young to appreciate the consequences of the offense and those are the reasons."
These mitigating factors were not present in the case of Lamar Lloyd. In fact, Lloyd's crimes contained elements that would be considered aggravating factors, as the 12th Judicial Circuit pointed out in their rebuttal of the Herald-Tribune series:
Besides the substantial assistance offered by Legleitner to the prosecutor, there are monumental factual differences in the circumstances of the crimes of Lamar Lloyd, the defendant the [Herald-Tribune] authors chose to compare to Legleitner. One of the foundations of the authors’ flawed methodology is their insistence that they are comparing like offenses, or making an “apples to apples” comparison of the cases. To the contrary, there are significant factual differences between the crimes committed by the two defendants.
For example, we know that Legleitner did not threaten the general public in the manner that Lloyd did by robbing a public and family friendly restaurant during business hours. We know that Legleitner cooperated fully with the State Attorney and his testimony was needed to get convictions for the co-defendants. Although there may have been multiple parties involved in the robbery of the drug dealers in the Legleitner offense, there was only a single incident. This contrasts dramatically with the circumstances involving the two separate robberies committed by Lloyd and his co-defendant during their crime spree.
The rebuttal pointed out that, according to a Stuart Police Department arrest affidavit, Lloyd and his co-defendant Louissaint had caused a Pizza Hut employee to "fear for his life" before handing over $150 in cash, and that when the two men (along with another man who was driving them) were stopped, police found "two young children inside the vehicle ... [who] were inside the vehicle during both armed robberies." The children were aged two and five years old.
Whether the discrepancies between the cases of Legleitner and Lloyd amounted to "monumental factual differences," as the 12th Judicial Circuit described them, is ultimately a matter of opinion, as is the question of whether those factual differences warranted such vastly different sentences.
However, it cannot be disputed that significant differences existed between the two cases which went beyond the race of the defendants, and in giving Legleitner a relatively lenient sentence, Judge Bauer followed the recommendations of both the defense attorney and the prosecutor, and he fulfilled his obligations by citing the reasons for that lighter sentence.