Judge tempers justice with mercy while sentencing defendant to federal prison

Composite image with background photo of United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; overly booking photo of Matthew Jonathan Stearns, 25, of St. George, booking photo taken in Washington County, Utah, Feb. 1, 2021 | File photo courtesy of the Washington county sheriff's office, St. George news

ST. GEORGE — In a federal courtroom in St. George on Wednesday, a defendant was sentenced to federal prison. But that was not before all sides, including the judge, outlined both the difficulties and the rewards associated with substance abuse – and the fact a defendant is more than what is written in a presentence report.

2019 file photo of 5th District Court where federal hearings are held, St. George, Utah, August, 2019 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Matthew Stearns, 25, appeared in federal court for sentencing on possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.

The case stems from an arrest in February that started with an overdose call from a motel in St. George. When officers arrived, they found paramedics working on the suspect. Once Stearns was out of medical danger, he was detained while officers recovered heroin and methamphetamine from inside of the room, along with other evidence.

He was subsequently taken into custody by police and booked into jail on two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, felony possession and unlawful acquisition of a financial card. He was also booked on an active warrant issued by the U.S. Marshal’s Service, according to a probable cause statement in support of the arrest.

During sentencing on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Reddish-Day said the government had no objection to the plea agreement of 24 months in prison, as opposed to the sentencing guidelines set forth in the presentence report that recommended a prison sentence ranging from 70-87 months.

Day contended that Stearns was found with a minimal amount of methamphetamine – 13 grams – and stated the defendant wanted to participate in a drug court program from the start, adding the Rise federal drug court program would be appropriate, as “Stearns is clearly a drug addict” she said, and he would benefit from such a program.

She closed by saying the defendant is only 25 years old, and while his criminal history was “disturbing” she said it relates almost exclusively to his drug addiction. While the agreement was highly unusual, it still allows for a significant amount of time that would hang over the defendant’s head. At the same time, it carried an element of mercy by allowing for a reduced prison term that would also include treatment the defendant clearly needs.

The warrant was issued on a series of parole violations in connection with a federal firearms case filed in U.S. District Court in 2016, following an investigation in which agents arrested the suspect for admittedly taking a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson across state lines. He was sentenced to serve 57 months in a federal correctional facility the following year. The defendant was also sentenced Wednesday on a number of parole violations filed in connection with the case.

In March, the defendant was indicted on one count of distribution of methamphetamine in federal court, at which point the state case against the defendant was dismissed.

File photo of Matthew Jonathan Stearns, 24, of St. George, booking photo taken in Washington County, Utah, Feb. 1, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

Ryan Stout, Stearns’ defense attorney, said his client was prepared to admit to all 16 allegations relating to a series of parole violations committed after Stearns was released from federal prison. He also commended Day’s summation on the government’s position regarding sentencing and supervision, saying it was “eloquent and precise.”

He also said the arrest stemmed from an overdose call, and that his client desperately needed treatment, adding “a 30-day program doesn’t fix everything.” Instead, if his client was afforded the opportunity to participate in the Rise program, it would benefit the defendant tremendously, as it is a long-term program, which is more appropriate for Stearns, who is a “serious drug addict,” Stout said.

Stout closed by saying regardless of how his client looks on paper, referring to the presentence report, Stearns is still young enough that “his future is not written on paper – it can be changed.”

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby said the plea agreement represented a fair and reasonable resolution to the charges in this case, even though it was such a significant departure from the recommendation of nearly eight years in prison, adding he was forewarning the defendant that he would face “genuine consequences” if he failed to comply with the terms of his post-prison release.

Shelby then addressed the defendant during what he termed as an unusually long statement by saying Stearns is young, “and that’s good news and bad news,” he said. The good news is the defendant still has a chance to turn his life around, unlike many of the defendants that appear in federal court that are 50 or 60 years old, the judge said, many of whom are “finally just tired of being incarcerated.”

He also brought up the strong family support the defendant has, a factor that can change as well,  he said, adding that “in time, drug addicts end up burning all those bridges, and at some point, family members are left devastated.” Shelby went on to say that even the parents, who love their children the most, decide they have to completely break off any relationship because “it’s just killing everybody.”

The judge also spoke of the defendant’s difficult road ahead, and the work that it takes to change course and live a life without drugs. “It’s hard – and it takes a lot of hard work,” he said, and while the road to recovery is not perfect, Shelby said if Stearns continues working at it, then he will be successful, adding the programs the defendant will have available to him while in prison will help him live life without drugs.

“There won’t be a better time. I hope you’ll take advantage of that,” he said.

United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif. | Photo courtesy of Federal Bureau of Prisons, St. George News

Steans also spoke during the hearing by saying on paper, he knows he looks really bad, referring to his criminal history, but said his crimes stem from his drug addiction. He went on to say that when he has been released from prison or jail in the past, he wanted to start over – but he didn’t know how to do that.

“And I know drug court will show me how to do that,” Stearns said, and thanked the court for the opportunity to participate in the federal drug court program while in prison.

The judge closed by saying the presentence report does not define the defendant, nor does it tell him all of the good things Stearns has done in his life. He also said the defendant hasn’t made the lasting changes that will keep him out of prison, and it was the judge’s aim to help.

“I hope we can change where you’re heading this time,” Shelby said.

On the federal parole violations, the judge then ordered that Stearns be placed in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 30 months with credit for time served, and also ordered Stearns to participate in the Rise program.

On the federal distribution case, Stearns was ordered to serve 24 months in federal prison, with 12 months to run consecutive, meaning the defendant would serve a total of 42 months in federal prison between the two cases.

Following his release, the defendant would be placed on four years’ post-prison supervision, during which the defendant was also ordered to successfully complete a substance abuse evaluation and treatment program, as well as other special conditions.

Stout requested that his client serve his time at one of two federal facilities in Southern California, either in Lompoc or Victorville, to facilitate family visitation, a request the court approved when Shelby said the defendant would serve his time in Lompoc, a federal facility that offered substance abuse treatment.

Before the court recessed, the judge addressed the defendant by saying, “I hope to see you on the other side.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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