Lifetime in prison to freedom: Brooklyn Judge Frederic Block grants historic release under First Step Act

June 29, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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A beacon of hope shone through the Eastern District of New York’s courtroom recently, as U.S. District Judge Frederic Block took a holistic approach to justice and granted Sherwin Birkett, a man who spent over half of his life in prison, a reduction of sentence to just 40 years.

Now 52 years old, Birkett was born in Barbados and moved to the United States at the age of nine. His story is one of a troubled childhood that led to his involvement with the notorious Vassell Organization, also known as the McGregor Gulley Posse. The vicious cycle of crime and violence culminated in two murders and a life sentence for racketeering and conspiracy to distribute narcotics.

In the depth of despair, Birkett found the strength to change. He earned his GED while in prison and completed a non-residential drug program. Despite a few disciplinary infractions, Birkett has maintained a clean record for the past nine years, demonstrating his commitment to rehabilitation.

Recognizing his transformation, Birkett sought a reduction of his life sentence under the First Step Act of 2018. This legislation is designed to provide sentencing relief to federal prisoners who can demonstrate “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for release.

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Judge Frederic Block, known for his meticulous and empathetic approach to justice, took up the challenging task of analyzing Birkett’s request. A seasoned veteran of the bench, Judge Block has presided over multiple high-profile cases and has been a staunch advocate for the compassionate application of the law. This commitment was evident in his approach to Birkett’s case.

The First Step Act (FSA), a groundbreaking piece of legislation, has made substantial amendments to the federal compassionate release statute. This change permits incarcerated individuals to request a sentence reduction directly from the court, provided that they’ve exhausted all administrative appeal avenues or 30 days have passed since the warden received such a request without action.

The evaluation of these petitions under the FSA takes into account several critical factors. Judges scrutinize the nature of the crime committed, paying attention to its severity and whether it was non-violent, a category that may increase the likelihood of sentence reduction. The defendant’s criminal past also forms a key part of the review process; those with first-time offenses or a minimal criminal record are often viewed more favorably.

Another significant consideration is the defendant’s behavior during imprisonment. Inmates who maintain good conduct, actively participate in vocational and educational programs, and refrain from disciplinary issues have a higher chance of securing a favorable ruling. In addition, the defendant’s age and health status are factors, especially in compassionate release cases. The law tends to be more lenient towards elderly or terminally ill inmates.

Lastly, the court evaluates the rehabilitation efforts of the defendant and the chances of reoffending, with significant weight placed on the defendant’s transformation and likelihood of successful reintegration into society.

Analyzing Birkett’s history, Judge Block recognized the unique circumstances surrounding his entrance into a life of crime. Birkett’s early exposure to the criminal world, his age at the time of the crimes, and the considerable strides he had made toward rehabilitation while in prison formed the basis of Judge Block’s decision.

In a significant victory for Birkett and a testament to compassionate justice, Judge Block ruled in favor of Birkett’s request. Citing various factors, including the extraordinary circumstances of Birkett’s past, the legislative intent of the First Step Act, and Birkett’s journey toward redemption, the Court reduced Birkett’s sentence to 40 years.


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