Fed’s Misstep in 1996 Murder Case Prompts Resentencing

San Francisco Federal Court
San Francisco Federal Court

A notorious 1996 case of two execution-style murders, in which prosecutors initially sought a death penalty, will have to go back to court for resentencing.  The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 the government violated the plea deal with Walter Pierre Rausini in 2011, when Rausini sought reduction of his 40-year prison sentence.

The government had agreed go along with a reduction in Rausini’s sentence based on the quality of his cooperation after his guilty plea.

FBI Director Robert Mueller had overseen Rausini’s case while he was US Attorney in San Francisco, and was set to personally try the case seeking a death sentence.  But a deal was struck to drop the death penalty in exchange Rausini’s guilty plea and cooperation against others.

Rausini pled guilty in 2000 and Mueller left San Francisco in September 2001 to head the FBI.

2011 Sentencing Fight

“The government breached its post-conviction agreement with the defendant by submitting to the district court a letter from a co-defendant’s family member that argued for no sentence reduction,” wrote the panel in an unpublished order Friday.

The letter did not qualify as a victim statement and thus the submission of the letter prior to a resentencing request “increased the risk that the district court could view the letter as a proxy recommendation against reducing Rausini’s sentence,” the panel wrote.

Retired U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel sentenced Rausini to 35 years in November 2011 and indicated at the time she did not take the letter into account.

In dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Barry Silverman said there was no breach of the 2000 agreement with Rausini. The prosecutors merely acted as a conduit for the letter, which should have gone directly to the court and not to the prosecutors.  The government counsel “can hardly be faulted for failing to hide from the judge a communique intended for her but misdirected to them,” he said.

The Murders

In 1996, using information from state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement agents, Rausini ordered the murder of one member of the drug operation whom he suspected had turned informant.  The second man Rausini ordered gunned down in order to take over the drug operation, according to court records.

The body of Lance Estes, alleged head of a San Francisco methemphetamine ring that Rausini suspected had betrayed him, was found in Southern California.  Rausini, who served as a meth “cooker” in the operations, also ordered the execution of another alleged drug dealer, John Ellenberger, in hopes of taking over the operation. Ellenberger’s body was found stuffed in a sleeping bag in a dumpster in Oceanside in 1995.  He had been shot.

Rausini, who was just 26 at the time he orchestrated the two killings, concocted an elaborate plot to convince Estes, who was facing federal drug charges, that Rausini could make the charges go away if Estes paid off a BNE agent that Rausini knew.  Estes was on his way to make the payment when he was killed.

The Letter

The letter at the center of Friday’s appellate order was from the mother of Ali Mamaghani, a man involved in the drug operation, but unconnected with the killings.

She wrote Patel that Rausini is “a conniving, diabolical criminal of the first order.”  She said a sentence reduction would be a “monumental mistake” and put the families of other defendants at “great peril.”  She said she believed, if released, Rausini would seek them out for revenge.

The case was originally tried by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston, but she transferred it to Patel in 2008.  Patel retired last year so it is unclear which judge will draw job of resentencing Rausini.

Judges Mary Schroeder and Sidney Thomas formed the majority.

Case:  U.S. v. Rausini,  No. 11-10601