Matthew Sinor was in his second year of law school at Ohio State a couple of years ago when he heard that an Army buddy had gotten into trouble with the law. Mr. Sinor rescheduled two exams and flew to Mobile, Ala., to make sure nothing went awry at his friend's sentencing hearing.
The defendant, Sgt. Patrick Lett, had served 17 years in the Army, including two tours in Iraq, and he had pleaded guilty in federal court to selling cocaine. It was up to Judge William H. Steele, a former marine, to decide how to punish him.
"I don't normally see people standing before me in uniform," Judge Steele said.
Sergeant Lett's commanding officer, Capt. Michael Iannuccilli, testified that the man he knew was "a patriot, father and a good man."
"I would gladly deploy to Iraq with him and entrust my life to him," Captain Iannuccilli said. "I'd trust my soldiers' lives to him. He's been nothing but an exemplary soldier."
But Sergeant Lett had not had an easy adjustment to civilian life when he returned home to Alabama in 2004. His fiancée left him. His father was dying. He struggled to support his three daughters. He drank. He remembered.
"I've seen a lot of things in two wars," he said at the hearing, in April 2006. "But this war, I saw some very, very strange things that happened. I lost some friends, several friends, and I seen several comrades get killed."
For five weeks in the spring of 2004, Sergeant Lett, who had no criminal record, went astray. A cousin who dealt in crack cocaine offered to fix Sergeant Lett's car in exchange for some deliveries. There were seven of them, with a total street value, Sergeant Lett said, of $2,100. They represented, Judge Steele said, "aberrant behavior" from "a model soldier."
Sergeant Lett re-enlisted in October 2004. He was about to deploy to Iraq again when he was arrested. It turned out he had sold cocaine to an undercover federal agent.
Judge Steele made plain that he wanted to give Sergeant Lett the briefest possible sentence. But Congress had set a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, Judge Steele said, and that is the sentence he reluctantly imposed.
Mr. Sinor, the law student sitting in the courtroom, had studied sentencing law with Douglas A. Berman, an Ohio State law professor and one of the nation's leading experts on the subject. Judge Steele had, Mr. Sinor believed, overlooked a five-part statutory "safety valve" that permits shorter sentences for defendants with unblemished backgrounds who played minor roles in crimes that did not involve violence and who had told the truth about what happened. Few defendants qualify. Sergeant Lett did.
So Mr. Sinor wrote to Judge Steele, with copies to the lawyers, explaining the point they had all missed. Judge Steele agreed, and he revised Sergeant Lett's sentence to time served - 11 days.
The next day, the judge invited Sergeant Lett to his chambers for a chat. "You should thank God for a friend like Matt," Judge Steele said, as Sergeant Lett recalled. "I want you to go back in the military to do some good for your country. I know I will never see you again in my courtroom."
Later, Judge Steele amended the conditions of Sergeant Lett's probation to allow him to carry a weapon, a necessity in his line of work.
Sergeant Lett's defense lawyer, who had been paid $10,000, did not appreciate Mr. Sinor's intercession, which he called "insulting."
"If you think five years was a bad job on my part, then you wanted a magician and not a lawyer," the lawyer, Glenn G. Cortello, wrote to Mr. Sinor in an e-mail message. "When you get out of law school and have practiced criminal law for over 20 years, I'll discuss it with you."
On the phone Monday, Mr. Cortello said Sergeant Lett "got lucky" with his five-year sentence. "They would have been justified in giving him 20 years," Mr. Cortello said.
In April, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Atlanta reversed Judge Steele. The decision was frank in its admiration for a fine soldier and mechanical in its application of the law.
The appeals court did not discuss whether Judge Steele had been right to apply the "safety valve," saying "reasonable arguments can be made on both sides." Instead, the panel said that the law simply did not allow Judge Steele to revise the sentence once he had imposed it.
True, there is a rule of criminal procedure that allows judges to "correct a sentence that resulted from arithmetical, technical or other clear error," so long as they do it within seven days. Math can be fixed. But since Judge Steele's mistake was in his understanding of his own power to do justice, the panel said, Sergeant Lett must serve five years.
Put another way, Judge Steele could have sentenced Sergeant Lett to time served at the sentencing hearing. By the next day, though, it was too late.
Professor Berman and Douglas R. Cole, of Jones Day in Columbus, Ohio, plan to file a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of Sergeant Lett on Tuesday. They are working without pay.
"This is a person who causes those who know him to go to extraordinary lengths to help him," Mr. Cole, a former Ohio solicitor general, said of his client.
These days, Patrick Lett, 39, installs fiber-optic lines in Pascagoula, Miss., and he waits for word from the courts. He said he misses the Army, which granted him a general discharge in January 2007. "I'd leave right now if they'd have me," he said.
At his discharge hearing, two of Sergeant Lett's comrades testified by telephone from Iraq.
"Put him on a plane right now," First Sgt. Daniel Sheward said. "I'll meet him at the airport."
Online: Documents and an archive of Adam Liptak's articles: http://nytimes.com/adamliptak.
Correction: February 13, 2008
The Sidebar column on Tuesday, about a judge's efforts to reduce the sentence he had imposed on an Army sergeant convicted of selling cocaine, misstated the location of the appeals court that reversed him. It was in Atlanta, not New Orleans.
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