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One of the cases before the U.S. Supreme Court today tests the limits of a trial judge's discretion. A defendant pleaded guilty thinking he could get a lesser sentence. The judge decided otherwise, and that decision is being challenged before the high court.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports on a case that began with a desperate trips from coast to coast.

NINA TOTENBERG: The facts in the case of Richard Irizarry versus the United States read like a movie script. A paranoid and sometimes delusional man pursues his ex-wife across the country, threatening to kill her and her new husband. The story begins in California in 2000, when Lea Smith left her abusive husband Richard Irizarry and moved to South Carolina, where she obtained a divorce and a restraining order against him.

He, according to his lawyer, developed a number of paranoid fantasies about his ex-wife. He became convinced that she'd hacked into the computer systems of the Ku Klux Klan and was sending him threatening letters. And that she was abusing their two children, even pulling out their toenails with pliers.

Irizarry drove from California to South Carolina, where he was jailed for violating the restraining order. Police found a hammer, tarps, duct tape and rope in his car. His ex-wife then remarried and moved to Mobile, Alabama. Again, Irizarry threatened her with dozens of e-mail messages explicitly saying he planned to kill her, her husband, her mother and several of her friends.

In December of 2003, Irizarry was arrested by the FBI and repeated his threats in an interview. Irizarry was subsequently indicted by a federal grand jury on 15 counts of making threats across state lines.

Defense lawyers sought to show that Irizarry was so delusional that he was not mentally competent to stand trial. The judge agreed he was mentally ill, but ruled that he was mentally competent under the law.

After that, Irizarry agreed to plead guilty to one count. A pre-sentence report recommended a sentence of 41 to 51 months in prison. But the judge, without notifying defense counsel, rejected the recommendation and instead sentenced Irizarry to the maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The judge said he was imposing the maximum because Irizarry posed a danger to society, and the judge noted that even in prison awaiting trial Irizarry had solicited a cell mate to kill his ex-wife.

Irizarry appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court because of the judge's failure to notify the defense about the possibility of a longer sentence based on future dangerousness. Today, Irizarry's lawyer will tell the Supreme Court that had he received reasonable notice he would've introduced expert testimony challenging the judge's assumption about future dangerousness. He would've called psychologists to testify that Irizarry could be successfully treated with anti-psychotic medications for his symptoms.

The defense will argue that both federal law and the constitution's requirement for due process of law, which includes notice of possible punishment, require a judge to give notice that he's considering departing from the sentencing guidelines.

The federal government agrees that the judge should have given the defense notice, but says that the failure to do so on this case was harmless error, since Irizarry had already shown that he could not be relied on to take his medications.

With the government basically supporting Irizarry on the legal question, the Supreme Court has appointed another lawyer to argue that the judge had no legal duty to give notice to the defense. That argument is basically that since the sentencing guidelines are not binding everyone should be on notice that any sentence, up to the statutory maximum, is always possible.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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