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U.S. v. Seale

filed: April 7, 1994.



Before: Stapleton, Roth and Lewis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Lewis


LEWIS, Circuit Judge.

This appeal arises from the highly publicized kidnapping and death of Exxon Company International executive Sidney J. Reso in 1992. Appellants Arthur and Irene Seale, husband and wife, were convicted of various charges in connection with the kidnapping, sentenced to lengthy prison terms and ordered to pay fines of $1.75 million and $500,000 respectively. Because we conclude that the district court should not have departed to impose the fines it did, we will vacate its imposition of the fines.


In late 1991, Arthur Seale, a former security officer for Exxon Corporation,*fn1 conceived a plan to kidnap an Exxon executive. His goal was to obtain a large sum of money to assist with his and his wife's financial problems. He selected Sidney J. Reso, president of an Exxon subsidiary, as the target of an elaborate scheme in which Mrs. Seale agreed to participate.

For the next three months, the Seales prepared to carry out their crime. They conducted surveillance at Reso's home to ascertain the time he usually left for work and the method of transportation he usually used. They constructed a coffin-like box in which to place Reso once they had abducted him. Arthur Seale began conducting research on how to avoid paying taxes on the ransom he expected to receive and on environmental causes he might use as a ploy to explain the kidnapping in ransom notes.

On the morning of April 29, 1992, Mr. and Mrs. Seale abducted Reso as he left for work. During a struggle at the foot of his driveway as the Seales sought to place him in their van, Reso was shot. He died four days later. For the next six weeks, however, Arthur and Irene Seale, holding themselves out as an environmental group named the "Fernando Pereira Brigade, Warriors of the Rainbow," pursued their efforts to obtain $18.5 million in ransom by leading Federal Bureau of Investigation officials, the Reso family, other Exxon employees and the general public to believe that Reso was still alive but would be "eliminated" if their instructions were not followed.

On June 19, 1992, before any ransom money was paid, Arthur and Irene Seale were arrested and charged with federal and state kidnapping and extortion charges. Irene Seale soon began to cooperate with authorities. She led them to Reso's grave and described the scheme to them. Pursuant to a plea agreement, she pleaded guilty to one count of extortion and one count of conspiracy to extort, each in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951. Arthur Seale did not enter into a plea agreement with the government; instead, he pleaded guilty to a seven-count indictment two days before his trial was to start.*fn2

Both Seales received stiff sentences. Mr. Seale was sentenced to 95 years in prison and a five-year term of supervised release, and ordered to pay a $1.75 million fine and $350 in special assessments. Mrs. Seale was sentenced to 20 years in prison and a five-year term of supervised release, and ordered to pay a $500,000 fine and $100 in special assessments. Both Seales have also pleaded guilty to and received sentences for state charges arising from their criminal activity.

As applicable to the Seales, United States Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") § 5E1.2(c) establishes a fine range of $25,000 to $250,000, whereas 18 U.S.C. § 3571 allows a maximum fine of $250,000 for each felony count. Applying the statutory maximum to each count, the court departed from the appellants' Guidelines ranges and arrived at the maximum cumulative figure for each of them -- $1,750,000 and $500,000, respectively. Thus, Mr. Seale's fine represented a seven-fold increase in his Guidelines maximum, whereas Mrs. Seale's fine represented a doubling of that same amount.


On appeal, Mr. and Mrs. Seale challenge the fines they were ordered to pay.*fn3 The district court had jurisdiction over this case under 18 U.S.C. § 3231, and we exercise jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

The issues we must address are numerous and require consideration under varying standards of review.


Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Seale are presently able to pay any fine. They each have a negative net worth, and their only income at the time their presentence reports were prepared was a $1,400 monthly pension Mr. Seale received from the Hillside, New Jersey police department, where he once served as an officer.*fn4 In addition to other judgments and claims against them, the Reso family has also filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against the Seales; at the time of sentencing Mrs. Seale had defaulted and was merely awaiting entry of a judgment against her in that case.*fn5 As a result of their crime, however, the Seales may stand to earn a considerable sum by selling their stories.

It can hardly be disputed that the American public is intrigued by accounts of sensational crimes, particularly those involving some unusual plot or twist, whether related through books, magazines, movies or television. One glance through some of the more recent television listings and bestseller lists reveals the public's almost obsessive interest in stories involving charges of bizarre criminal acts, such as the Amy Fisher case, the prosecution of the Menendez brothers, the Lorena Bobbitt trial and, most recently, the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Nor is this a new phenomenon; books such as In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, Mafia Princess and the unending volumes focussing on the assassination of President Kennedy, to name but a few, have stimulated readers' interest in crimes and criminals for decades. The consumers' appetite for such accounts seems commensurate with the lurid nature of the details of the criminal acts ...

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