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United States v. Hammer

January 31, 2006

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
DAVID PAUL HAMMER



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Muir, U.S.District Judge

ORDER

THE BACKGROUND OF THIS ORDER IS AS FOLLOWS:

On December 27, 2005, we issued a 278-page opinion with 1705 specific findings of fact and order granting in part and denying in part David Paul Hammer's fourth amended § 2255 motion. The order vacated and set aside the sentence of death imposed on Mr. Hammer on November 4, 1998, and authorized the Government within 60 days to file a motion to have the case placed on a trial list for a new penalty-phase trial. On January 11, 2006, the Government filed a motion for reconsideration pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in which it requests that we review our order of December 27, 2005, and "amend it by denying altogether Hammer's § 2255 motion." On January 12, 2006, the Government filed a brief in support of the motion. Mr. Hammer filed a brief in opposition on January 26, 2006. The Government's motion became ripe for disposition on or about January 30, 2006, when the Government notified the Deputy Clerk that it did not intend to file a reply brief.

Before addressing the merits of the Government's arguments, we will review the legal principles governing motions for reconsideration, beginning with the well-settled doctrine of "law of the case." It is important to note the manner in which a court's reconsideration of a prior decision meshes with that doctrine. The "law of the case" doctrine "directs [a federal court's] exercise of its discretion." Public Interest Research Group of New Jersey, Inc., et al. v. Magnesium Elektron, Inc., 123 F.3d 111, 113 (3d Cir. 1997). When the United States Supreme Court considered how a motion for reconsideration affects the scope and nature of that discretion, it commented that

[a] court has the power to revisit prior decisions of its own or of a coordinate court in any circumstance, although as a rule courts should be loathe to do so in the absence of extraordinary circumstances such as where the initial decision was "clearly erroneous and would work a manifest injustice."

Christianson v. Colt Industries Operating Corp., 486 U.S. 800, 817 (1988)(emphasis added).

The Supreme Court's guidance in Christianson is reflected in the repeated holding of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that we have recognized that the doctrine [of the law of the case] does not preclude our reconsideration of previously decided issues in extraordinary circumstances such as where: (1) new evidence is available; (2) a supervening new law has been announced; or (3) the earlier decision was clearly erroneous and would create manifest injustice.

In re City of Philadelphia Litigation, 158 F.3d 711, 718 (3d Cir. 1998)(emphasis added); see also Public Interest Research Group of New Jersey, Inc., 123 F.3d at 117-118. A demonstration of extraordinary circumstances as outlined above is a threshold prerequisite for obtaining reconsideration of a court's prior decision.

There is also an abundance of case law describing the events and conditions that do not constitute extraordinary circumstances justifying a court's reconsideration of a prior decision. "A motion for reconsideration is not properly grounded on a request that a court should rethink a decision it has already made." Armstrong v. Reisman, No. 99-CV-4188, 2000 WL 288243, *2 (E.D.Pa. March 7, 2000)(Brody, J.). Moreover, "where evidence is not newly discovered, a party may not submit that evidence in support of a motion for reconsideration." D'Angio v. Borough of Nescopeck, 56 F.Supp.2d 502, 504 (M.D.Pa. 1999)(McClure, J.)(citing Harsco Corp. v. Zlotnicki, 779 F.2d 906, 909 (3d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1171 (1986)); see also Delong Corp. v. Raymond Int'l Inc., 622 F.2d 1135, 1139-40 (3d Cir. 1980).

As the cited cases demonstrate, a motion for reconsideration is a device of limited utility. Its fundamental purpose is to remedy manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered precedent or evidence which, if discovered previously, might have affected the court's decision. Harsco, supra. A party seeking to establish that the court has made such a manifest error is required "to persuade us not only that our prior decision was wrong, but that it was clearly wrong and that adherence to that decision would create manifest injustice." In re City of Philadelphia Litigation, 158 F.3d 711, 718 (3d Cir. 1998). We will apply those concepts to the Government's pending motion for reconsideration.

Mr. Hammer in his brief in opposition points out that the Government's motion with one exception is a "rehash" of arguments already considered by the court. We agree with Mr. Hammer's position.

The one exception relates to the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Sanders, 126 S.Ct. 884 (Jan. 11, 2006). In Brown, the Supreme Court held that "[a]n invalidated sentencing factor (whether an eligibility factor or not) will render the sentence unconstitutional by reason of its adding an improper element to the aggravation scale in the weighing process unless one of the other sentencing factors enables the sentencer to give aggravating weight to the same facts and circumstances." Id. at 892.

The Government's reliance on Brown is unavailing for several reasons. Brown did not involve a death sentence imposed under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. Instead, it involved a death sentence imposed under the statutory scheme enacted by the California legislature. Under the California statute there are enumerated aggravating factors, e.g., "the murder was especially, heinous, atrocious, or cruel," and a statutory "catch-all" aggravating factor which allowed the jury to consider "[t]he circumstances of the crime of which the defendant was convicted in the present proceeding."

Our case is clearly different. As noted in the introduction to our opinion of December 27, 2005, there were only two statutory aggravating factors ...


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