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Federal prosecutors sent Jing Bing Liang to prison after he and a crew of card sharks cheated Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Lake Tahoe casinos out of approximately $4 million. But the feds overplayed their hand when they argued Liang’s “extraordinary eyesight” and cheating prowess were “special skills” that called for a longer prison sentence, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday. In order to justify a higher sentence, Liang’s know-how would have to be “legitimate and important skills that only have the potential to be abused” — such as medical or legal training, wrote Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, vacating Liang’s sentence and remanding the case to the lower court. “Intrinsic physical attributes” such as eyesight don’t count as special skills, the court concluded. “No matter how much it contributed to his ability to peek at cards, Liang’s extraordinarily acute vision cannot be described as a skill,” wrote O’Scannlain, who was joined by Judges A. Wallace Tashima and A. Howard Matz, a federal judge from the Central District sitting on assignment. The judges also panned federal prosecutors’ claims about Liang’s card-playing finesse. “Liang’s ability to cheat at cards cannot be understood as legitimate: It was basically useless outside the criminal context no matter how good he got,” O’Scannlain wrote. Wednesday’s ruling in U.S. v. Liang, 04 C.D.O.S. 2739, may have been the last lucky break for Liang, who was indicted in October 2000 along with 17 other defendants. Liang and other gamblers used elaborate cheating schemes to clean up at casino card tables. In games where players are allowed to deal — such as baccarat — Liang and his associates were able to see cards as they were dealt by turning the “shoe” card dispenser at a certain angle. Liang also marked cards by “crimping” — bending the cards — or smearing them with petroleum jelly. While the gamblers’ schemes didn’t guarantee a win, they dramatically boosted their odds. In 1994 Liang and four others were able to win $1.5 million at a Las Vegas casino. Liang pleaded guilty to racketeering. At his sentencing hearing, defense attorneys argued that the crime called for 21 to 27 months in prison. The prosecutor, however, argued that Liang’s eyesight and card skill called for a two-level sentence enhancement, which increased Liang’s possible sentence to 27 to 33 months. U.S. District Court Judge Roger Hunt sided with prosecutors and sentenced Liang to 27 months. While the 9th Circuit’s ruling will only shave a few months off his client’s sentence, the court decided an important legal principle, said Todd Leventhal, Liang’s attorney. “It’s an important decision because it sets boundaries on how far courts can go,” said Leventhal, noting that prosecutors never tested his client’s eyesight to substantiate their argument. Even if his client has good vision, that’s not a special skill, he said. “If a prostitute can pick up more johns because she has perfect legs,” Leventhal said, “that is not a special skill.” In a statement, Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden downplayed the ruling. He noted that 12 of the 17 people indicted in the case went to prison and one was convicted of attempted murder in Canada. Of the others, one defendant died and three are fugitives. “Each defendant’s offense conduct and background is evaluated on its own merits to determine adjustments under the U.S. sentencing guidelines,” Bogden said.

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