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A federal appeals court has thrown out the 18-month prison sentence for a former Georgia district attorney for lying to federal agents about an improper sexual relationship with a drug suspect. A panel of the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday vacated the sentence of Robert B. Ellis Jr., former district attorney of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit. Ellis was sentenced last year by U.S. District Court Judge Hugh Lawson after pleading guilty to lying when FBI agents asked whether he had ever had sex with a defendant in his district. Ellis said he had not, but Jody Manning, a drug defendant and informant for Ellis, told federal agents he had forced her into a sexual relationship. Ellis later said he and the woman had engaged in a consensual affair. The 11th Circuit’s unpublished — or, non-precedential — decision seemed unusual. Judges Gerald B. Tjoflat, William H. Pryor Jr. and visiting Senior 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon issued their one-paragraph ruling just two days after oral argument, and it was based on an issue Ellis’ lawyer, Michael J. Bowers, recalled barely came up during the discussion. ‘BOOKER’ DECISION CITED The court’s decision said the sentence was vacated and remanded according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s January decision in U.S. v. Booker, 125 S. Ct. 738 (2005), which struck down federal sentencing guidelines as unconstitutional. The panel said an opinion is forthcoming, but did not indicate what the opinion would say or when it would be released. U.S. v. Ellis, No. 05-10150 (11th Cir., July 21, 2005). At oral argument, Ellis’ team of Bowers, former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan and J. Converse Bright of Valdosta, said that Ellis should have been sentenced to six months, not 18. Lawson, they argued, improperly departed from the sentencing guidelines. Pryor and Tjoflat did much of the questioning at the oral argument, Bowers said. “The line of questioning was, “How was the sentence enhancement related to the conduct asserted by the United States to have disrupted justice?’” said Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general, who is with Morgan at Balch & Bingham. The judges said very little, if anything, about U.S. v. Booker during the oral argument, Bowers recalled. ELLIS RELEASED FRIDAY Ellis was released on Friday from the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, N.J., Bright said. On the day Ellis’ defense attorneys argued his case before the federal appeals court, Ellis had completed seven months of his term. “The most [Ellis] should have gotten was six months,” said Bright. “If we’re right, he’s done all he should do, plus a little more.” At the trial court, Ellis’ legal team had sought probation in the case. The plea agreement that Ellis signed provided for a maximum of five years in prison and fines as high as $250,000 prior to the application of federal sentencing guidelines. Lawson instead sentenced him to 18 months. The court said it would remand the case to Lawson. George F. Peterman III, acting U.S. Attorney for Georgia’s Middle District, declined to comment, saying he has not seen the judicial panel’s written opinion. Ellis was prosecuted by F. Maxwell Wood, the U.S. Attorney for Georgia’s Middle District. Wood is now working with the Justice Department in Iraq. Federal agents began investigating Ellis in January, 2004 after Manning made her allegations. A federal grand jury later charged Ellis with felony civil rights violations of Manning and charges of lying to federal agents and felony witness tampering. The indictment accused Ellis of telling Manning that he would prefer she not speak to the FBI seeking information about their relationship. Ellis subsequently stepped down as district attorney, and Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Homerville, Ga., lawyer Jody Steedly to replace him. Steedly was defeated in 2004 by Homerville attorney Cathy Harris Helms.

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