Federal court rejects inmate’s sentence appeal

Prisoner claimed he should have been placed in mental institution

An inmate who appealed a 115-month prison sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown claimed in an appeal that he should have been placed in a mental institution instead of being confined behind bars.

But in an opinion issued Tuesday, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia disagreed, pointing out that the judge sentencing Victor J. Henderson, 28, of Johnstown took into consideration his mental condition and his impoverished background.

Last year, Henderson pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and he faced sentencing guidelines of 151 to 188 months in prison because he was considered a “career criminal” due to three prior state drug convictions that included sales of both heroin and cocaine.

Henderson’s attorney, Russell J. Heiple of Johnstown, argued that despite his problematic criminal background, his client suffered from mental health problems and contended Henderson’s childhood mirrored a Stephen King novel or an episode of “The Living Dead.”

He said Henderson had little contact with his father, and his mother was a crack addict. His life involved multiple foster homes and he repeatedly experienced violence.

He also spent time in a psychiatric hospital in Utah, the defense stated.

Heiple asked the judge to impose a sentence in the 70-month range rather than label Henderson a career criminal.

A 3rd Circuit panel that included Judges Michael A. Chagares, Thomas Hardiman and Paul B. Matey, in reviewing Gibson’s sentence, concluded the judge, by going well below the sentencing guidelines, had considered Henderson’s mental health problems and his background.

Henderson argued against the lengthy sentence because, he said, it violated the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment.

He said he should be in a “non-criminal mental health facility.”

In reviewing the sentence, the 3rd Circuit judges noted that a challenge under the Eight Amendment required them to assess: the seriousness of the offense; sentences for similar offenses in the 3rd Circuit, and sentences for similar conduct in other circuits.

The opinion concluded, “We have held that a sentence within the limits imposed by statute is neither excessive nor cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment.”

Henderson’s sentence was below the guidelines, and he presented no examples of cases from other jurisdictions in which defendants received shorter sentences, the panel pointed out.

“As a result, Henderson’s Eighth Amendment challenge fails,” the opinion stated.

On the night of April 2, 2018, Henderson was arrested only by chance.

Officers of the Cambria County Drug Task Force approached the vehicle he was in with warrants for two individuals who were in the front seat.

An officer noticed marijuana next to Henderson, who was in the back seat.

In searching him, officers discovered 111 vials of crack cocaine on his person — which he claimed he was holding for someone else — and $150.

In a Domino Sugar can near Henderson they discovered cash totaling $7,900.

The federal inmate locator indicated Henderson is incarcerated in a federal prison in Hazelton.

His release date is Nov. 11, 2026.


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