A federal appeals court in Boston reduced a Maine woman’s sentence slightly for filing false tax returns, but it won’t mean an earlier release from prison for her.
Joann Rittall had three months cut from part of her prison sentence of more than five years after she was convicted on federal charges for using other people’s identities and filing false tax returns to claim nearly $250,000 in improper refunds.
The slight trimming of the sentence was ordered by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard an appeal of Rittall’s case and handed down its ruling Friday.
In Maine, U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. had already sentenced Rittall at the low end of the federal courts’ sentencing scale because of her medical conditions, which include anorexia nervosa, a rapid heart rate, an overactive thyroid, low potassium and a genetic condition that causes tumors, both benign and malignant, to form throughout her body, court documents said.
But the court found that, in sentencing Rittall on both charges to 63 months to be served concurrently, Woodcock slightly exceeded the maximum for the tax return charge, which was capped at five years. The court let stand the sentence of 63 months on the identity theft charge.
The court said that Rittall prepared and filed federal and state tax returns for at least two dozen other people between 2006 and 2011, including her son, boyfriend, neighbors and people she met at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and in drug treatment. The returns had false information on income, dependents and tax credits. The court said Rittall also arranged for improper refunds under the state’s “circuit breaker” program for rent and property taxes.
The refund money – about $240,000 in all – then went into accounts that Rittall had access to, according to the court.
Rittall was charged in 2013 and pleaded guilty. She faced up to five years in prison for filing false income tax returns and up to 15 years on identity theft charges. But Rittall wasn’t sentenced until late 2015 because of delays due to her medical issues, leading to seven presentencing conferences between lawyers and the judge. During the last presentencing hearing, two of Rittall’s doctors said they believed Rittall might have been sabotaging her own health to avoid jail.
Woodcock also took into consideration Rittall’s abusive relationships, problems with drug and alcohol abuse, her mental health history and her criminal history. She spent what the court called “a fair amount of time in jail,” which didn’t seem to deter her from committing other crimes.
A presentence report said that she had “a very strong streak of dishonesty” and initially blamed her victims when confronted about the crimes.
Woodcock said he almost certainly would have sentenced Rittall at the high end of the guidelines – 78 months – but for her medical conditions.
But even on that point, the judge said, sentencing was a challenge because he had concluded Rittall “has deliberately attempted to manipulate her sentence through her manipulation of her physicians, and it’s unfortunately consistent with her track record in life.”
Woodcock still sentenced Rittall to the low end of the guidelines because of her medical problems. Among the factors that federal sentencing guidelines take into account are the seriousness of a crime, whether a defendant takes responsibility and pleads guilty, a defendant’s criminal history and physical and mental health.
Rittall’s lawyers appealed the sentence, arguing that Woodcock improperly arrived at his decision and the terms were too harsh.
The court dismissed most of the reasons for the appeal, but agreed that the sentence on filing false tax returns was longer by three months than allowed in the law.
The court admitted that cutting the one sentence doesn’t mean an earlier release for Rittall.
“Even though fixing the above-maximum sentence would not affect the defendant’s ultimate sentence,” the appeals court ruling said, “our discretion should be exercised in favor of trimming back an excessive sentence.”
Calls to Rittall’s lawyer and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for comment on the ruling were not returned Monday.