Deliberating what punishment befitted the man before him, the judge mulled over the twists and turns in Isaac Guillen's 52 years of life.
There was his induction into gang life at age 11, spending years in and out of juvenile lockup. He got himself off the streets and into UC Berkeley, then UCLA, graduating with a law degree and becoming a criminal defense attorney. Then came the choices that led him back to the wrong side of the law, doing the bidding of a powerful Mexican Mafia member. He again changed course when he decided to cooperate within hours of his arrest, knowing it would mean he would need to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life.
"I've struggled with it," U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson said from the bench Thursday. "He acted in the worst way an attorney can possibly act within our system of justice.... Then there's the redemption."
Pregerson ultimately handed down a seven-year prison term for Guillen, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to racketeering and money laundering charges. The judge sided with the recommendation of prosecutors who said the sentence was half what they would have sought were it not for the former attorney's cooperation.
The judge said he faced a "difficult matrix" in determining Guillen's sentence because of the man's circuitous life story, which the disbarred attorney recounted from the witness stand last year in testimony that lasted more than two days.
"The tragedy is that he'd made a life for himself being a former gang member," Pregerson said. "But he went down the wrong path on behalf of a very dangerous organization, on behalf of a very dangerous man."
Guillen was arrested in 2009 as part of a federal crackdown on a clique of the 18th Street gang controlled by Francisco "Puppet" Martinez, a Mexican Mafia member serving multiple life sentences at a federal maximum security prison in Colorado. Authorities targeted the Columbia Lil' Cycos after a gang member shot and killed a 3-week-old baby in 2007 while retaliating against a defiant street vendor.
During his testimony, Guillen admitted flying back and forth from Colorado to deliver messages and orders between the gang's leaders and Martinez, using attorney-client privilege to skirt the "supermax" prison's security and slip Martinez drug ledgers inserted in legal papers. He described laundering about $1.3 million in the gang's drug proceeds on Martinez's behalf, receiving about $180,000 in return.
Pregerson acknowledged that Guillen's testimony at trial was critical in establishing for the jury how the gang's hierarchy operated. But he said the infant's death set Guillen's crimes in a graver context.
Prosecutors said Guillen was an instrumental part of the gang's operations rather than an unwitting marginal character who had been sucked into its criminal activities.
"This was a situation where he went in with eyes wide open," Assistant U.S. Atty. Kevin Lally said. "This wasn't a momentary lapse in judgment."
Guillen's defense lawyer said that from the time of his arrest, Guillen has been completely forthcoming and truthful. Attorney Curtis Leftwich had asked the judge to sentence his client to time served since his arrest — the equivalent of about a four-year term.
"He has done everything that has been asked of him, he's done it well, he's done it at great risk to himself and his family," Leftwich said.
Guillen, with hints of white hair above his ears, stood with a stoop before the judge in light gray sweats, fidgeting with his hands behind back. He told the judge he was misled by the gang's shot-callers to believe another gang was behind the baby's killing. Prosecutors disputed the assertion, contending that he became aware at some point that the gang was behind the murder, but nevertheless continued to do the gang's work.
Stumbling over his words, Guillen said he had lost far more than the average street criminal because of the work he had put in to build his life. He said that he took responsibility, but that he had already "dropped a long way." He mused out loud about whether his life would have taken a different course had he chosen a career in corporate law.
Outside court, his attorney said Guillen would get back on his feet.
"He's lost a lot for his actions," Leftwich said. "It's going to be a hard life for him in the future, but he's a survivor."