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Libby sentence stuns supporters of 'tough' judge

WASHINGTON -- Years ago, when he was a local trial judge, Reggie B. Walton developed a reputation for his sentencing of ordinary street thugs.

"If you got convicted, he was going to smack you," said Randall Eliason , a former prosecutor who recalled that Walton would deliver tougher sentences than other judges.

On Tuesday, Walton extended a measure of his justice to a more prominent defendant: former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Rejecting pleas for leniency from scores of prominent public officials, Walton sentenced Libby to 2 1/2 years. On top of the stiff sentence, the judge indicated that he was inclined to order Libby to begin serving the sentence immediately, even before his lawyers had appealed his case. The outcome stunned supporters of the career public servant and stirred talk of a presidential pardon.

That Walton would put the Bush administration in an uncomfortable position of having to consider a politically charged pardon for Libby is ironic: The 58-year-old jurist was one of the first appointments President Bush made to the federal bench in October 2001, an example of the law-and-order mentality the administration wanted to infuse in the courts.

By all accounts, Walton is a tough guy. A judge for more than 25 years, he completed two stints on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, appointed by Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Despite Walton's history as a "long ball hitter" when it comes to sending criminals to jail, lawyers and legal specialists said the punishment he imposed on Libby was within his discretion.

Legal specialists said the bail decision was a closer call.

Many white-collar defendants -- such as lifestyle maven Martha Stewart -- have been allowed by courts to stay out of jail while they pursued their appeals. Stewart was convicted of lying to securities regulators. She eventually dropped her appeal and reported to prison. David H. Safavian, a former Bush administration procurement official, remains free while he appeals his June 2006 conviction for lying and concealing his dealings with disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff .

Historically, judges have gone easy on nonviolent criminals because they are not likely to flee or pose a threat to society. There was also a view that their crimes were less serious than violent crimes.

But there is also a long-established law requiring defendants to serve their sentences immediately unless there is a good chance that their convictions would be overturned on appeal. More judges are hewing to a stricter standard.