Marion Hungerford still maintains she is innocent of armed robbery charges. But in place of a sentence of more than 159 years in prison, the former Billings resident will serve a little more than seven years.

Hungerford, 57, could be out of federal prison by December 2011 under an extraordinary settlement approved Wednesday by Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull.

Cebull called the seven-year term "no more nor less than necessary" to reflect the seriousness of the crimes, to provide punishment and to promote respect for the law. The new sentence is what he would have imposed even if the parties had not reached an agreement, he said.

Cebull originally sentenced Hungerford in 2005 to 159 years and nine months for her convictions in a robbery spree that targeted casinos and convenience stores in Billings and Butte. Hungerford had no criminal record.

A jury convicted Hungerford of conspiracy, seven counts of robbery and seven counts of using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Hungerford did not testify at her trial. A jury convicted her as an accomplice, holding her responsible as if she had carried a gun even though she never held the gun.

The gun convictions made up the bulk of Hungerford's sentence. Sentencing laws required Cebull to impose five years on the first gun conviction and 25 years for each of the other six gun counts, all to run consecutively.

Hungerford's original sentence drew national criticism as an example of mandatory sentencing laws gone awry. Hungerford's conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Hungerford's family sought help from Montana's senators with little success.

Then in 2008, Hungerford filed a motion to have her sentence vacated, claiming her trial attorneys were ineffective. That claim eventually led to a settlement agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office.

There is no parole in the federal system, but inmates can reduce their sentences by 15 percent with good behavior. Before Wednesday's modification, Hungerford had a release date of May 23, 2144.

With little fanfare, Cebull modified Hungerford's sentence during a 15-minute hearing. Hungerford had waived her right to be present, and the judge denied Hungerford's subsequent request to participate by telephone.

Hungerford's attorney, Daniel Wilson of Kalispell, said he thought Hungerford could be released by December 2011. He declined to comment after the hearing.

U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said in a statement that the case demanded further review and called Wednesday's resolution "the result of extraordinary efforts" by Cebull, Wilson and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Seykora.

"The steps taken today were made while keeping the victims in mind and in concurrence with our office's steps to find justice in this case," Cotter said. "Today's modification of Marion Hungerford's original sentence is a just conclusion for this defendant, based on these facts."

Former U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer, who headed the office when Hungerford was prosecuted and sentenced, declined to comment on Wednesday's resentencing, deferring instead to Cotter. Mercer said in 2007 that Hungerford could have received a shorter sentence had she cooperated. But she refused, he said. Mercer is an attorney with Holland and Hart.

The settlement agreement called for all but two convictions - armed robbery and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence - to be dismissed. The remaining convictions were for the robbery of the Jackpot Casino on Main Street in Billings in May 2002. The robbery netted $5,600.

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In return for the reduced sentence, Hungerford agreed to drop her claim of ineffective counsel by her trial lawyers. The sentence included 33 months for the armed robbery, a consecutive mandatory five years on the gun count, plus eight years of supervised release.

In reaching the agreement, Hungerford did not admit guilt to any of the convictions. And the government did not admit to the merits of Hungerford's claim of ineffective counsel.

Cebull also recommended that Hungerford be placed at a federal mental health facility and released to a pre-release center for one year. The pre-release center cannot be in Butte, he said, without explanation.

Hungerford's original sentence was almost five times longer than the sentence for her co-defendant, Dana Canfield. Canfield pleaded guilty, testified against Hungerford and was sentenced to 32 years in prison. Canfield's sentence was later reduced because of his cooperation. He is to be released in 11 years.

Canfield told the jury he was the one who entered the businesses, brandished a .22-caliber pistol and took the money. Hungerford helped stake out the businesses and shared in the proceeds, he said. She wanted to become more involved and thought she could mastermind the robberies so they wouldn't be caught, he said.

Before trial, the court ruled that Hungerford did not suffer from any mental disease that would make her unable to help in her defense.

At sentencing, her lawyers, Palmer Hoovestal of Helena and Herman Watson of Bozeman, argued for leniency, saying Hungerford had a severe borderline personality disorder, a condition that can alter a person's perception of reality.

Hungerford argued that her attorneys failed to realize that a diminished-capacity defense was irrelevant at sentencing because of the mandatory sentencing laws. The attorneys should have pursued a diminished-capacity defense during trial based on evidence from psychological evaluations of Hungerford, she argued.

Hungerford's original sentence outraged 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Stephen Reinhardt, who denounced the punishment as "immensely cruel, if not barbaric." Even though he upheld the sentence, Reinhardt said Hungerford was a severely mentally disturbed woman who played a limited role in several robberies in which no one was physically harmed.

An article about Hungerford's sentence in the Harvard Law Review urged reform by encouraging judges to engage in civil disobedience to call attention to unjust sentencing laws.

Meanwhile, Hungerford has been incarcerated at a low-security federal women's prison in Dublin, Calif. In a 2007 interview, Hungerford told The Gazette she didn't do anything wrong and called her sentence ridiculous.

"I certainly don't want to stay here so something I didn't do," she said.

Hungerford's mother, Martha Trainor of Anaconda, said Wednesday she hopes her daughter can be with her family in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas next year. Trainor, who is 84, said she and her husband, Mel, 85, are in poor health and have not been able to visit their daughter.

"We just want to say thank you to everybody, especially to Judge Cebull," Trainor said.

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