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Ruling Could Change Sentencing Nationwide

June 25, 2004|David G. Savage and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cast new doubt Thursday on the way criminals are sentenced in many American courts, ruling that juries -- not judges -- must decide on all the factors that result in harsher sentences.

Typically, judges are authorized to give a convicted criminal more prison time based on the circumstances of the crime. For example, if a convicted bank robber used a gun or threatened a teller, the judge might add several years to the sentence.

But in a potentially far-reaching decision, an unusual alliance of conservative and liberal justices called that system unjust and a violation of the basic principle that juries decide all aspects of a person's guilt.

"The right of jury trial ... is no mere procedural formality," said Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking for the 5-4 majority. He said the jury must find the robber guilty of using a gun and threatening the teller before the judge can impose the extra prison time.

The court overturned an extra three years in prison given to a Washington state man who had pleaded guilty to kidnapping his estranged wife and their son. The trial judge said Ralph Blakely, the kidnapper, had displayed "deliberate cruelty" and therefore deserved more prison time than the maximum 53 months set by the state's sentencing guidelines. He imposed a 90-month sentence.

In Blakely vs. Washington, Scalia said that decision was unfair and unconstitutional; he was joined by justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In an unusually strong dissent from the bench, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor called the ruling a "disaster" that would cause enormous problems nationwide. She said federal sentencing guidelines might now be unconstitutional, since they permit judges to raise sentences based on such factors as whether a criminal carried a weapon.

O'Connor said many states had moved away from setting a rigid sentence for a particular crime, and had turned to sentencing guidelines to bring about fairness and equality.

"Over 20 years of sentencing reform are all but lost, and tens of thousands of criminal judgments are in jeopardy," she said.

But no sooner had O'Connor denounced Scalia's opinion as having nearly unlimited repercussions than Scalia announced one clear limit on it. The rule will not be applied retroactively to reopen old cases, Scalia said in an Arizona death penalty case.

That means more than 100 inmates who were sent to death row by judges in Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska will not get new sentencing hearings before juries.

In California, as well as in most states that use the death penalty, juries decide first whether an alleged murderer is guilty and then whether he should die for the crime.

By contrast, Arizona and a few other states have called on judges to decide whether murderers, once convicted by juries, deserved to die. Two years ago, the same five-member majority that overturned Blakely's sentence struck down Arizona's judge-driven sentencing system in the case of Ring vs. Arizona.

On Thursday, however, Scalia called this a mere "procedural rule," not a change in the fundamental law, and therefore a rule that did not require reopening old cases.

The Ring decision "does not apply retroactively to cases already final," Scalia said for a different 5-4 majority. The four liberal dissenters -- Breyer, Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg -- questioned how the court could uphold the death sentences imposed on scores of inmates through what Scalia had agreed was an unconstitutional sentencing procedure.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year said that death row inmates in Arizona were entitled to new sentencing hearings before juries. Arizona's prison director, Dora Schriro, appealed, and Thursday's ruling in Schriro vs. Summerlin reversed the 9th Circuit's ruling.

The outcome affects 86 cases in Arizona and two dozen in Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, according to lawyers in the case.

Dale Baich, who heads the capital appeals unit for the federal public defender's office in Phoenix, said he was disappointed by the outcome. "The court relied on a judicially created procedural technicality to deny the right to fact-finding by a jury. It's a sad day for the Constitution," he said.

But Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento said he was relieved that the court did not reopen the dozens of old cases. He said it would be unfair to families of victims and to state prosecutors if the Supreme Court was "constantly changing rules for sentencing capital murders" and then imposed the new rules on old cases. "Hopefully, today's decision in Summerlin ... will put a stop to this," Scheidegger said.

USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky predicted the ruling giving new power to juries would have a huge effect. "I think Justice O'Connor is right. It is a very big deal," he said.

"From today going forward, it will change how trials are conducted in every federal court in the nation."

Savage reported from Washington and Weinstein from Los Angeles.

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