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Justices weaken hope for inmates

State high court says prison sentences put in jeopardy by a federal ruling can be upheld.

July 20, 2007|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday salvaged thousands of tough criminal sentences that had been put in question by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the state's sentencing law was unconstitutional.

Although the state high court decided that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of inmates may have their sentences reconsidered, it also said trial courts were free to uphold them under a new, stopgap sentencing law passed in March to resolve the constitutional flaws.

The state court's action, which came in two separate decisions, removed a cloud over thousands of criminal sentences that had been in doubt since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that California's law gave judges too much power to add extra years to a prison sentence.

The state had faced the prospect of having thousands of cases sent back to juries. More than 100 sentencing challenges are now pending before the California Supreme Court, which intends to refer them back to lower courts for resolution under the guidelines the court set Thursday, a court spokeswoman said.

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said the rulings, which represented a victory for his office, prevented "any disruption to the judicial system," but also preserved a sentencing system that the Legislature and the governor must reinvent.

"It's another step in maintenance of the failing status quo," Brown said. "It could have been worse. It could have meant a bunch of retrials. It is good we don't have to go through thousands of retrials, but it still leaves the current failure locked in place."

"It took my breath away," said Santa Clara University Law professor Gerald Uelmen, an expert on the state high court. "I am really amazed that in one fell swoop they pretty much cleaned up the mess."

The court "pulled a rabbit out of the hat," but also left defendants with a "pyrrhic victory" because judges are permitted to simply reinstate maximum sentences, Uelmen said.

Although the decisions deflected a threatened upheaval in the state's courts, more work for courts and judges is still in store, as inmates intend to press their petitions for resentencing, even if their chances are slim, defense lawyers said.

"For defendants there is no downside to going back and seeking resentencing," said UC Berkeley law professor Charles D. Weisselberg.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that California's 30-year-old sentencing law violated the U.S. Constitution because it permitted judges to stiffen sentences based on facts the jury never found.

In one of the cases the court decided Thursday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito had sentenced a defendant, Aida Sandoval, to a maximum term for manslaughter convictions based on findings that the jury had not reached. Ito found that the crimes were premeditated, even though the jury rejected premeditation when reaching its verdict.

The California Supreme Court said Sandoval's 6th Amendment right to a jury trial had been violated, and "the case must be remanded for resentencing." But later in the ruling, the court said the judge could reinstate the same sentence as long as it was consistent with the law and the facts of the case.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who wrote both rulings, said it was "likely in all but the rarest of cases" that judges would simply resentence inmates to the same terms.

Before the Legislature changed the law in March, California's sentencing scheme provided three possible prison terms for crimes. Judges were to select the middle term unless they decided that aggravating factors justified the maximum sentence or mitigating factors warranted the minimum.

The new state law permits judges to select any of the three terms and requires them to simply state their reasons. Although the Legislature didn't specify that the law would be retroactive, George said the court had the authority to apply it to cases that will be resentenced.

Thursday's rulings also limited the pool of inmates who may have their sentences reevaluated. As long as the judge's rationale included one of three permissible factors -- a defendant's criminal history, a factual finding by the jury or a defendant's admission -- the sentence stands, regardless of whether the judge considered several other improper factors, the court said.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Lawrence Daniels, who argued one of the cases before the court, said there were about 19,000 inmates in California with maximum sentences. But he said that many, if not most, received the maximum sentence because of their criminal history, which the court said was constitutional.

Defense attorneys predicted that the state's decision may eventually be challenged in federal court because they said it conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling.

"I think we are in for some more litigation," said John T. Philipsborn, who represented criminal defense lawyers in one of the cases. "My sense is that the court is trying very hard to justify the California approach, and it is not clear that California has it right."

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