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June 25, 2004

Supreme Court rules to limit judges' power in sentencing

Atrios writes:

Smarter Supremo Watchers than me may know better, but this 5-4 split sure is a weird one to me.

I have no knowledge about this area, but at a first pass I agree with Scalia. Scary.

So do I, as does Scott Lemieux of Lawyers Guns and Money. This quote is going to come back to haunt Scalia, I'm sure:

In deciding today that the Washington high court was wrong, Justice Scalia wrote, in the biting tone that has become his trademark, "The Framers would not have thought it too much to demand that, before depriving a man of three more years of his liberty, the state should suffer the modest inconvenience" of submitting its accusation to a jury.

According to the Times, the issue is whether judges may decide that a defendant deserves extra jail time based on extenuating factors. If so, judges would have been allowed to take into account factors that had not necessarily been established beyond a reasonable doubt. The majority ruled that this was unacceptable.

The test case was that of Ralph Howard Blakely Jr., who kidnapped his victim, bound and gagged her, stuffed her in a wooden box in the back of his pickup, drove her around, and forced her young son to watch:

Mr. Blakely pleaded guilty to kidnapping his former wife, Yolanda, in Grant County, Wash., in 1998 in a vain attempt to persuade her to remarry him. The circumstances of the crime called for a sentence of up to four years five months under state guidelines.

The judge tried to add on an extra three years to Mr. Blakely's term for extreme cruelty. (Is it just me, or does it seem like he got a lighter sentence for kidnapping his own wife than he would have for kidnapping a stranger?) I agree with the majority that people shouldn't be sentenced on the basis of things that weren't proven in court. On the other hand, the state did prove all the facts about the binding, gagging, box-stuffing, and forcing the kid to watch. I'm not sure how you prove extreme cruelty beyond a reasonable doubt. The article doesn't say whether the jury declined the option of adding time for cruelty. But, if so, then the judge shouldn't be allowed to overrule that decision.


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