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In a move that could make thousands of prisoners eligible for shorter sentences and flood the courts with appeals for new trials, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a key part of California's sentencing law.

The court ruled in a 6-3 vote that a state law allowing judges to impose stricter sentences based on facts not presented to a jury at trial was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruling sends a message to the lower courts that juries, not judges, must determine facts that justify harsher prison sentences.

``This court has repeatedly held that, under the Sixth Amendment, any fact that exposes a defendant to a greater potential sentence must be found by the jury, not a judge, and established beyond a reasonable doubt, not merely by a preponderance of the evidence,'' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.

Placing a new obstacle on California's road to correctional reform, the ruling came in the case of a former Richmond police officer convicted of sexually abusing his son. The defendant originally received a 12-year sentence, but the judge in the case elevated it to 16 years, based on aggravating facts presented at a sentencing hearing after the trial.

State Attorney General Jerry Brown predicted the decision would lead to thousands of appeals being filed, taking valuable time away from already busy judges and prosecutors.

``It's going to clog the courts with possibly thousands of new cases,'' Brown said in a telephone interview. ``Prosecutors have to deal with some of the toughest criminals, who got the highest terms. They're going to want to come back with a jury trial, a new trial -- not on the guilt or innocence, but on the aggravating fact.''

The state Legislature, Brown said, needs to reform the state's entire sentencing system, to create more consistency, but also look at ways to reduce recidivism.

Some prisoner advocates praised the ruling, saying it was the legally correct decision and will lead to fairer trials and sentences.

``It's a monumental shift in the legal landscape for prisoners in California because it reaffirms the right of juries, not judges, to decide sentences,'' said Charles Carbone, litigation director for California Prison Focus, a San Francisco-based nonprofit prisoner advocacy group.

``And what it means in practice is that thousands of inmates will have their sentences reviewed in California because the judge in their cases set a maximum term based upon facts that were never considered by a jury of their peers.''

Decision welcomed

Others said it could actually mean good news for prosecutors, who may be granted new leeway to present aggravating facts during the course of a trial, rather than wait until the sentencing phase.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, a former prosecutor and current member of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, argued that the ruling means horrifying details of a crime that a judge in the past might have blocked as highly prejudicial, might have to be presented before the jury decides guilt or innocence. That, Spitzer predicted, could lead to more defendants seeking early settlement of cases.

``As a former prosecutor, I have no problem asking the jury to consider factors in aggravation,'' Spitzer said. ``You generally can't get that into evidence. Juries are now going to hear things they never heard before.

``I don't have any problem with the decision. I think it's going to help prosecutions.''

He added that if current prisoners do receive shorter terms, in most cases it will only be a shortening of six months to a year, particularly at a time when many sentences are shortened for good behavior anyway.

Little impact in L.A.

In Los Angeles, District Attorney Steve Cooley said he had anticipated the ruling and predicted it would have little effect.

``It will have minimal impact in Los Angeles County because the majority of our cases, 96 percent, are resolved by case settlement,'' Cooley said. ``As soon as this issue came up in 2004, we began taking the appropriate waivers from defendants to avoid any sentencing issues.''

Cooley said there were ``few cases'' where a judge imposed a higher term after a jury trial, but in such cases the defendant can ask the court to review the case, and Cooley said his office will work with the courts to resolve those cases.

The state law at issue in the case allows sentences based on three ranges of years. In the sexual abuse case of former police Officer John Cunningham, the sentence could have been the lower term of six years, the middle term of 12 years, or the upper term of 16 years.

The jury verdict determined a 12-year sentence, but the judge elevated it to 16 years based on six aggravating circumstances -- such as the violent conduct of the defendant and the vulnerability of the victim -- that were not presented at the jury trial.

The Supreme Court found this to be a violation of the defendant's Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to a fair trial by jury, and essentially returned the sentence to 12 years. The case is Cunningham v. California. The court also indicated that California courts and the Legislature could seek modifications in the law to address the constitutional question.

Cases uncertain

Officials with the state Department of Corrections said it is hard to determine how many cases might be affected by the ruling. The state doesn't have precise statistics on cases in which judges imposed stricter sentences based on facts not presented to the jury, so the issue will be determined by the courts on a case-by-case basis, or by legislative efforts to amend the sentencing process so it conforms with the court decision, said Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa.

The California Supreme Court had cited data from the 1980s that in roughly 15 percent of single-count felony cases a judge imposes a stricter sentence based on aggravating factors.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has proposed a prison reform plan to relieve massive overcrowding, said he was still evaluating the decision.

``We are working with the attorney general to determine the impact this decision will have on the state,'' Schwarzenegger said in a written statement. ``I support longer sentences for criminals who deserve them. As governor I will work to ensure that this decision will not be a threat to public safety.''

Similarly, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, was also cautious about interpreting the ruling.

``It is too soon to fully gauge what impact the Supreme Court's decision will have on California's corrections system,'' Nunez said in a written statement.

Need for reform

Sen. Gloria Romero, who is involved in prison reform efforts, said the court's decision provides further proof that the state's sentencing guidelines need to be reformed. She proposed a bill last week to create a state sentencing commission to bring more uniformity to the guidelines.

Schwarzenegger has also separately called for a similar commission.

Some Republicans believe sentencing reform is really an effort to shorten sentences and let more convicts out of prison, but Romero said that is not the intent.

``I would say they don't have an understanding of what a sentencing commission is or does,'' Romero said. ``The goal of a sentencing commission in California is to promote uniformity and consistency of sentencing laws and practices in the state of California. There's not a goal to shorten, there's not a goal to lengthen. The goal is to make sense.''

``Given the Supreme Court decision (Monday), if there's any doubt that we lack sense in our sentencing penal code, then a 6-3 decision is pretty powerful.''

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report


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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 23, 2007

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