News: CJ Exclusives

Courts Find Sentences Unconstitutional

Supreme Court, state appeals court issue decisions affecting NC criminal law

Among the most significant cases the U.S. Supreme Court decided last term was Blakely v. Washington, in which it found portions of Washington state’s criminal sentencing laws were unconstitutional. The court’s reasoning was sweeping, and Blakely called into question how courts across the land, both state and federal, determine sentences. Last Tuesday, the N.C. Court of Appeals found that the same constitutional problems found in Washington also exist under North Carolina’s sentencing system.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides for trial by jury. In a recent series of rulings the U.S. Supreme Court has clarified exactly what this right entails. In a 2000 case, Apprendi v. New Jersey, the court held that “Other than the fact of prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In Blakely v. Washington, the high court examined the meaning of “prescribed statutory maximum.” Ralph Blakely pleaded guilty in a plea bargain to second- degree kidnapping involving a firearm. Washington State law ordinarily provides for a sentence of 49 to 53 months in prison for the crime for someone with Blakely’s criminal background. At sentencing, the judge, however, invoked a different law, unilaterally finding that Blakely had acted with “deliberate cruelty” and sentenced him to 90 months.

In June, the Supreme Court overturned the longer sentence. “The relevant statutory maximum for Apprendi purposes is the maximum a judge may impose based solely on the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant,” wrote Justice Anton Scalia for the court.

“In other words, the relevant ‘statutory maximum’ is not the maximum sentence a judge may impose after finding additional facts, but the maximum he may impose without any additional findings. When a judge inflicts punishment that the jury’s verdict alone does not allow, the jury has not found all the facts ‘which the law makes essential to the punishment,’ … and the judge exceeds his proper authority.”

The first opportunity for North Carolina appellate courts to examine the implications of Blakely came in the case of Timmy Speight, a Pitt County man appealing two involuntary manslaughter conviction and a driving-while-impaired finding. After Blakely was decided, Speight also filed a motion to have his sentence shortened.

North Carolina law provides for three sentencing ranges for crimes: a presumptive (default) range, a mitigated range, and an aggravated range. The mitigated range and aggravated range are 25 percent shorter and longer respectively from the presumptive range. A judge determines by a preponderance of the evidence at sentencing if aggravating or mitigating factors exist. If the judge determines that these aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating factors, he may impose a sentence in the aggravated range.
Speight was sentenced in the aggravated range for all three convictions.

“As the jury did not decide the aggravating factors considered by the trial court, defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury was violated,” wrote Judge Robert Hunter for the appeals court in ordering that Speight be resentenced (the court upheld his convictions).

The Court of Appeals also rejected the state’s argument that the court should examine whether the sentencing error might be harmless, noting that case law mandates a new sentencing hearing.

The case is State v. Speight, (03-776).

And here’s the Apprendi link.

And the Blakely link.

Michael Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.