Sunday, April 6, 2008

Truth in Sentencing

From Sentencing Law and Policy came this report of a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York declaring a mistrial after polling the jury once they returned a guilty verdict. The judge declared the mistrial because the jury explained "had they known" of the harsh mandatory minimum sentence facing the defendant they would not have found him guilty.

Gideon picked up on the story here:
In most states, like in CT, juries aren’t told of the consequences of guilty verdicts: what the mandatory-minimum sentence is, what the maximum sentence is, whether the defendant will be sentence to probation, etc.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this issue and it won’t be the last. I can’t decide. My reluctance to embrace juries knowing about sentences stems from tradition, I guess. It’s just what I’ve become used to . . .

But the benefits are obvious. With harsh sentencing and almost anything being a crime, this would be a way for the community - through the jury - to make a statement about what is and isn’t worthy of jail time and whether the sentences set out by the legislature are just and sufficient.

Commenting on Gideon's post the Windypundit opined:
One of the mysteries facing every juror is the meaning of “reasonable doubt.” As far as I know, the legal system has resisted most attempts to clarify the meaning of “reasonable” or make it easier to apply. Jurors aren’t told how careful they should be.

In most other fields where quality matters, the amount of care given to establishing quality depends on the consequences of an error. This is why airplanes are inspected more carefully than cars, and pacemakers more carefully than flashlights.

I think letting jurors know the consequences of a guilty verdict will give them a clearer idea of how much doubt is reasonable. A nagging doubt for six months suspended might seem more reasonable for a five year minimum.

In federal court juries are not permitted to decide sentencing. Federal defendants face mandatory minimums and sentencing based on rigid guidelines. In Texas, however, juries are permitted to assess punishment and to consider a full range of punishment when they're elected to assess the penalty after conviction.

The issue Gideon posited was whether knowing the punishment outcome had any affect upon the juror's perception of reasonable doubt. The purest form of "truth in sentencing" is, of course, in capital cases. The jury knows when they convict of capital murder, without mitigating circumstances, the defendant will be sentenced to death. Presumably, since the jury knows the sentencing outcome they'll examine the government's case more skeptically and demand more proof simply because they know what's at stake.

What about non-capital cases? Is there any type of "truth in sentencing" which might give a jury pause to convict knowing the punishment outcome? In a word? No. At least not in Texas. This might be a great idea if the punishment was predetermined and neither the judge nor jury was given discretion to depart from it. In Texas, however, the only other criminal sentence the jury knows in advance is capital murder when the death penalty is waived. If convicted the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment automatically.

With that said, a Texas jury is not bound by any predetermined sentence. They are given a wide range of punishment outcomes and the power to chose what they think is best. Although "truth in sentencing" is not at work in its purest form, I've seen juries compromise for a lenient punishment result when the proof of guilt was on the slim side.

Nevertheless, I strongly support the right to jury punishment in criminal cases. The right gives an accused flexibility and tactical options when preparing their case for trial. It's not a perfect system by any means. But it is far better than the federal alternative with its harsh mandatory minimums and rigid sentencing guidelines.

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