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July 4, 2005

Blakely and jury trial rights getting serious respect in NC

In suggested in this post that re-reading the Supreme Court's Blakely decision is a fine way to celebrate liberty on the Fourth of July.  In the same vein, I can also recommend reviewing last week's Blakely work by the North Carolina Supreme Court through its Allen opinion and by the North Carolina legislature through its Blakely fix (detailed in this recent post).  In stark contrast to what we have seen in the federal system and in a few states, all the post-Blakely developments in North Carolina give serious respect to jury trial rights and to Blakely's vision of those rights.

The Allen case is a fascinating read because the North Carolina Supreme Court justices are not debating whether Blakely should be found applicable to NC's sentencing guidelines system; Blakely's applicability to aggravating factors is treated almost as a given.  Rather, the big deabte in Allen is whether Blakely violations should be deemed structural errors or subject to harmless error review.   Stating boldly that "the imposition of a constitutional punishment is just as important to a criminal defendant and to society as is a constitutional determination of the defendant's guilt or innocence," the NC Supreme Court declares Blakely errors structural and expresses great concern about judges applying harmless error to "speculate" on issues never presented to juries.

Meanwhile, also giving great respect to Blakely and jury trial rights, North Carolina's now enacted Blakely fix bill, H822, that provides for jury determination of nearly all aggravating factors, including factors that are closely related to prior convictions.  In other words, though the Blakely fix in NC does codify the Almendarez-Torres "prior conviction exception," it gives that exception a narrow reach.  So, rather than adopt an "advisory guideline" dodge of Blakely rights, the North Carolina has simply provided for jury determination of aggravating factors (which is to occur as part of jury consideration of basic guilt/innocence, unless a judge bifurcates in the "interests of justice").  In addition, providing notice as well as jury trial rights, the NC Blakely fix requires the state to give 30 days written notice to the defense of intent to seek an aggravated range sentence.

Kudos to the state of North Carolina for honoring, through all its branches of government, the patriotic values of freedom, democracy and limits on government oppression that I believe are at the core of Blakely's holding.

July 4, 2005 at 07:37 PM | Permalink

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