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May 23, 2014

Conceptual considerations for differentiating sentence finality and conviction finality

As explained here, I have been "celebrating" the official publication of my article titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences" (which is available in full via this SSRN link) through a series of posts exploring sentence finality doctrines and practice.  And, as set forth in this prior post, a central theme of my piece is that different conceptual, policy, and practical considerations are implicated when a defendant seeks only review and reconsideration of his final sentence and does not challenge his underlying conviction.  In prior posts (all linked below), I reviewed the first part of my article where I detail (perhaps too briefly) how the forms and functions of different punishment systems throughout US history have provided different frameworks for the legal and practical relationship between conviction finality and sentence finality.  

With this post, I will start spotlighting the conceptual, policy, and practical considerations discussed in the second part of my article.  Here I seek to detail my view that fundamental differences between trials and sentencings entail that final convictions and final sentences are necessarily and inherently "different legal creatures" which, in turn, should raise questions about any claims that convictions and sentences necessarily must or generally should be given the same kind of treatment for finality purposes.  Here is some of my discussion about key conceptual differences between convictions and sentences: 

Criminal trials are inherently backward-looking, offense-oriented events, and convictions reflect and represent binary factual determinations about legal guilt.  Typically, trial disputes center on particular issues of historical fact; trials are designed and intended to achieve an accurate and specific legal determination that resolves these factual disputes in order to establish formally, for all pertinent legal purposes, whether the defendant in fact committed a criminal offense that calls for society’s condemnation and state punishment.  At issue at trial may be whether the defendant was the person who committed a wrongful act, what the defendant’s mental state was, or whether the defendant used a weapon or inflicted a particular injury.  Whatever the specific factual issue in dispute, in every criminal trial the advocates and the adjudicators can and should be given all the resources needed — and should be committed to and able to invest all necessary time, energies, and efforts — to marshal and review whatever evidence and information exists concerning the past historical events that are at the heart of the government’s accusations concerning a defendant’s alleged misconduct and wrongdoing. Every effort necessarily should be made to ensure — and every traditional constitutional and evidentiary rule is styled in order to ensure — that a criminal defendant is given a full and fair opportunity to raise a reasonable doubt about the government’s allegations, and trial decision-makers are required to choose from a fixed and limited set of possible trial verdicts as they resolve factual questions concerning guilt or innocence....  [When] the prosecution prevails at trial through a guilty verdict, this outcome of conviction justifiably merits a strong presumption of regularity and accuracy in light of all the time, energies, and efforts marshaled by the participants to get the fundamental guilt determination right initially.

Sentencings, in sharp contrast, involve assessing the future treatment and legal fate of only those offenders convicted after a trial or plea has resolved basic backward-looking factual disputes about guilt and degrees of criminality.  No matter which modern punishment philosophies a jurisdiction principally embraces, sentencing determinations will necessarily always incorporate some offender-oriented considerations, many of which involve assessments of a defendant’s personal history and characteristics to make a forward-looking prediction of the offender’s likelihood of committing future crimes. Though sentencing proceedings may often incorporate some backward-looking considerations concerning how and why a particular crime was committed, the focus of the advocates and the adjudicators is always broader, always more multifaceted and multi-dimensional, and always more granular and nuanced than the basic binary issues of historical fact that are resolved at trial and reflected in a criminal conviction.  The legal issue at sentencing is no longer simply what happened and who was involved in alleged criminal conduct, but what to do with the convicted criminal in light of his, the victims’, and society’s needs.  Sentencing decisionmakers, even within modern determinate sentencing schemes, are presented with a wide array of information about both the offense and the offender, and these decisionmakers are also typically given at least some (and often lots of) discretion to consider an array of possible punishments and sentencing dispositions.

Prior posts in this series:

May 23, 2014 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

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