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April 1, 2012

Interesting piece about jury sentencing without guidelines in Virginia

This local article, headlined "Virginia judges rarely question juries' sentencing recommendations," highlights how jury sentencing in some cases may create disparities in Virginia. Here are excerpts:

128 years. And a day.  That's how much time a Hampton Circuit Court jury recommended this week that a Poquoson man, Robert King Via Jr., should spend behind bars in a 2010 home invasion case.

The jury said Via, 21, should go to prison for a century, plus 28 years and a day, for forcing his way into a home along with two other people, holding four people at gunpoint, and making off with cash.   Via was found guilty of conspiracy, armed burglary, robbery, four counts of abduction — based on holding people at gunpoint — and firearms charges.

By contrast, Samual Goodwin Sanchez, 20, of Poquoson, a co-defendant who pleaded guilty to robbery, abduction and firearms charges in the same case, ended up with only 13 years to serve.  He could be out in 11 years.

It would be interesting to see if the jury would have slammed Via as hard as they did if they had access to state sentencing guidelines, which look a criminal backgrounds, injuries to the victims and other factors.  It's designed to help equalize sentences around the state.

In Virginia's sentencing system, judges — who handle lots of cases a year and can put things in context — get those guidelines when they're issuing the sentence.  But jury members, who are usually sitting for the first time and don't have that frame of reference, do not.  Make sense to you?  Not to us, either.

Moreover, juries sometimes ask if the sentence they're about to recommend will run concurrently or consecutively, which seems an important thing for them to know. But the juries are told "not to concern themselves" with such matters. They are kept in the dark about the fact that sentences run consecutively unless a judge intervenes.

All this wouldn't be a problem if the jury sentencing recommendations were treated as just that — recommendations — and judges had the fortitude to act as safeguards when decisions are out of line.  Instead, Virginia judges seem bizarrely averse to questioning the recommendations, treating them as some sort of divine command.

April 1, 2012 at 10:19 PM | Permalink


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On the whole, I'm a fan of including juries in sentencing decisions. I think federal courts should consult juries about sentences. And I don't mean Blakely-type questions about sentencing factors, but honest-to-goodness "what do you think a just sentence would be for this defendant" submissions. Let each side present their best evidence, and see what the jury says. I often wonder how many first time defendants might get probation in cases where they now get years in prison. And I suspect that sentences for some crimes, like bank robbery, would be a lot higher than they currently are.

The problem with informing juries about the guidelines is the same as the problem with providing guidelines to judges in the first place--they tend to dominate the conversation. It is very difficult to just ignore a set of guidelines, even if we know that bureaucrats basically thought them up off the top of their heads (I'm looking at you, § 2L1.2). After spending the time and effort to figure out what guideline adjustments apply, there's not much energy left to figure out if the numbers even make any sense.

Posted by: C.E. | Apr 1, 2012 11:30:33 PM

Guilty defendants should admit guilt and provide all evidence if they want leniency, right? The American public is still substantially more conservative, and punitive toward violent criminals, than lawyers and judges.

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 2, 2012 10:40:29 AM

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