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December 10, 2018

After Virginia jury convicts James Fields of first-degree murder for killing in Charlottesville, same jury to begin considering sentence

As indicated in this brief AP report headlined "Jury to recommend sentence for white nationalist," a high-profile jury sentencing gets started today:

A man convicted of first-degree murder for driving his car into counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia faces 20 years to life in prison as jurors reconvene to consider his punishment.

The panel that convicted James Alex Fields Jr. will hear more evidence Monday before recommending a sentence for Judge Richard Moore.

Fields was convicted Friday of killing Heather Heyer during last year's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, organized to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee. The 21-year-old Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, also was found guilty of injuring dozens of others by driving into a crowd of people who were marching peacefully after the rally.

I know very little about Virginia's sentencing process, and I am now very curious about what they are allowed to hear at this stage.  I do know that Virginia jurors are not told about sentencing guidelines that would be applicable and considered at a judicial sentencing.  And I wonder if they can be told about the fact that the defendant here is also facing dozens of federal charges.  Here is a little about recent history of jury sentencing from the Virginia Sentencing Commission's 2018 Annual Report (from pages 25-27):

There are three methods by which Virginia’s criminal cases are adjudicated: guilty pleas, bench trials, and jury trials.  Felony cases in circuit courts are overwhelmingly resolved through guilty pleas from defendants, or plea agreements between defendants and the Commonwealth.  During the last fiscal year, 91% of guideline cases were sentenced following guilty pleas.  Adjudication by a judge in a bench trial accounted for 8% of all felony guidelines cases sentenced.  During FY2018 1.2% of cases involved jury trials. In a small number of cases, some of the charges were adjudicated by a judge, while others were adjudicated by a jury, after which the charges were combined into a single sentencing hearing....

In FY2018, the Commission received 270 cases adjudicated by juries.  While the concurrence rate for cases adjudicated by a judge or resolved by a guilty plea was at 82% during the fiscal year, sentences handed down by juries concurred with the guidelines only 39% of the time.  In fact, jury sentences were more likely to fall above the guidelines than within the recommended range.  This pattern of jury sentencing vis-à-vis the guidelines has been consistent since the truth-in-sentencing guidelines became effective in 1995. By law, however, juries are not allowed to receive any information regarding the sentencing guidelines....

In cases of adults adjudicated by a jury, judges are permitted by law to lower a jury sentence.  Typically, however, judges have chosen not to amend sanctions imposed by juries. In FY2018, judges modified 16% of jury sentences.

December 10, 2018 at 08:53 AM | Permalink

Comments

Juries will not be told sentencing guidelines, nor would they be told about the Federal charges. They will be told that there is no parole in Virginia, but that's about it. The biggest relevant thing here is that juries do not have the power to suspend time, which makes it particularly problematic given the tendencies not to deviate from the jury recommendation.

I saw the report that the defendant was convicted of 1st Degree Murder, but I haven't seen any reports about a verdict on all remaining charges. Assuming just that conviction, the jury cannot go below 20 years, while a Judge can. If he was convicted on all counts, the jury must recommend a sentence of at least 120 years, if I'm counting correctly (20 years on the murder charge and each Aggravated Malicious Wounding charges, 5 years on each Malicious Wounding charge).

Posted by: Erik M | Dec 10, 2018 5:56:39 PM

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