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Innocence, Remorse, and Sentencing

Our criminal justice system is based on a presumption that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Additionally, any defendant has the right to insist that he or she is innocent and force the state to prove its case, as well as the right not to be compelled to testify against himself or herself.  But if a defendant continues to assert her innocence even after a conviction, can that be used against her in sentencing? Recently, a Florida appellate court considered this question.

Florida’s sentencing process – an overview

Under Florida law, it is typically the judge in a criminal case who pronounces a convicted defendant’s sentence (at least in a non-death penalty case).  As Florida’s Department of Corrections explains, the state’s Criminal Punishment Code establishes the permissible range of sentences in each case.  The prosecutor must prepare a scoresheet for every defendant that considers a variety of factors, each of which is assigned a points value.  The total number of points determines the sentencing range.  Factors affecting the sentence include:

  • The severity of the offenses with which defendant has been charged;
  • Whether and how severely the crime victim was injured;
  • Defendant’s prior record;
  • Defendant’s status when the crime was committed (e.g., was he on probation or otherwise under court supervision?); and
  • Whether defendant used a firearm in committing the crime.

In some cases, the judge may award a lesser sentence than the scoresheet calls for (called a downward departure from the sentencing guidelines).  The law permits a downward departure if certain mitigating factors are present. Among these factors are:

  • Whether the departure results from a plea bargain;
  • Whether the defendant was an accomplice and played a minor role in the crime;
  • Whether the defendant’s ability to to appreciate the criminal nature of the conduct or conform the conduct to the law was substantially impaired;
  • Whether the defendant suffers from mental health issues; and
  • Whether the criminal conduct was an isolated incident and the defendant expresses remorse.

Does a claim of innocence preclude remorse?

Recently, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal had reason to consider the effect a lack of remorse should have on sentencing.  In the case of Macan v. State, the defendant Lisa Macan, a nurse in an assisted living facility, was convicted of stealing morphine from an elderly patient in her care.  Although before trial Macan signed written statements confessing that she had taken the morphine, at trial she argued that she was innocent and that her statements were not true.  During sentencing, the judge focused repeatedly on Macan’s failure to show remorse, take responsibility for her actions, or apologize to the victim’s family.  Macan appealed both her conviction and her sentence.

Macan argued that the trial judge erred in imposing a sentence that took her lack of remorse into account.  The trial court affirmed her conviction but agreed with her about her sentence, noting that it is a violation of due process to punish a defendant for maintaining her innocence.  When a defendant continuously maintains her innocence throughout trial and sentencing, a judge cannot constitutionally consider the fact that she has failed to show remorse to support a stiffer sentence.  Because the trial court repeatedly referred to Macan’s failure to demonstrate remorse, the appeals court concluded that it impermissibly relied on that lack of remorse in setting the sentence.  Macan’s case was remanded for resentencing before a different judge.

Reach out to an Orlando Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you are facing criminal charges, the skilled and experienced criminal defense lawyers of The Baez Law Firm can help.  We represent clients in Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and throughout the state in a wide variety of criminal matters, large and small.  Contact us to discuss your case today.

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