The Role Of The Jury In Criminal Sentencing
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees every person charged with a crime the right to a jury trial. The U.S. Supreme Court has further clarified that this right extends to the determination of “[a]ny fact that, by law, increases the penalty for a crime.” In other words, if prosecutors need to prove a particular element to justify a higher minimum or maximum prison sentence, it is the jury–not the judge–who must decide if that element has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Man Convicted of Participating in 1995 Murder Entitled to Third Sentencing Hearing
A recent Florida appeals court decision, Romero v. State, demonstrates how this principle works in practice. This case began more than 25 year ago when a woman was beaten and stabbed to death. Prosecutors charged the victim’s cousin–the defendant in this case–and several other men as participants in the crime. At the time of arrest, the defendant was a juvenile. He was nevertheless charged with first-degree murder and several related felonies.
At trial, the jury was instructed that it could convict the defendant of either first-degree premeditated murder or first-degree felony murder. Felony murder means the victim was killed in the course of the commission of another predicate felony, such as robbery; it does not require proof that the defendant intended to kill the victim. But as the appellate court later explained, the verdict form presented to the jury did not actually explain the difference between premeditated and felony murder. The jury proceeded to convict the defendant of first-degree murder, robbery with a deadly weapon, and conspiracy to commit robbery. The judge subsequently sentenced the defendant to life in prison.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated criminal case, Graham v. Florida, that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide crime violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The Florida legislature later amended the state’s juvenile sentencing laws to comply with the Court’s ruling. Based on this, the defendant in this requested a new sentencing hearing.
Under the new sentencing rules, a juvenile must receive a sentence of at least 40 years to life–with review after 25 years–for committing a homicide where the defendant “intended to kill” the victim. Without proof of such intent, there is no minimum sentence, and the defendant is entitled to a review hearing after 15 years.
As noted above, the jury in this case never specified whether the defendant committed premeditated or felony murder. The judge, however, decided the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to kill the victim. The judge therefore re-sentenced the defendant to life in prison.
On appeal, the Florida First District Court of Appeal said that was a mistake. A jury, not a judge, was required to make the finding that the defendant intended to kill his victim. And since it was possible the jury “relied on the felony-murder theory” to convict the defendant, it was improper for the courts to now assume otherwise. The appellate court therefore ordered yet another sentencing hearing, instructing the trial judge to follow the no-minimum sentence rule.
Contact Orlando Criminal Defense Lawyer Jose Baez Today
Even if you are found guilty of a serious crime, you are still entitled to fair treatment when it comes to sentencing. An experienced Orlando criminal lawyer can help ensure judges and prosecutors follow the rules. Contact the Baez Law Firm today if you need immediate advice or representation in connection with any criminal matter.