The Fight to Protect Your Rights Doesn’t End When A Jury Finds You Guilty
The fight to protect your rights doesn’t end when a jury finds you guilty!
After the jury verdict comes the sentencing hearing. The sentencing hearing is as much a part of the legal process as arrest, imprisonment, and trial. Here—as at every stage in the criminal justice system—you have important constitutional rights that a skilled practitioner of criminal law will know how to safeguard against mistake and abuse. These are rights that frequently come under attack, and where violations can go all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued 3 separate opinions, affecting the rights of persons at sentencing hearings.
First, the Court clarified its rules on the use of victim impact statements. Victim impact statements are a favorite tool of prosecutors and often leave a deep impression on jurors who hear them; they may consist of victims and victims family members personally recounting graphic details of a crime, and telling jurors how their lives have never been the same.
Because victim impact statements have such immense power of persuasion and can unfairly crowd out consideration of other factors, courts have been very careful in limiting what can go into such statements and how they are to be presented. As previously noted, a victim impact statement can contain details about how the crime was committed and how it affected the victims. A victim impact statement CANNOT, however, contain unrelated claims about the character of the victim or the accused. Nor can it contain personal recommendations as to what the jury’s sentence should be. Recently the Court overturned a death sentence because during victim impact statements at the defendant’s sentencing hearing, three family members of the victim told jurors that the defendant should be executed. (This case was Bosse v. Oklahoma. Generally speaking in New Jersey, jurors to not get victim impact statements).
Next, the Court set forth a rule that defense attorneys have a duty to present jurors with each and every mitigating factor, before sentencing is opposed. Mitigating factors are any factors which may lead a jury to conclude that a defendant should receive a lower sentence then the sentence being sought by prosecutors. The Court further held that where a defense attorney fails to present mitigating factors before sentencing, the sentence must be set aside and reconsidered.
The Court specifically considered a case where a defendant had been exposed to industrial strength neurotoxins as a child and throughout his adult life, resulting in brain-damage that hampered his emotional intelligence and voluntary control of his own actions. At defendant’s sentencing hearing his attorney failed to raise this issue; telling jurors only that defendant was very “remorseful,” and that they should consider how sorry he was in imposing sentencing. This was a violation of defendant’s rights, and because the jury was not told about defendant’s brain damage defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. (This case was Elmore v. Holbrook; from Washington State. In New Jersey, as a general rule, mitigating factors are presented to the judge, not the jury.)
Finally, the Court further restricted the cases in which juvenile defendant’s can be sentenced to life in prison. While long holding that such sentences are generally inappropriate for persons under the age of 18 and to be reserved for only exceptional cases, the Court has now clarified: juries are only to impose life sentences on minors if they find that they are irreparably corrupted and have absolutely zero chance of rehabilitation. Any case in which a jury does not make such a finding and imposes a life sentence upon a juvenile defendant is a case in which sentencing has been imposed incorrectly, and in violation of constitutional rights. (This case was Tatum v. Arizona)
Make sure you go to court with an attorney that will fight for your rights at EVERY STAGE of your case!