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Virginia: Defendant entitled to new sentencing hearing after the jury recommended an illegally high sentence

Sep 29, 2009 Virginia: Defendant entitled to new sentencing hearing after the jury recommended an illegally high sentence

In Virginia, the jury decides guilt-innocence, and recommends a sentence in the event of a conviction.

Jerome Rawls was sentenced to 25 years in prison on the jury’s recommendation, for second degree murder. At the time of sentencing, Rawls’s lawyer, the prosecutor, and the trial judge mistakenly thought that the then-existing forty-year maximum sentence (instituted in 1993) applied, but instead the twenty-year maximum applied, as it existed at the time of the 1992 crime.

Last Friday, Virginia’s Supreme Court rejected simply reducing Rawls’s sentence from 25 years to the twenty-year statutory maximum to remedy the situation. Rawls v. Virginia, ___ Va. __ (Sept. 25, 2009). The Supreme Court held that to do so would violate Rawls’s full right to a jury trial, and ordered a new sentencing hearing, which means he will be entitled to have a jury a the hearing. Rawls is silent on the procedure for the new sentencing hearing, but it would appear that Rawls will be entitled to have the jury hear the entire trial transcript read to the jury, and to have all the previously-admitted trial exhibits presented. Perhaps this will encourage the prosecution to attempt plea negotiations with Rawls in an effort to avert such an involved hearing, particularly if any of the trial exhibits have since been lost.

On an additional note, kudos to Mr. Rawls for successfully filing a pro se request to have the matter considered by Virginia’s Supreme Court, which appointed counsel for the appeal. Jon Katz.

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