Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Today the Supreme Court heard the case Cunningham v. California. The Court reviewed whether California's Determinate Sentencing Law, by permitting judges to impose enhanced (upper term) sentences based on determination of facts not found by jury or admitted by the defendant, violates the 6th and 14th Amendments.
John Cunningham, a former Richmond police officer, was sentenced to a 16 year prision term for sexually abusing his son. Under California's determinate sentencing law, which dates back to 1977, all felonies except murder and a few others punishable by up to life in prison are subject to three possible sentences. For Cunningham's crime, continuous sexual abuse of a child, the options are 6, 12 or 16 years. The defendant must be sentenced to the middle term unless the judge justifies the higher or lower term by finding specific factors. Only about 15 percent of defendants sentenced in California are in Cunningham's category -- those whose judges chose the longest of three possible sentences prescribed by a verdict. But according to Stanford CrimProf Jeffrey Fisher, the judge's power to select that term, based on information that never goes before a jury, gives prosecutors in many other cases leverage in charging decisions and plea-bargain negotiations. CrimProf Fisher, who filed arguements supporting John Cunningham, says a ruling in Cunningham's favor will affect most felony prosecutions in the state. More on the case. . . [Michele Berry]