Judges could maintain the right simply to throw out jury verdicts they don’t like under a case currently being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case involves three men who were sentenced to 19 years in prison even though a jury had found them not-guilty of major drug charges. The judge’s action, critics say, ignores the Constitution’s protection of a trial by jury.
“Sentencing then becomes the real trial, with the judge being given carte blanche to engage as factfinder,” attorneys for the Rutherford Institute and the Cato Institute wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief for the three men. “This is constitutionally improper. Instead, the conviction must fall or stand with the jury to be ‘the lawful judgment of his peers.’”
The attorneys are appealing sentences that US District Judge Richard Roberts gave to three Washington, D.C. men in 2011. A jury found Joseph Jones, Desmond Thurston and Antwuan Bell not guilty of a variety of conspiracy charges in 2008 but did convict them of possessing small amounts of cocaine. Three years later Roberts sentenced the men as if each was guilty of conspiracy charges and in possession of 1.5 kilograms of cocaine, because he felt evidence indicated that they were guilty.
How Federal Judges Can Ignore Juries
The problem with Roberts’ ruling is that the jury found that there was insufficient evidence to prove the existence of the conspiracy. Evidence indicates – and the jury agreed — that each of the men was carrying only a few ounces of crack when arrested, Rutherford and Cato say.
Roberts effectively tripled or quadrupled their sentences, Ohio University Law Professor Douglas Berman has argued. Berman has filed a separate brief on behalf of the three men.
A federal appeals court upheld Roberts’ ruling, prompting the attorneys to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has until July 28 to decide whether to hear the appeal. If the court doesn’t hear the appeal, the power of federal judges to throw out jury verdicts will be upheld.
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“This alarmingly common practice by unelected federal judges of considering charges that criminal defendants were not convicted of during sentencing usurps the role of the jury and violates the constitutional right of citizens to be judged by a jury of their peers,” Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead noted in a press release.
“The very idea that judges could be allowed to discard the sound decisions of the jury in favor of their own determination of the facts runs contrary to the principles embodied in the Sixth Amendment, and to the very idea of a trial by a jury of our peers,” Whitehead said.
The right to a trial by jury is guaranteed by Article III and the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Rutherford and Cato attorneys argued. They also noted that the right to jury dates back to the Magna Carta signed in England in 1215. Trial by jury is considered to be the basis of the common law used in all English-speaking countries.
“But the end result is inconsistent with the maxim that no one be imprisoned except by the lawful judgment of his peers,” the Cato and Rutherford attorneys wrote of the legal precedents.
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