Criminal defendants have a right to a trial by a jury of their peers, and most choose to exercise this right. When a jury issues a verdict, the court typically must rely on the verdict in issuing a sentence. If a judge weighs facts outside of the verdict, however, or imputes his or her own findings for the jury’s, it may result in an unjust sentence and may be grounds for an appeal. This was demonstrated in a recent New Jersey opinion issued in a case in which the defendant was convicted of second-degree kidnapping but sentenced as if she was convicted of first-degree kidnapping.
The Defendant’s Charges and Trial
It is alleged that a woman was found murdered in a vacant building. An investigation revealed that seven individuals, including the defendant, were looking for the woman prior to her death. A woman was arrested who admitted to kidnapping and killing the woman. The woman implicated the defendant and six other parties in her crimes. Thus, the defendant was arrested and charged with numerous crimes, including first-degree kidnapping. A trial was conducted, after which the jury convicted the defendant of second-degree kidnapping and other offenses. Following her sentencing, the defendant appealed on multiple grounds, including the assertion that her sentence arose out of improper considerations and was excessive.
Grounds for Vacating a Sentence
On appeal, the court noted that the sentencing judge appeared to have put aside the jury’s verdict acquitting the defendant of numerous offenses, including murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Instead, the judge assessed the defendant as the primary actor in the crime and sentenced the defendant accordingly, which was demonstrated by numerous statements regarding the defendant and her role in the offenses.
"In other words, the judge sentenced the defendant based on his view of the evidence rather than the jury’s," a New Jersey criminal defense attorney, Jonathan F. Marshall, states. The State appeared to concede the judge made his own assessment of the evidence presented at trial but argued that it was not in error, for him to give credit to evidence the jury disregarded. The court disagreed, noting that a defendant acquitted of a charge is afforded the right to be viewed as innocent in the eyes of the law. Thus, the judge did not have the discretion to disregard the jury’s acquittal of the defendant on numerous charges, and a sentence based on those charges was improper. As such, the sentence was vacated, and the matter was remanded for resentencing.
Court's Obligation to Rely On a Jury's Verdict
If a jury issues a verdict convicting a defendant, the court must rely on that verdict in issuing an appropriate sentence, and if it does not, it may violate the defendant’s rights. In this case, an appeal found that the sentencing judge imposed a penalty that was not appropriate for the crimes that the jury found the woman to have actually committed. "It is imperative for defendants and their defense lawyers to understand that the judge does not always have the final say," Marshall says. In this case, it could have cost the defendant years of prison time.