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Sentencing in doubt after supreme court decision { June 25 2004 }

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Sentencings in Doubt After Court Decision
Supreme Court Decision Calls Into Legal Doubt Sentencing Practices Used Around Country

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON June 25, 2004 Federal prosecutors postponed Friday's sentencing of an anti-abortion activist once on the FBI's most wanted list, a reaction to an unexpected Supreme Court ruling that called into legal doubt sentencing practices used around the country.

Prosecutors in Philadelphia decided to ask a judge to put off sentencing Clayton Lee Waagner because it was unclear whether or how Thursday's ruling from the high court might affect that case and others.

"Everybody is trying to sort out the meaning of the decision," said Timothy Rice, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia.

The Supreme Court ruled that only juries, not judges, may lengthen prison terms beyond the maximum set out in state sentencing guidelines. The ruling was surprising for its sweep and for the dire predictions it produced from dissenting justices.

Although the high court's 5-4 ruling specifically applies only to the state of Washington, prosecutors, judges, law professors and others said it could mean drastic changes for numerous other states and the federal court system because they have similar guidelines.

"They just threw a bomb and blew everything up, and now we have to decide how to put it back together," Harvard Law School criminal law professor William J. Stuntz said. "Humpty Dumpty isn't sitting on the wall anymore."

The ruling appears to give defendants a right to demand that every fact that could lengthen a sentence be put to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, lawyers said.

Under procedures now common in federal and state courthouses, judges make many routine factual determinations, such as the quantity of drugs seized in a raid, or how much money is at issue in a fraud case.

Stuntz and others predicted Congress and some state legislatures will pass new sentencing rules to comply with the ruling.

"We are about to have a revolution in criminal sentencing," Stuntz said.

For now, prosecutors and judges are on their own as they try to apply the Supreme Court's reasoning to cases already in the pipeline.

"No one saw this coming," said U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia.

"All judges are certain that this case will have a major impact upon sentencing procedures, but no one is willing to render an off-the-cuff opinion on what those ramifications might be," he said.

Goodwin went ahead with a scheduled sentencing Friday for a bank robber named Tina Turner but the case had no aggravating factors for him to consider.

Neither the policy-setting Judicial Conference of the United States nor the Justice Department had issued any advice to lawyers or judges Friday, although a federal prosecutor in Ohio said his office was told to expect legal guidance soon from Washington.

In Madison, Wis., Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Ehlke said there are no plans to change or postpone sentencing or hearings.

"We're going to proceed as usual unless the U.S. Justice Department tells us otherwise," Ehlke said.

In the Philadelphia case, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody granted prosecutors' request to put off the sentencing for Waagner, convicted last year of sending fake anthrax letters to abortion clinics. He faces life in prison.

"We just want to make sure we get it right," Assistant U.S. Attorney Rich Barrett said.

The Supreme Court's ruling, Blakely v. Washington, came in the case of a wealthy Washington state rancher who kidnapped his estranged wife at knifepoint in 1998. Ralph Howard Blakely II pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors and expected a sentence of about four years as set in state sentencing guidelines.

Superior Court Judge Evan Sperline added three years to Blakely's prison term, however, after Yolanda Blakely testified her husband wrapped her face in duct tape and locked her in a box that resembled a coffin.

Blakely showed "deliberate cruelty," a factor a judge could use in Washington to lengthen a sentence, Sperline said.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court's majority, erased the sentence.

"When a judge inflicts a punishment that the jury's verdict alone does not allow ..., the judge exceeds his proper authority," Scalia wrote.

Scalia said the case was not about the constitutionality of state sentencing systems that give judges a limited range of sentences for a given crime, and in a footnote he specifically said that federal sentencing guidelines were not at issue in the case.

But dissenters said the ruling still would undermine if not destroy the 17-year-old federal system, which was meant to make sentencing fairer by reducing disparities among punishments handed out by different judges.

"The practical consequences of today's decision may be disastrous," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in dissent.

Associated Press reporter Jonathan Poet in Philadelphia contributed to this story.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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