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Cheryl Ann Boren was waiting for a Utah judge to rule how much time she should serve for passing forged checks when the same U.S. Supreme Court opinion complicated his decision.
Less than a month old, Blakely v. Washington already is changing how the wheels of justice turn.
The June 24 decision declared a convicted kidnapper in Washington state had the right to have a jury, rather than a judge, decide whether certain factors should increase his sentence. Many legal experts argue the ruling extends to federal courts, where judges for years have determined all sorts of facts that lengthen punishment - from the amount of money stolen to whether there were additional victims never mentioned at trial.
In Adams' case, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball huddled with attorneys and decided to have jurors answer written questions to determine if there were factors that could increase the punishment.
"We felt we could 'Blakely-ize' the verdict form to add interrogatories to allow the jury to find the sentencing enhancements beyond a reasonable doubt," said Paul Warner, the U.S. attorney for Utah.
The jurors returned July 12 with a guilty verdict on all 17 drug and money laundering charges against Adams, as well as a finding that he had possessed at least 50 grams of methamphetamine and laundered $312,085. The jury also decided Adams was an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that involved at least five participants.
Those decisions will help determine the sentence Adams receives on Oct. 12.
Boren, who pleaded guilty to passing forged checks, was sentenced Tuesday to an 8-month term, less than prosecutors wanted. U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart declined to consider allegations that would have pushed the sentence range to 15 to 21 months.
Prosecutors had argued more money was involved than the $3,310.87 admitted by Boren. But defense attorney Jamie Zenger responded that a jury would have to decide beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a higher amount, and one never did.
Utah's federal judges have disagreed about whether the guidelines remain constitutional.
But Warner said his prosecutors meet twice daily for Blakely screenings, where they make sure all factors affecting a sentence, such as drug quantities, are included in indictments and plea bargains.
Although the U.S. Justice Department argues the high court ruling does not apply to federal sentencing guidelines, "we feel out of an abundance of caution we need to do exactly what we're doing," Warner said.
The guidelines, which went into effect in 1987, were designed to provide fairness in sentences. A sentencing range is established by the type of offense and the defendant's criminal record.
The possible punishment is increased or decreased based on aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances.
The enhancements are the sticking point. A jury decides whether a defendant is guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, but a judge uses a lower standard - a preponderance of the evidence, or finding that a fact is more probable than not - to determine whether to increase punishment.
Ryan King, a research associate at The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., organization that develops alternative sentencing programs, said sentences can jump dramatically under the guidelines.
"You could go from a five-year sentence to a 20-year sentence based on information that's not proven beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
King acknowledged the Blakely ruling has sparked concerns about backlogs, but predicted the justice system will adjust.
"We don't want to lose sight of the core value of the decision," he said. "It's a significant step forward for the rights of the defendant under the Sixth Amendment," which provides the right to trial by jury.
However, Michael Goldsmith, a Brigham Young University law professor, predicts "an unbelievable mess" if the Supreme Court decides juries must determine all sentencing factors. Courts will clog as trials become longer and defense attorneys request new sentencings for clients already serving time, he said.
If the guidelines are thrown out, defendants will have fewer safeguards, said Goldsmith, a former member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency that developed the guidelines. "Prior to the guideline system, a judge could impose any penalty within the statutory range without any explanation," Goldsmith said. "He could give a tough sentence because he didn't like the way you looked or because you were a minority."