The Role of a Jury in Deciding a Mandatory Minimum Sentence
Many crimes carry increased penalties if certain “elements” are proven. For example, in a famous 2013 case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a New Jersey defendant was found guilty of carrying a firearm while committing a violent crime. Under New Jersey law, the mandatory minimum sentence for this offense was 5 years. But if prosecutors could prove an additional element–that the defendant “brandished” his weapon during the crime–the mandatory minimum increased to 7 years.
In the New Jersey case, the Supreme Court held that any element like this one must be submitted to the jury. It was not simply a “sentencing factor” that the judge alone could consider. And since the jury in this case never considered the “brandishing” issue, the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.
Appeals Court Rules Juvenile Offender Entitled to New Jury on “Premeditated” Murder Question
More recently, a Florida appeals court held that a juvenile offender was similarly entitled to re-sentencing because an alleged element of his crime was never submitted to a jury. In this case, Green v. State, prosecutors charged an adult defendant for a murder he allegedly committed as a 15-year-old.
As the appellate court explained, the jury was told it could find the defendant guilty of either premeditated murder or first-degree felony murder. The jury returned a guilty verdict without explaining which theory it relied upon. Initially, the trial judge sentenced the defendant to life in prison.
But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that automatic life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenses was unconstitutional. The defendant therefore requested a new sentencing hearing, which the Florida courts granted. The prosecution agreed to a new trial on sentencing, which would follow a series of 2014 amendments made by the state legislature to conform with the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision.
As relevant here, the new laws state that if the prosecution can prove the defendant “actually killed, intended to kill, or attempted to kill the victim,” then the mandatory minimum sentence is 40 to life. However, if the prosecution cannot prove this element, the mandatory minimum sentence is 15 to life.
Since the original jury never specifically found the defendant “intended” to kill his victim–that is, it never decided between felony and premeditated murder–he argued he should be re-sentenced under the 15 to life rule. The prosecution objected, arguing that “no rational juror” could have found the defendant guilty of anything of pre-mediated murder, and therefore the 40 to life rule should apply.
The trial court agreed with the prosecution. The Florida Third District Court of Appeal disagreed. It noted that in this particular case, there were “no eyewitnesses” and “no forensic evidence” directly linking the defendant to the crime. Indeed, the original prosecutor conceded at trial that the exact events were unknown but that the jury could still convict the defendant of felony murder. Given this, the Third District said it was far from certain the original jury would have concluded that the defendant intended to kill his victim. The appellate court therefore said the defendant was either entitled to be sentenced under the 15-to-life rule–or the prosecution could ask for a new jury to determine if the murder was premeditated.
Speak with a Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
Even when the prosecution has sufficient evidence to prove your guilt, small differences in evidence can make a significant impact when it comes to sentencing. That is why it is always in your best interest to work with an experienced Tampa criminal attorney. Contact the Faulkner Law Group, PLLC, today to schedule a free confidential consultation.