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Supreme Court asked to hold California sentencing rules unconstitutional

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Wednesday in Cunningham v. California [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 05-6551, a case that asks justices to decide whether judges can exercise discretion to tack on additional years to prison sentences beyond that determined by a jury without violating a defendant's right to a jury trial. Cunningham, a former California police officer, was sentenced to 12 years for child abuse, but the trial judge added four years to the sentence, extending it to the maximum, based on a balancing of mitigating and aggravating factors that the jury did not hear. Under California law, judges are permitted to add or subtract time from a defendant's prison sentence within a statutory range. The case will be considered in light of two recent Supreme Court decisions, Blakely v. Washington and US v. Booker [Duke Law case backgrounders], which ruled unconstitutional sentencing guidelines that allowed terms to be increased without jury consideration in the Washington and federal court systems, respectively. The justices discussed the potential burdening effect on the California penal system if the guidelines are ruled unconstitutional.

Also Wednesday, the high court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] in Carey v. Musladin [Duke Law case backgrounder, merit briefs], 05-785, where justices will decide whether the donning of buttons depicting the victim's face by family members during the trial constituted a proper basis for overturning a conviction. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] vacated Mathew Musladin's 32-year prison sentence for first-degree murder, asserting that the buttons deprived Musladin, who pleaded self-defense, of a fair trial by tacitly indicating that he acted as the instigator in the underlying shooting. During trial, Musladin's lawyer requested the judge ban the buttons, which family members wore in plain sight of the jury, and the Ninth Circuit ruled [text, PDF] that the buttons created an outside influence that impermissibly affected the jury and his right to a fair trial. AP has more.

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