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The Supreme Court waded back into the issue of prison sentences Wednesday to determine when a judge’s discretion to impose additional time behind bars violates a convict’s constitutional rights. In two major rulings since 2004, the court has said that systems that allow judges alone to decide facts that lead to longer prison terms violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The lawyer for a former California police officer told justices Wednesday that the state’s sentencing law is another such example. John Cunningham should have been sentenced to 12 years in prison after a jury convicted him of sexually abusing his son. Instead, the trial judge tacked on four additional years in prison based on facts that were not considered by the jury, Peter Gold, Cunningham’s lawyer said. California law provides for three possible sentences and prescribes the middle option unless a judge finds reason to increase or reduce prison time. In Cunningham’s case, the judge decided that the child’s vulnerability and the father’s abuse of trust justified the longest possible sentence. The sentence fits with the recent court rulings because it is in the range set out in the law, California Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Laurance said. In addition, California’s Supreme Court has interpreted the state law to conform with the U.S. high court rulings, Laurance said. Chief Justice John Roberts, who was not on the court for the earlier rulings, picked up on that point in questioning Cunningham’s lawyer. “What troubles me about your case is that California’s system looks a lot like the federal system” as the Supreme Court modified it last year, Roberts said. Justices also appeared concerned with the effect their decision would have on California’s large prison population and those in other states. Thousands of sentences in California could be affected by the outcome. Nine other states, including Illinois and Texas, are urging justices to uphold California’s sentencing law. A brief filed by criminal defense lawyers in support of Cunningham said that changing California’s system would be “not such a big deal,” Justice John Paul Stevens said. “It would be a big deal for California,” Laurance replied. Many defendants given the longest terms already have served the additional time, in many cases just an extra year, and would not be affected by the court ruling, Gold said. The justices also were considering a murder case in which an appeals court overturned a conviction because grieving relatives sat at the trial wearing buttons bearing the victim’s picture. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the murder conviction of Mathew Musladin, ruling that the buttons deprived him of a fair trial. California is arguing that the buttons were a harmless expression of grief and is asking the high court to reinstate the conviction. Musladin said he acted in self-defense in the shooting death of Tom Studer, the fianc� of Musladin’s estranged wife. Studer was shot twice, the second time as he lay under his truck in an attempt to escape the gunfire. The jury convicted Musladin of first-degree murder. But the appeals court said the buttons essentially had argued that Musladin was the initiator of the attack and had interfered with his right to a fair trial. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer told justices in court papers that the appeals court ignored a federal law requiring federal courts to be highly deferential to state judgments in murder cases. At Musladin’s trial, the judge refused to ban the buttons, declaring that “the jury’s already been instructed not to let passion or prejudice influence their verdict.” State appeals courts and a federal judge likewise upheld the verdict, although the federal judge said “allowing the buttons was arguably not a prudent decision by the trial judge.” Musladin was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. The cases are Thomas L. Carey v. Mathew Musladin, 05-785, and Cunningham v. California, 05-6551. Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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