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ANOTHER ‘CUNNINGHAM’ ABOUT-FACE IN SONOMA CASE? Thanks to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing the constitutionality of enhanced prison sentences, the First District Court of Appeal has twice done a complete turnaround on a Sonoma County defendant’s prison sentence. Now the state Supreme Court is telling it to reconsider, yet again. After the high court’s 2004 Blakely v. Washington held that judges could not enhance criminal sentences based on facts not decided by the jury, the First District vacated an eight-year upper-term sentence for one of the two counts defendant Robert Hughes had pleaded guilty to. A year later, the California Supreme Court ruled in People v. Black, 35 Cal.4th 1238, that the Blakely ruling didn’t apply in California, which led the First District to backtrack on the Hughes case and affirm the initial 10-year total sentence. Then Cunningham v. California, which overturned California’s determinate sentencing law, came down earlier this year. For the First District, that meant a return to its 2004 decision to vacate Hughes’ eight-year sentence. According to the appellate court, Hughes had been given an upper term of eight years based on factors such as “a high degree of callousness” and “threat of great bodily harm.” But none of those aggravating circumstances were decided by the jury.
Sentencing Diagrammed

On Jan. 22, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s sentencing law, saying it gives judges too much leeway to hike sentences based on facts not found by the jury. The fallout of the California v. Cunningham (.pdf) could be thousands of cases in which sentences must be reconsidered. Sort through the chaos with our Hot Topic page.

“We revert to our (pre-Black) conclusion that imposition of an upper term upon defendant was error,” Justice Douglas Swager wrote in an unpublished opinion (.pdf) in June. Justices James Marchiano and Sandra Margulies concurred. (They left a two-year consecutive sentence for Hughes’ second count, however, intact.) Alas for Hughes, about a month after that ruling in his favor, the California Supreme Court issued a pair of sentencing decisions that allowed for an exception to the general rule: They said a judge may impose a harsher sentence as long as at least one aggravating factor has been established by a jury, or a defendant’s admissions or prior convictions. Last week Hughes felt the trickledown effect: The Supreme Court directed the First District “to vacate its decision and reconsider” his case, in light of People v. Black, 07 C.D.O.S. 8538, and People v. Sandoval, 07 C.D.O.S. 8528.

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