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Justices: law requires courts' reasons in sentencing

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Trial courts must issue sentencing statements that include a detailed account of the judge's reasons for imposing penalties, such as aggravators and mitigators, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

Additionally, the state's highest court has reiterated that it will only review a sentence on the grounds of abuse of discretion.

In a ruling that answers questions left open following the 2005 revision of state law regarding Indiana's sentencing structure, justices unanimously affirmed a Kosciusko Superior judge's decision in Alexander J. Anglemyer v. State of Indiana, 40S05-0606-CR-230.

"We hold that where a trial court imposes sentence for a felony offense, it is required to issue a sentencing statement that includes a reasonably detailed recitation of the trial court's reasons for the sentence imposed," Justice Robert D. Rucker wrote. "The standard of review is abuse of discretion."

Two other decisions issued today tie into the Anglemyer sentencing ruling: Morris Windhorst v. State of Indiana, 49S04-0701-CR-32, and Aaron D. McDonald v. State of Indiana, 20S03-0706-CR-252

Justice Rucker wrote all three opinions, referring to the Anglemyer decision in the Windhorst and McDonald rulings.

These cases are the latest in a growing line of litigation stemming from the United States Supreme Court's landmark 2004 ruling in Blakely v. Washington, which held that nation's sentencing structure was unconstitutional and that juries - not judges - must hear evidence before sentences can be enhanced. Indiana adopted in 2005 a similar ruling in Smylie v. State, and the legislature soon revised the law.

A portion of the law that courts have disagreed on involves the phrase, "If the court finds aggravating circumstances or mitigating circumstances," then a statement with reasons for that penalty should be imposed.

In the aftermath, the Indiana Court of Appeals has been divided on whether and to what extent trial judges are now required to make sentencing statements explaining their penalty decisions, and whether any such statements must include findings of aggravating and mitigating factors. A closely related issue has also been the scope and role of appellate review.

"This language suggests a legislative acknowledgment that a sentencing statement identifying aggravators and mitigators retains its status as an integral part of the trial court's sentencing procedure," Justice Rucker wrote in Anglemyer, noting that judges are only prohibited from finding aggravators and enhancing a sentence beyond the statutory maximum.

This case comes from Anglemyer's May 2005 arrest for beating and robbing a pizza delivery driver, and the subsequent plea agreement dictating a 16-year consecutive sentence - 10 years for the robbery and six years for battery. Anglemyer appealed on the issue of whether the maximum possible sentence imposed was inappropriate and the trial court erred in identifying and weighing aggravating and mitigating factors.

After outlining the background and history of the sentencing scheme and flood of caselaw in recent years, the justices affirmed.

The court wrote that only abuse of discretion will warrant appellate review of a sentence and outlined possible ways for that abuse to happen.

Specifically, Justice Rucker wrote the process for what the appellate review of sentences should be: trial court's entering a statement that can be reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion, the relative weight or value of reasons found is not subject to review, and merits of a sentence can be sought elsewhere on grounds outlined in appellate rules.

"The real concern was that everything was up in the air on how you review sentences," said Indianapolis attorney Michael Limrick, who has closely been following this and related cases. "But this lays out the process and offers clarity and guidance. This is clear as can be and will be helpful to practicing attorneys."

This decision from Indiana's highest jurists comes on the heels of a ruling Thursday by the Supreme Court of the United States in Rita v. United States, which held by an 8-1 margin that a federal court of appeals may treat a sentence within the guideline range as presumptively reasonable when evaluating District Court rulings.
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  1. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  2. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  3. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  4. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

  5. Can I get this form on line,if not where can I obtain one. I am eligible.

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