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June 20, 2005 - Associated Press (US)

High Court Declines To Consider Sentencing Guidelines Case

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The Supreme Court declined on Monday to consider whether hundreds of criminals who were sentenced before a landmark ruling on federal sentencing guidelines should receive reduced prison time.

Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling against Vladimir Rodriguez, a Florida man who challenged a nine-year drug sentence he received under mandatory guidelines that the Supreme Court subsequently threw out as unconstitutional.

The high court ruled January 12 that the mandatory guidelines violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. That is because the guidelines required judges to make factual decisions that affect prison time, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime or amount of money involved in fraud.

Rulings generally do not apply to cases whose appeals were pending at the time of a decision unless there is "plain error." At issue was whether those criminal cases should presumptively be reviewed as wrong, or whether criminals must first provide strong evidence that the trial court would have imposed a lighter sentence.

The lower appeals courts are heavily divided on the issue, and both sides had urged the high court to hear the appeal. Some courts allow virtually automatic appeals, while others don't.

Rodriguez, who was convicted on a drug conspiracy charge, admitted to transporting 2,000 Ecstasy pills. But without a jury determination, the trial judge decided Rodriguez actually was responsible for 30,000 pills and increased his sentence from roughly 6 years to 9 years.

The case is Rodriguez v. U.S., 04-1148

New trial for Pennsylvania death row inmate

Nearing the end of a term marked by a host of second-guess rulings on death penalty sentences, the court concluded Monday that the attorney for a man convicted of killing a tavern owner had done sloppy work.

In a 5-4 decision, justices ruled in the 17-year-old murder case that the lawyer for Ronald Rompilla had not properly investigated possible evidence of mental retardation, and they ordered a new trial for the defendant.

Rompilla, now 56, was convicted of robbing, stabbing and setting on fire a tavern owner in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1988. It was the second time in a week that the high court overturned a death row sentence, citing an inadequate trial.

In his appeal, Rompilla argued that public defenders were wrong when they failed to review records showing mitigating evidence of mental retardation and a traumatic upbringing, even after prosecutors warned that they planned to use the documents against him.

Writing for the majority, Justice David H. Souter sided with the defendant.

"We hold that even when a capital defendant's family members and the defendant himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on," Souter wrote.

The ruling is a defeat for death penalty advocates, who have pushed for less federal court review of capital trials. Under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the conservative-leaning court has generally agreed, declining to overturn death sentences except when they are "objectively unreasonable" given all the evidence at trial.

In a biting dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia was right to uphold a state ruling that the attorney representation was adequate. He reasoned that Rompilla's attorneys had reasonably relied on testimony from mental health experts and family members.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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