By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
Nearly a decade after a jury convicted an Edmonds man of multiple sex crimes involving young girls, the state Supreme Court has upheld his nearly 50-year prison sentence.
In a decision published this week, the court unanimously concluded that Robert Lee Vance’s rights were not violated when a Snohomish County judge ordered Vance to serve consecutive sentences for three child molestation convictions.
That means the time Vance serves for one crime doesn’t count toward the time he must serve for the other two convictions. In this case, Vance was ordered to spend nearly a half-century behind bars — about 16½ years for each child molestation charge.
The state Supreme Court justices said the ruling was based on a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar case in Oregon. That decision sets precedent for Vance’s case, the state court concluded.
A jury in 2003 convicted Vance of eight felony sex crimes involving four young girls. He was accused of sexually touching young girls in his extended family over several years. The girls reported that Vance offered them money to dance naked for him and that he often groped their breasts, according to court documents.
Police began investigating the allegations after a relative accompanied Vance and some of the girls during a visit to the Bite of Edmonds and the relative “became appalled at the constant comments the defendant made about the girls’ breasts,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Chris Dickinson wrote in the charging papers.
Vance had prior convictions for statutory rape and indecent liberties. Under the persistent sex offender law, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. That sentence was overturned by the state Court of Appeals after the court decided that under the law Vance’s statutory rape conviction couldn’t be counted as a strike against him.
He was re-sentenced in 2004. The judge ordered Vance held for 49 ½ years. The judge concluded that allowing Vance to serve the sentences for each crime simultaneously would be too lenient.
“We never considered Vance was free to abuse three children and not pay any penalty. He harmed four children, not one. His sentence should reflect that,” said Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Seth Fine, who leads the appeals unit.
Vance appealed the sentence again. He argued that by giving him consecutive sentences, the judge violated his constitutional right to a trial by a jury. He argued that jurors, not a judge, had to determine there were facts to support a sentence above the standard range.
The state Supreme Court had made a similar ruling in a different case. Justices based their findings on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that concluded a jury must find a basis for exceptional sentences.
States have been grappling with implications of that decision since it was handed down in 2004, Fine said.
This recent decision on the Oregon case answers some questions when it comes to consecutive sentences, he said. Still, the ruling has a fairly narrow impact, he said.
State legislators have said that most exceptional sentences must be supported by jury findings. The only reason that didn’t apply to Vance was because his case is so old, Fine said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.