Prosecutors may soon ask juries for stiffer penalties

Prosecutors believe they may have found a way to get stiffer sentences for some criminals despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting judges from giving prison terms beyond the state’s standard range.

Snohomish County prosecutors have signaled that the first attempt at trying to get an exceptionally long term may start next week in the case of two Seattle teenagers accused of murdering a classmate a year ago on the Tulalip Reservation.

In June, the high court struck down an unusually long prison term after a judge found that a defendant acted with “deliberate cruelty.” The Eastern Washington man was convicted of kidnapping his estranged wife in 1998.

The Supreme Court threw out part of the state law that allowed judges to decide whether a defendant deserves a term longer than the standard sentencing range. Instead, the court said juries must make that determination.

Mark Roe, chief Snohomish County deputy prosecutor, said he proposes to do just that.

In a handful of cases, charging papers from now on will include reasons why prosecutors believe an exceptional sentence is warranted. Juries, rather than judges, will decide.

A host of aggravating factors are listed in the law, including deliberate cruelty, the vulnerability of a victim and a defendant having sexual motivations in a crime not charged as a sex case.

The hope is to get judges to let juries fill out special verdict forms deciding whether aggravating factors have been proved.

The two Seattle teenagers – Joshua David Goldman, 18, and Jenson Hugh Hankins, 17 – could be the first test, if they are convicted. Deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler has scheduled a court appearance next week seeking to alter the charges against them.

The sentencing range would be about 22 to 28 years behind bars. Roe would not comment on whether aggravating factors will be spelled out in the new charging papers for Goldman and Hankins.

“You’ll have to wait and see what the amended (charges) say, if and when they are filed,” Roe said.

In general, he said, the office intends to use the method when prosecutors believe a higher penalty is appropriate.

Under state law, juries already determine if defendants committed a crime with a deadly weapon, and additional prison time is required if they used a weapon. For example, the use of a gun or knife adds up to five years to a prison term.

Roe said in a roundabout way the process will give some power back to local judges.

“We’re trying to give Superior Court judges back the discretion this ruling took away, because we think they exercise it very wisely,” he said.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or haley@heraldnet.com.

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