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Don't Ask for Jury Instructions You Don't Want

by: Ryan Scott • July 16, 2024 • no comments

This is a small bit of advice that won't matter most of the time, but every now and then it might.

There are jury instructions given in every case. If you don't specifically want them, don't ask for them.

For example, in a kidnapping case, why ask for the standard instructions? Oh sure, you may want to modify those instructions. You may want to add additional instructions. But why ask for the standard ones? The state will ask for them. If you don't object, the judge will give them.

Why does it matter? Because let's say by the time your case is briefed, the appellate courts have ruled that the standard instruction is wrong. You didn't preserve the argument, which happens. Maybe it was a genuinely unexpected change, which somebody else preserved but didn't tell anyone else about. The appellate attorney in your case nevertheless briefs the issue as plain error. There's no dispute it's error. There's no dispute it's harmful. So your client wins, right? Not if you invited error. And how would you have invited error? You specifically asked for the erroneous instruction.

Would the COA agree that it was invited error? I don't know. But you could avoid that by not asking for the state's instructions. And if nothing else, it's less work.

Can sentencing arguments that don't win still impact the overall sentence?

by: Ryan Scott • July 14, 2024 • no comments

Judges really don't like being reversed. I base this on the fact that judges who were rarely reversed and who I thought wouldn't have cared about the occasional, inevitable reversal will still complain about it when it does happen.

Consequently, I believe it's always a good thing at any sentencing to have the judge take into account the possibility that even if I'm wrong about the law, there's a chance the COA will think I'm right.

What am I talking about? Let me provide a couple of examples. If you've read many of my blog posts, or read me on the defense lawyer listserve, you know that I believe that when the gun minimum is charged on multiple counts, it must be imposed on the primary offense and only the primary offense. For example, if the defendant is charged with murder with a firearm and felon in possession of a firearm with a firearm, the gun minimum of five years must be imposed on the murder charge (assumingf it's the first gun minimum that defendant has ever faced -- if it's the second gun minimum, it gets a little complicated, in some ways good for the defendant, in other ways bad.) (Why does it matter if it's imposed on the murder charge or, say, the felon in possession? Because if imposed on the felon in possession, the judge has the ability to impose a longer sentence than if it's imposed on the murder charge.)

I have argued this at the trial level, and no judge has expressly said I'm right about the law, but some of them haven't said I was wrong either. The judge simply chose to impose the gun minimum on the most serious count, simply because they wanted to (or so they said) and not because I told them they legally had to. From a judge's point of view, this had the advantage of avoiding the possibility of reversible error. At the same time, it didn't bind them to a legal outcome they would have to follow in future cases.

I personally think in some of the cases at least, the judge was motivated in part to avoid reversible error. Maybe not. There's no way to know for certain. (Incidentally, this issue has been preserved in a number of cases by a number of great attorneys, so we should have a definitive answer within two years.)

I want to give another example of a legal argument that didn't win, yet maybe influenced the outcome of a sentencing. I had a client back for re-sentencing. He was already servicing a life/25 sentence for murder, but that case wasn't back for re-sentencing. It was a separate case in which he got twenty years to be served consecutively to the murder charge that was back for re-sentencing.

As it turned out, the client had done great in prison. Truly impressive stuff. I used that information to argue why she shouldn't run twenty years consecutively to the murder sentence. But I also argued at re-sentencing that any sentence run consecutively to a murder charge was subject to the proportionality analysis under Article I, section 16, of the Oregon Constitution. Specifically, I noted that my client wouldn't serve any of the consecutive sentence unless the parole board had found his rehabilitation was imminent. (And they would likely make that finding, given how well he had done in the past ten years, but who knows.) If Article I, section 16, requires that courts take into account the personal characteristics of the defendant when determining the constitutionality of the long sentence, the fact that rehabilitation is imminent certainly should impact whether the additional twenty years was proportionate.

On the law, the judge disagreed. But she only ran eight years consecutively to the life/25 he was already serving, a substantial reduction to what she had imposed the first time around. Was it due entirely to my client's remarkable accomplishments while in prison? Or did she worry that an additional twenty-year sentence might trigger the proportionality analysis and have the case sent back for a third sentencing? Or was it simply that she recognized the absurdity -- even if it were constitutional -- of adding another twenty years to be served -- and only served -- after the defendant was rehabilitated?

That last question is key. Even if I'm wrong about the application of Article I, section 16, in that situation, there is something totally absurd about a lengthy sentence that's only served after rehabiliation. Even my pro-prosecution, non-lawyer family members think that's crazy.

Again, there is no way of knowing why the judge reduced the sentence or if she would have reduced it to the same degree minus the proportionality argument. That's sorta my point. Judges may reject legal arguments but still be swayed, by either the logic of the legal argument or the risk of reversal, to end up at the same place.

And if the legal arguments don't seem to make a difference at all at sentencing, then at least your client has a shot at re-sentencing, which, per my first post today, can also lead to a much better outcome down the road.

Resentencing Observations

by: Ryan Scott • July 14, 2024 • no comments

This is the first of two blog posts I want to write today regarding sentencing.

I've handled my share of re-sentencings, sometimes after I handled the original sentencing, sometimes when I hadn't. The observation I most want to make is that judges often won't impose the same sentence even when they could.

That hasn't always been true in my cases but it's been more true than not. The reasons vary. One is that the defendant has done very well in prison and there is a record of it. Other times it is because the defendant is able to express remorse that they weren't able to right after the trial. At least one time I think it was merely because enough time had passed that the judge had forgotten what it was about the trial that caused her to impose a sentence out of anger or pique. Without that emotion behind it, the sentence came back down to earth.

It's impossible to know how much of a role I played, but I did a lot of work in all of those cases. I never treated a re-sentencing as pro forma, except when there really was only one sentence the court could impose at re-sentencing. But more likely, re-sentencings that went well probably did so because of the defendant and things they had done since the original sentencing.

My second observation is this. It wasn't always predictable which clients would do well in prison. I was often surprised by the clients who did truly wonderful and impressive things while incarcerated.

Have these observations changed my practice in any way? Not that I've noticed, but it has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of making as many legal arguments at sentencing as possible, even if the benefit of winning isn't always obvious. So, for example, I'll argue for merger of UUW and Murder with a Firearm. In such cases where merger is appropriate, the merger won't reduce the overall sentence because separate sentences would run concurrently. But by making the argument, either (1) the trial judge will agree and my client will have one less conviction, which is always better than more convictions, or (2) the judge will disagree and if the COA says I'm right, my client will have a shot at a re-sentencing that, if they've done well or the law has otherwise changed in their favor, might reduce their sentence.

(In theory, any re-sentencing on a murder charge might have no chance at reducing the original sentence, if the judge ran all counts concurrently to the mandatory murder sentence, but in my experience, most judges are constitutionally incapable of not tacking on an additional sentence to run consecutively to even a life/25 sentence. There must be some additional cost for going to trial.)

I think there are lawyers who are hesitant to make legal arguments at sentencing, murder sentencings in particular. They want the focus to be on a just and fair sentence, and arguing about the statutes will distract from their argument why life/25 is more than sufficient to satisfy the ends of justice. I think this attitude constitutes gross malpractice, and fortunately I think it's relatively rare. But if you are inclined to think that way, just submit a sentencing memorandum with all the legal arguments, tell the court as to those arguments you're standing on your brief, and then make all the non-legal arguments you want to focus on.

Next 20 Articles

Case Reviews

Oregon Court of Appeals, July 17th, 2024

by: Rankin Johnson

INCHOATE CRIMES - Jury instructions

SENTENCING - Allocution


→ read the full summaries...

Oregon Supreme Court, July 11th, 2024

by: Rankin Johnson

KIDNAPPING - Asportation

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Oregon Court of Appeals, July 10th, 2024

by: Rankin Johnson





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Oregon Supreme Court, July 5th, 2024

by: Rankin Johnson

EVIDENCE - Other bad acts

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Oregon Court of Appeals, July 3rd, 2024

by: Rankin Johnson

SENTENCING - Restitution

SENTENCING - Double-counting departure factors

→ read the full summaries...

Oregon Court of Appeals, June 26th, 2024

by: Rankin Johnson

DEFENDANT'S STATEMENTS - Compelling circumstances

SEARCH AND SEIZURE - License plate covers



→ read the full summaries...