When a jury gives a verdict, it is expected that everybody, including the judge who presided over the trial, will respect it even if no one else agrees with it. Most people seem to view the work of a jury as the fulfillment of a sacred duty, and even if the jury doesn’t come to the “correct” verdict (as deemed by society), the general public still holds the jury in high regard. The judge herself is expected to take the jury’s verdict into consideration when she gives a sentence. But due to a recent Supreme Court case, it seems as if judges will be allowed to assess punishment without regard to a jury’s verdict—even if the jury returns a “not guilty.”
On October 14th of this year, SCOTUS denied certiorari in Jones v. United States, a case in which three defendants were acquitted on major drug charges but convicted on some of the lesser charges in 2008. Three years later, in 2011, U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts disregarded the jury’s verdict and sentenced the three men as if they had been found guilty of all the charges. The men were given 19 years in prison because Judge Roberts felt that the evidence showed that they were guilty of the major drug charges.
Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead maintains that, when judges ignore jury verdicts, it “usurps the role of the jury and violates the constitutional right of citizens to be judged by a jury of their peers.” He states that the idea of judges using their own determination of the facts when a jury has been given the responsibility to determine them “runs contrary to the principles embodies in the Sixth Amendment, and to the very idea of a trial by a jury of our peers.”
In his dissent on the denial of cert, Justice Scalia stated that the petitioners present a strong case that their sentences were substantively unreasonable—and, therefore, illegal—but for the judicial findings of fact. But Justice Scalia noted that any fact which increases a defendant’s penalty constitutes an element of the crime, and must either be admitted by the defendant or be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. He emphasized that the elements may not be found by a judge. Justice Scalia lamented the fact that courts of appeals uniformly take SCOTUS’s silence on the issue to suggest that the Constitution permits otherwise unreasonable sentences that are supported by judicial factfinding.
Not only is this decision to deny cert highly disturbing on many levels (the most important question being, how can we trust the jury system now?), but, even with due process rights aside, why waste all the time and money on a jury trial when the judge can just throw out the verdict and do whatever he wants? What is the point of having a jury? There seems to be no good answer.
Moreover, it is frightening that the judge in this case (and judges in similar cases) appears to snub the jury’s hard work in sitting through a trial, listening to all the evidence, deliberating, and reaching a unanimous verdict. The fact that SCOTUS seems to approve of behavior like this is even scarier. Perhaps that is why they decided the case so close to Halloween.