When Citizens Are Acquitted. . . .
Washington, DC (January 7, 1997) -- In the wake of yesterday's high-handed U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring federal judges to punish defendants even for crimes for which the jury found them not guilty, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called on Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission to revise federal sentencing law to restore fundamental fairness to the American justice system. On the very same day it announced it would accept the case -- United States v. Watts -- the Court, acting in extraordinary fashion, issued its unsigned opinion without any formal briefing or oral argument, catching court observers by complete surprise.
"It is utterly repugnant to anyone's notion of fundamental fairness in America to punish a citizen for crimes for which he was found not guilty. Such action shows utter disregard for the jury's traditional role in criminal prosecutions," said NACDL President Judy Clarke, a prominent federal public defender from Spokane, WA, and nationally recognized sentencing expert. "The jury is the voice of the people and plays the most critical role in the trial process. Under this decision, why even have juries? Jury verdicts should not be so lightly dismissed.
"Congress should immediately rectify this development to forbid courts from imposing punishment contrary to a jury's verdict," she said.
NACDL Past President Alan Ellis, a federal sentencing specialist, added, "I don't think any U.S. citizen would want to be put into a position where he goes to trial, is found not guilty of most of the charges, and have the judge ignore that at sentencing."
Watts, yesterday's case, endorses the controversial "relevant conduct" provision of the federal sentencing guidelines, which requires federal judges to ignore a jury's vote of "not guilty" in multiple-count cases so long as the defendant is convicted of at least one count. Regardless of t jury's findings, the judge then must make his or her own judgment as to whether the prosecution proved the crimes "by a preponderance of the evidence" for which the defendant was acquitted.
Until yesterday's decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had prohibited judges from using acquitted conduct for sentencing purposes, holding that the practice, in the words of the Ninth Circuit, "would pervert our system of justice if we allowed a defendant to suffer punishment for a criminal charge for which he or she was acquitted."
NACDL believes that such punishment is patently offensive to traditional notions of double jeopardy, as embodied in the U.S. Constitution. The Association calls on the 105th Congress to pass legislation to restrict courts from sentencing defendants for crimes for which they have not been convicted and to direct the Sentencing Commission to promulgate appropriate guidelines to stop this practice.
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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.