News Release

Supreme Court deals setback to Apprendi defendants who didn't object

Defendants charged with 20-year offenses receive life 

Washington, DC (May 20, 2002) -- In response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision today allowing the sentences of defendants in a drug-conspiracy case to stand even though not all elements of the government's case were found by a jury, Peter Goldberger, vice chair of the Amicus Curiae committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and co-author of their amicus curiae brief in the case, issued the following statement:

"These defendants received sentences of life without parole on account of varying degrees of involvement in a crack cocaine conspiracy, even though they had been charged with and convicted only of a conspiracy carrying a 20-year maximum sentence. The Court agreed that the imposition of these sentences was not only illegal but actually unconstitutional.

"The Supreme Court justified this astonishing result by blaming the defendants' lawyers for not objecting to the illegal sentences at the trial court level. Yet at that time, any objection the lawyers raised would have been contrary to binding precedent, which the Supreme Court itself soon afterwards overruled in the Apprendi decision.

"Despite this, because the lawyers had not objected the Supreme Court applied a special rule to their appeal in which the court will not correct the illegal sentences unless the ''fairness, integrity and public reputation of judicial proceedings demands it.'' We simply cannot agree with the Supreme Court's view that the ''public reputation'' of judicial proceedings is enhanced, much less the fairness and integrity of those proceedings, by the imposition of life sentences on defendants the Court thinks are guilty of participating in a major drug conspiracy, even though they were never charged with or tried for that crime.

"We take heart, however, in the Supreme Court's implicit recognition in the Cotton case that these defendants' sentences were indeed not only illegal but also unconstitutional. Other defendants in other cases who have similar illegal sentences -- of whom there are unfortunately a great many -- may yet win a correction of those sentences if their lawyers did object, or if they can show that their lawyers' failure to object did not satisfy the lawyer's duty under the Sixth Amendment to render effective assistance of counsel to their clients." 

The case is U.S. v. Cotton, No. 01-687

Goldberger is a criminal defense lawyer in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at (610) 649-8200.

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NACDL Communications Department

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.