Friday, May 09, 2008

Ohio Supreme Court upholds life sentence for rape committed as juvenile

The Ohio Supreme Court Tuesday held that the imposition of the state’s mandatory life imprisonment sentence for the forcible rape of an underage victim did not violate the defendant’s due process rights even when he was only 15 years old at the time of his crime, but hadn’t been prosecuted until he was 21. (Court Summary)

The case came out of Cleveland, Ohio, when, on November 12, 2004, appellant was charged in a 48-count indictment concerning events that occurred from June to August 1988, when he was 15 years old. The victim, a 9-year old disabled girl, had testified that she tolerated her being molested and hadn’t told anyone because the appellant had repeatedly threatened her, her family, and friends. The victim testified that she had not reported the incidents to police until 2004, when she happened to see an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the man being sentenced to prison in another case involving the sexual assault of a nine-year old girl.

While the Court acknowledged several U.S. Supreme Court holdings that criminal sentencing of juvenile offenders should reflect a diminished level of culpability – i.e., Roper v. Simmons, and Bellotti v.Baird – the Court here stated that its 2002 decision in State v. Walls “so essentially undermines the appellant’s position that he cannot prevail on his claim that his mandatory life sentence violates due process principles of fundamental fairness.”

In a concurring opinion. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, joined by Justices Lundberg, Stratton, and O’Donnell, noted a number of “troublesome” facts in the case, including the 16-year delay between the crime and its prosecution, a lack of physical evidence, and the imposition of a mandatory life sentence on a defendant who was 15 years old at the time of the crime.

Justice Paul Pfeifer, who had dissented in the Court’s 2002 Walls decision, again dissented, reinterating his view that the application of a mandatory life sentence for an offense committed by a 15-year old “Ignores the state’s distinctions between how it treats juveniles and how it treats adults.”

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