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State Supreme Court limits ruling on sentences
Seattle Times staff reporter
The state Supreme Court yesterday significantly limited the scope of a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision that critics worried would shorten the sentences of countless inmates.
Yesterday's unanimous decision, in the cases of a convicted killer and a convicted rapist, will prohibit hundreds of convicted offenders from taking advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court's Blakely decision. That case said that any fact that extends a sentence beyond the standard range must either be proven to a jury or admitted by the defendant.
The case threatened to upset the state's sentencing system.
In Washington, judges had long been permitted to hand down sentences that were harsher than the standard Sentencing Guidelines range, so long as they believed there were aggravating circumstances to merit them. The problem was, those things were not proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt. Under Blakely, that is no longer allowed.
Since that ruling, prosecutors and defense lawyers have been struggling with the next question: What happens to the defendants sentenced before Blakely?
Yesterday's decision, which was in line with numerous other decisions across the country, according to prosecutors, answered that question.
Blakely, the court said, does not apply to offenders who have exhausted their appeals. Martin Pang, for example, who was convicted of the 1995 arson in a Seattle warehouse, had tried to use Blakely to overturn his sentence, but yesterday's decision cuts off that avenue.
Deborah Dwyer, a senior deputy prosecutor in King County who helped argue the case, said prosecutors are relieved. "If all those old exceptional sentences were now reversed, it's uncertain whether we could empanel a jury" to resentence the offenders, she said.
But defense lawyer David Zuckerman said his colleagues are disappointed. "There's no question that these sentences are illegal and I think a court should be willing to correct them regardless of the date the sentence was imposed," he said.
The ruling came down in the cases of Michael R. Evans, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for rape, and Shawn Swenson, who had been convicted of first-degree felony murder in the 1995 slaying of David Loucks, who owned a Seattle recording studio. While the court rejected Swenson's Blakely argument, it overturned his conviction on other grounds.
According to court documents, Swenson said he planned only to steal equipment from the studio, and that another man killed Loucks. Yesterday's ruling said the jury was improperly instructed that Swenson should be found guilty of the murder if it was proven he intended to commit the theft. His case will go back to King County for a new trial.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company