In most states, including West Virginia, when an individual commits a serious sexual offense, he or she may be required to register as a sex offender after a criminal sentence is completed. Due to the high rates of recidivism among sexual offenders and the unique risks posed to children, state legislators have decided that this continued requirement is justified even when an individual has already served time in prison. Recently, however, the local courts in West Virginia asked the Supreme Court to consider a novel question: whether individuals who committed sexual offenses while juveniles were required to register as sex offenders upon turning 21. The Supreme Court agreed to address this question and resolve the issue.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines, certain crimes are subject to mandatory periods of imprisonment. Under Section 924(c), whenever a defendant commits a crime of violence that involves the use of a firearm, the defendant must, at the least, be subjected to a consecutive mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in prison. Determining what constitutes a crime of violence under this section has been a subject of much debate. In a recent case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court evaluated whether the crime of carjacking can be a crime of violence.
For many criminal defendants, the risks of a potential criminal trial far outweigh the possibility of a guilty verdict. This makes the option of taking a guilty plea an appealing way to minimize the risk of a lengthy jury sentence and create more certainty as to the time one will spend in prison. Plea deals also involve signing away many rights, however, and must be approached with a good amount of care and attention to detail. In exchange for a reduction in charges or jail time and avoiding a jury trial, criminal defendants often give up their rights to appeal the proceedings or challenge the ultimate punishment imposed. A recent case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a criminal defendant’s attempt to appeal a sentence by arguing that government attorneys failed to uphold their end of a plea deal bargain.
Generally, when a criminal defendant receives a jail sentence, that sentence cannot be modified unless the conviction is changed or overturned. This rule promotes finality in the justice system and allows for more certainty among defendants, prosecutors, and victims. Congress has provided one exception to this rule. When a defendant is sentenced to a certain amount of time in prison, based on the sentencing guidelines at the time, and these guidelines are later changed, the defendant may petition for a reduction in sentencing if his or her sentence would be reduced under the new guidelines. A recent case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit considers such a petition and looks at when district courts are permitted to make additional factual findings in order to justify rejecting sentence reduction petitions.
All criminal defendants are entitled to due process under the law and a fair opportunity to represent themselves at trial. As part of this constitutional right, the Supreme Court has held that defendants are entitled to any information that is exculpatory and would support their defense. Prosecutors cannot withhold information from defendants that would tend to support their defense or exonerate them from the charges. While prosecutors generally abide by this constitutional right, complications can arise when the information that the defendant seeks is highly confidential or privileged. A recent case before the West Virginia Supreme Court looks at the release of information from sensitive and confidential therapy sessions.
In our court system, criminal defendants who cannot afford to have legal counsel are entitled to have a public defender appointed to represent them in their criminal trials and proceedings. While many of these public defenders provide competent and admirable legal assistance in the face of overwhelming and stressful workloads, there may be occasional failures of representation. Such failures can also happen with privately retained counsel. When these failures gravely affect a criminal defendant’s case and compromise his or her rights, a criminal defendant can sometimes have decisions of the court, or a conviction, overturned on the basis of “ineffective assistance of counsel.” A recent case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals looks at whether ineffective assistance arises when a criminal defense attorney fails to object to a court’s rejection of a plea deal.
It is a central part of a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights that he or she cannot be convicted of a crime for which he or she is not charged. As part of procedural due process, a criminal defendant must have an opportunity to know the crime that he or she faces and to address the particular elements of that crime. Thus, when a State charges a defendant with a certain crime but convicts him or her of a different crime, a constitutional error is said to occur. However, under Rule 31(c) of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure, a defendant may be convicted of a lesser included offense of the original charge that was brought without violating these constitutional protections. In State v. Henning, the Supreme Court looked at what constitutes a lesser included offense.
A jury’s verdict in a criminal matter is entitled to great deference by the courts. Even if a judge, or the parties, may disagree with the outcome that a jury reaches, if the verdict was reached through proper court procedures and was a reasonable result of the evidence presented, jury verdicts will rarely be overturned. Criminal defendants can attack the merits of a jury verdict in two ways. First, they may argue that the verdict was unfairly influenced by things that happened at trial, such as the presentation of evidence that should have been excluded, or a lack of evidence that would support the verdict reached.
Alternatively, defendants can attack the process of reaching the verdict itself, including arguing that jurors were influenced in the jury room by outside information, or that they acted in such a manner during deliberations as to discredit the verdict. A recent case before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals looks at a defendant’s efforts to invalidate a jury verdict by arguing it was improperly reached.
One of the more difficult things for victims in criminal litigation to understand is that trials are not opportunities to tell the jury about everything bad that a defendant has ever done. Trials must focus on proving the current crime or bad act at issue, and evidence is limited to those facts or opinions that are relevant to that crime. The State cannot meet the burden of proof by simply showing that the defendant is an all-around shady character. Instead, the specific elements of the crime must be shown. In order to prevent trials from becoming mudslinging contests, the West Virginia rules of evidence prevent the state from providing evidence of a defendant’s “prior bad acts” unless they can show that such bad acts are relevant to the current criminal case, and the probative value of such evidence outweighs any prejudicial impact. A recent case before the West Virginia Supreme Court shows that, in some instances, when prior bad acts are particularly relevant, they may be allowed even if they are from a decade or longe, before the crime was committed.
In State v. Gary A., the Defendant was charged with sexual assault of his seven-year-old niece. While spending the night at her uncle’s with her two brothers, the Defendant inappropriately touched his niece and forced her to inappropriately touch him. He was charged and convicted of sexual assault. At trial, the niece testified, along with her mother and her brother, who were involved in the reporting of the crime. Additionally, the State of West Virginia called two of the Defendant’s older relatives to testify. They both reported that they had been assaulted in a manner similar to the Defendant’s assault of his niece, when they were younger. After the trial, the Defendant was sentenced to 30 to 90 years in prison. He immediately appealed.
Updates on criminal law in the West Virginia courts often focus on issues of Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, sentencing requirements, and when a defendant may be subjected to ineffective assistance of counsel. While these types of issues make for catchy headlines and good sound bites, a recent decision from the West Virginia Criminal Court highlights one of the most fundamental hurdles that criminal defendants must overcome when having their appeal heard by a judge – whether the appellate court has jurisdiction to consider their arguments. Jurisdiction is an issue that must always be considered by a court, and without jurisdiction, a defendant cannot have his or her claims heard by that court. While jurisdiction can be straightforward, such as bringing a lawsuit in the area where an injury occurred, jurisdiction over criminal cases becomes exceedingly complex when dealing with the many avenues for appeal and post-conviction motions that can be raised by defendants. In West Virginia v. Doom, the Supreme Court looked at who keeps jurisdiction over a criminal case when a defendant has filed both an appeal and a post-conviction motion with the trial court.
Mr. Doom was arrested in Braxton County, West Virginia after he was caught attempting to steal a flashlight and several air fresheners from an auto store. He was arrested, charges were brought against him, and he ultimately made a plea deal with the State of West Virginia, whereby he would plead guilty in exchange for the State recommending that his sentence run concurrently with another shoplifting sentence that he faced in a different county. The plea was entered, and the court scheduled a sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, they sentenced Mr. Doom to one to 10 years in prison, to run consecutively with his other sentence. After the sentencing, Mr. Doom filed a motion under Rule 35(b) to reduce his sentence. At the same time, he filed an appeal with the West Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that his sentence was disproportionate to the minor offense for which he was charged. Before considering the merits of his appeal, the Supreme Court first questioned whether they had jurisdiction over the appeal, in light of Mr. Doom’s ongoing proceedings before the trial court.