Supreme Court Decision Impacts Payson Justice

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A June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has affected the sentencing of a local drug dealer, as well as many other criminal cases statewide.

Anthony Deck, 39, convicted of selling a large quantity of methamphetamine in Payson, was scheduled to be sentenced July 19, but the court's decision, also known as the Blakely decision, prompted the Gila County Attorney's Office to postpone proceedings.

The Supreme Court determined June 24 that rather than a judge deciding if a defendant should get a harsher sentence than the standard, juries should make the determination. Before the Blakely decision, a judge could use his or her discretion on whether a defendant should get a more harsh or more lenient sentence within the guidelines set forth by Arizona law. What allows for a harsher sentence are certain elements of the crime, called aggravating factors.

"By statute in Arizona, there is a presumed sentence any defendant will receive upon conviction for a crime," Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores said. "Previously the judge could either aggravate the sentence or mitigate that sentence within a certain range based upon a finding of a variety of factors. Now the decision that an aggravating factor exists is no longer in the hands of a judge, but the jury."

The Blakely decision was based on the 1998 case of a Washington man, Ralph Howard Blakely, who kidnapped his wife with the hope of getting her to drop a divorce suit, bound her with duct tape and forced her at knifepoint into a wooden box in the back of his pickup truck.

Blakely pleaded guilty to second-degree kidnapping and expected to be sentenced to four years in prison. But the judge was so outraged by the cruelty of the crime, he imposed an aggravated sentence of eight years. The case made its way to the Supreme Court who found that Blakely's sixth amendment right to a jury trial had been violated.

Deck faced a sentencing range of between 10 and 28 years, but because of the Blakely decision, the judge would be limited as to how harsh a sentence he could impose.

"The Blakely decision occurred after our jury had convicted Deck," Flores said. "This placed us in the difficult position that we could not request an aggravated sentence for this defendant and we believe his history and the facts of the case show he deserves (one). So, we requested a jury trial on the aggravating factors and Judge (Peter) Cahill granted our request."

As a result, a new jury will convene in September to decide the aggravating factors in the case.

Flores could not specify the aggravating factors in the Deck case in order not to taint a jury pool, but described some of the acts or circumstances that make a crime more heinous.

"Aggravating factors may include such things as harm to the victim, presence of an accomplice and prior convictions," Flores said. "Aggravating factors can be any of those listed in the Arizona Revised Statutes."

The Blakely effect

"For my office and all county attorney offices across the state, the Supreme Court decision will now require a bifurcated trial," Flores said. "Upon conviction, we will ask the jury to return immediately or within a few days to hear the evidence on aggravating factors."

Now, a jury will deliberate first on guilt or innocence and then on whether there are aggravating circumstances, she said.

Since the majority of cases are settled by plea agreements, defendants could be required to waive their right to have a jury decide aggravating factors before entering into a plea, Flores said.

"It is a little difficult to explain or understand how Blakely will actually work in application," she said. "Many minds across the state are trying to figure it out."

What are aggravating factors in a crime?

According to the Arizona Revised Statutes, the following are some of the aggravating factors that could increase the length of a prison sentence:

  • Infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury.
  • Use, threatened use or possession of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument during the commission of a crime.
  • Taking of or damage to property.
  • Presence of an accomplice.
  • Especially heinous, depraved or cruel manner in which the offense was committed.
  • The defendant was paid to commit the offense.
  • Physical, emotional or financial harm caused to the victim.
  • Death of an unborn child as a result of the crime.
  • A defendant has previous convictions.
  • The defendant wore body armor.
  • The victim is 65-years-old or older or is disabled.
  • Crime is committed out of malice.
  • The offense was determined to be a hate crime.
  • Lying in wait or ambushing a victim during the commission of a felony.
  • The crime was committed in the presence of a child.
  • The crime was in retribution for reporting criminal activity.
  • The defendant was impersonating a peace officer.
  • A victim pleaded for his/her life.

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