Mr. Melvin was tried for murder and acquitted. The jury convicted him only of a weapons offense. When the court sentenced Mr. Melvin on that charge, it found – by a preponderance of the evidence, and despite the jury’s acquittal – that Mr. Melvin had used the gun to commit a murder. As a result of that finding, the court imposed a harsher sentence.
The ACLU-NJ filed an amicus brief in which we proposed that the Court create a bright line rule allowing sentencing judges to consider the “whole person” at sentencing with one critical limitation: courts should not consider facts where the jury has acquitted a defendant of same or similar conduct.
The brief points out that the lion’s share of this sentencing practice is limited to a single courtroom in a single county. Even without concerns about divergent sentencing practices, where defendants fear that they might be punished based on acquitted conduct, they are more likely to plead guilty than go to trial—even when they have meritorious defenses—further driving down the already low rates of defendants exercising their right to a jury trial. Those defendants who do choose to go to trial in front of judges who are empowered to sentence based on acquitted conduct face the additional burden of having to persuade both the judge and the jury on two different standards of proof, thus compromising trial strategy.