Hundreds of Minnesota prison inmates may be able to challenge their sentences under an appellate court ruling this week, says the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Criminal justice officials believe the state can adjust successfully to the new rules and prevent the premature release of dangerous prisoners, but they foresee a degree of chaos. The ruling is among the first in Minnesota to flow from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that limit trial judges’ discretion to increase criminal sentences beyond statutory or sentencing guideline lengths.
The Minnesota ruling came in the case of Dennis Whitley Jr., a repeat sex offender who received a 40-year sentence for grabbing a woman jogger’s buttocks and genital area. Under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, Whitley, despite eight previous felony convictions, faced fewer than five years in prison on his conviction for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. He waived a jury trial; a judge convicted him and applied the state “patterned sex offenders” statute to sentence him to a term from which he would not be eligible for release until January 2029. “Due process … requires that each of these findings be made by a jury based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” the appeals panel said. Public defender Ben Butler called the high court ruling “quite revolutionary. It throws sentencing in this state pretty much up in the air.”