The Supreme Court refused yesterday to reconsider a legal rule that the Los Angeles Times might surprise most Americans: Judges can punish defendants for certain crimes even after a jury has acquitted them. The justices have called the right to jury trial as one of the bedrock principles of American law. At the same time, they have said judges may take into account “acquitted conduct” when they decide on a prison term. Mark Hurn of Madison, Wi. was given an additional 15 years in prison for possessing crack cocaine, even though a jury acquitted him of the charge. He was convicted of having powder cocaine, a charge that would warrant between two and three years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
In 1997, the high court endorsed the acquitted conduct rule in a California case. They agreed judges can decide on the sentence for a convicted criminal by “relying on the entire range of conduct” presented by prosecutors, not just the charges that resulted in guilty verdicts. In recent years, the rule has allowed judges to give defendants long prison terms even when a jury rejected key parts of the prosecution’s case. The high court’s refusal to hear the Hurn case “is very disappointing,” said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who is an expert on sentencing. “They have dodged this for now, but eventually the Supreme Court will have to grapple with this again.”