Corvallis Case Raises Sentencing Issues
CRIME VICTIMS UNITED
On the evening of August 10, 2004, 18-year old Robin Jensen was riding home on her bicycle. She was returning home from her job at the Osborn Aquatic Center in Corvallis. Robin was an excellent student and athlete about to enter Oregon State University.
Two blocks from her home Robin was hit by a car approaching from the rear. Robin and her bicycle bounced off the car's hood. Her head crashed into the driver's side of the windshield which was breeched by the impact. Drops of Robin's blood and strands of her long red hair remained embedded in the windshield.
The car sped off. Another motorist, traveling behind the car that hit Robin, stopped to see if he could help. He enlisted the aid of a nearby resident. Robin was taken to the Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center where she died late that night.
Three days later, 28-year-old graduate student Amy Stack turned herself into police. She faced possible charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, hit-and-run, and DUII. Detectives determined that Stack had purchased a large bottle of vodka on the day of the crash. The same type bottle, empty, was found in her home after she turned herself in.
In late October of 2005, the trial finally approached. Stack was charged with hit-and-run which carries a presumptive sentence of 16 to 18 months in prison. If she were found guilty, the judge could depart upwards to 36 months based on aggravating factors or depart down to zero months based on mitigating factors.
Because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Blakely decision, the jury was required not only to decide if Ms. Stack was guilty, but also to rule on the presence of aggravating factors. Prior to the Blakely decision, the judge alone decided if aggravating or mitigating factors applied. After Blakely, the jury is required to find aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt, although the judge can still find mitigating factors on his own. In this case the aggravating factor which the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt was "extreme indifference to the value of human life."
On October 24, in a pre-trial hearing, Judge Locke Williams ruled that evidence that Stack had been drinking, would not be admitted at trial. This would make it harder to obtain a conviction and harder to prove aggravating factors.
The trial included testimony from a friend of the defendant with whom she spoke on the telephone on the night of the crash, from the driver who came to Robin's aid, from the defendant's parents, and from police who attempted to analyze the crash and the evidence left on the defendant's windshield, from an expert witness hired by the defense to analyze the crash scene, and from the defendant herself who said she thought she hit an animal.
Jurors saw pictures of Robin in the hospital and pictures of the car and then were taken to see the vehicle.
On November 4, 2005, the jury returned its verdict: guilty. They also found the aggravating factor of extreme indifference to the value of human life. The defense immediately said it would seek a new trial or appeal the verdict.
Now it was up to the judge to choose a sentence. Despite the jury's finding of extreme indifference, he could still sentence the defendant to anywhere from zero to 36 months in prison.
As the sentencing approached, the Corvallis Gazette-Times published several letters from friends and acquaintances of Robin or the Jensen family who expressed concern about the sentence about to be handed down.
On November 16, the Gazette-Times ran an editorial entitled "Keep judiciary strong and independent". They described letters they received which the feel were intended to send a message to Judge Locke to hand down a stern sentence. They wrote:
"The judiciary is supposed to be an impartial filter of laws and precedents. But the idea that justice is too often hijacked by the law is feeding a growing dissatisfaction with judicial authority. It is rooted in the belief that this authority is too absolute."
"In fact, this isn't so. Judges are challenged all the time. They are removed from the bench for judicial misconduct, their decisions are overturned on appeal, they are voted out of office."
. . .
"The legal system has not yet finished with the matter of the hit-and-run death of Robin Jensen. Aside from whatever sentence is imposed Thursday, we foresee a change in state laws that modifies the penalties for leaving the scene of an accident without checking for injury when serious injury or death had resulted."
The sentencing hearing was held on November 17, 2005. Judge Locke pronounced a sentence of 24 months, subject to "good time" and other sentence-reduction programs.
What follows is Crime Victims United's response to the Gazette-Times editorial which the newspaper ran on December 5, 2005. Our suggested title, "Stack sentence highlights criminal justice realities", was changed by the editor.
Sentence in Stack shows legal system gone wrong
The Nov. 15 editorial, "Keep judiciary strong and independent", expressed an idealized view of our criminal justice system. The reality is quite different.
The editorial noted, "Judges are challenged all the time. They are removed from the bench for judicial misconduct; their decisions are overturned on appeal; they are voted out of office." Although they are nominally elected in Oregon, in reality judges are appointed by the governor and almost never face a true election. Over the decade from 1994 to 2004, of 428 Oregon judicial elections, just 11 incumbent judges were challenged, and not a single sitting judge was voted out of office. The bar for unseating a judge is so high that few attempt it and none succeed.
While the Oregon Constitution calls for elections, judges have defacto lifetime appointments. No judges were removed from the bench for judicial misconduct in more than two decades. Decisions overturned on appeal almost always favor the criminal.
On the sentencing of Amy Stack for hit-and-run in the death of Robin Jensen, the editorial noted, "Aside from whatever sentence is imposed Thursday, we foresee a change in state laws that modifies the penalties for leaving the scene of an accident without checking for injury when serious injury or death had resulted."
In 2001, the Legislature did just that, following another hit-and-run that killed another young girl and outraged another community. In that case, too, there was a strong suspicion that the driver, by fleeing and evading a blood test, eluded a possible DUII-homicide charge and beat the system.
The local newspaper and several Oregon legislators promptly promised to fix this loophole. The legislature passed Senate Bill 472, known as Katie's Law after 12-year old victim Katie Lovelace. Katie's Law raised hit-and-run with a fatality or serious injury to crime seriousness level eight on the Oregon sentencing guidelines grid.
In sentencing Amy Stack, Judge Locke Williams was operating under Katie's Law. Crime seriousness level eight sets a presumptive sentence of 18 months in prison but gives the judge the discretion to order as much as 36 months and as little as zero months. The sentence received is not merely a matter of "what the evidence and the law requires," but is largely determined by the judge's personal criminal justice philosophy. Two identical cases in two adjacent courtrooms in the same courthouse could lawfully result in two sentences as disparate as 36 months and zero months. Once the judge pronounces the sentence, the prosecutor, victims and voters are powerless to appeal it.
In this case, the judge pronounced a sentence of 24 months. Twenty-four months means 19 months after "good time." "Transitional leave" can cut that to 16 months. The "alternative incarceration program" can cut it to nine months. This nullifies the legislature's intent in passing Katie's law. Citizens concerns about the sentencing of Amy Stack were well founded.
Howard Rodstein of Lake Oswego is a volunteer policy analyst for the political action group, Crime Victims United.
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