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Justice Pfeifer shares view on sentencing opinions

Supreme Court

Published: June 24, 2016

In 1997, a jury found Larry Stewart guilty of aggravated murder, attempted murder, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping. After the verdict, the trial court held a hearing to assess the aggravating and mitigating factors.

An aggravating circumstance is any circumstance attending the commission of a crime that increases its guilt or adds to its injurious consequences. Mitigating factors, on the other hand, do not constitute a justification for an offense, but “in fairness and mercy, may be considered as extenuating or reducing the degree of moral culpability.”

Stewart was facing the death penalty, but after the mitigation hearing, the jury recommended – and the trial court imposed – a sentence of life imprisonment without parole eligibility for 30 years for Stewart’s aggravated-murder conviction. The court of appeals affirmed his convictions and sentence.

But in 2014, Stewart filed a motion with the trial court seeking a final, appealable order because he claimed he was entitled to a separate sentencing opinion in accordance with Ohio law. Judge Michael J. Russo denied Stewart’s motion, finding that a sentencing judge “is not required to file a written sentencing opinion when the jury has recommended a sentence other than death.” Stewart didn’t appeal that decision.

Instead, in January 2015, he filed a petition for a writ with the court of appeals seeking an order compelling Judge Russo to issue a final appealable order consisting of both a sentencing opinion and the judgment of conviction.

Stewart argued that because his sentencing entry did not state the reasons why the mitigating factors outweighed the aggravating circumstances, it was not a final order, which could then be appealed.

Judge Russo argued that he had no duty to file a separate sentencing opinion under Ohio law because the jury recommended a life sentence, which he was required to impose.

The court of appeals agreed with Judge Russo, and held that the pertinent law requires a separate sentencing opinion only when the jury recommends a sentence of death. After that, Stewart filed an appeal with us – the Ohio Supreme Court.

The issue presented by his claim was whether when a jury in a capital trial recommends that the offender be sentenced to life in prison, the trial judge is required to issue a separate sentencing opinion setting forth the aggravating circumstances and mitigating factors that were found to exist and the reasons why the aggravating circumstances did not outweigh the mitigating factors.

Stewart argued that the law in question requires a separate sentencing opinion, irrespective of whether the sentence is death or life in prison, before a final, appealable order can be issued.

The law states that the court, when it imposes life imprisonment, shall state “in a separate opinion its specific findings of which of the mitigating factors…it found to exist, what aggravating circumstances the offender was found guilty of committing, and why it could not find that these aggravating circumstances were sufficient to outweigh the mitigating factors. The judgment in a case in which a sentencing hearing is held” is not final until the opinion is filed.

At first glance, the law appears to mandate the relief Stewart sought. But his life sentence with parole eligibility after 30 years also implicates another section of the same law.

That other section lays out the procedure by which a jury is to recommend a sentence in a capital case, and provides that if the jury recommends that the offender be sentenced to life imprisonment with parole eligibility after 30 years, then “the court shall impose the sentence recommended by the jury upon the offender.”

When the meaning of a legislative enactment is at issue, we look first “to the plain language of the statute itself to determine the legislative intent.” The plain language of the statute in question here states that if the jury recommends that an offender be sentenced to life in prison for a capital offense, with or without parole eligibility, the trial judge “shall” impose the recommended sentence.

Thus, the law is unambiguous and requires a trial judge to impose the jury’s recommended sentence in a capital case when the recommendation is for a life sentence.

In addition, it is well established that when we interpret the meaning of laws, we construe them together and read the Revised Code as an interrelated body of law. Thus, construing the two sections of the law together, we concluded that the latter section – the one that requires that the judge issue a separate sentencing opinion when the judge imposes a life sentence – can only refer to a situation in which the jury recommends death and the judge overrides that recommendation and imposes a life sentence.

Reading the law as Stewart urged us to would ignore the plain and unambiguous language of the section of the law that requires a trial judge to impose the jury’s recommended sentence when the jury recommends a life sentence.

Because the jury in Stewart’s case recommended that he be sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 30 years, the latter section does not apply.

To accept Stewart’s argument that the latter section requires a separate sentencing opinion even when the jury recommends life would violate the basic tenet that laws should be construed “to avoid unreasonable or absurd consequences.”

Under his interpretation, a trial judge would have to engage in “an exercise of judicial extrasensory perception,” because the judge would be forced to “determine the course and matter of the jury’s deliberations” to draft the separate sentencing opinion.

So, we determined that the plain language of the law directs that when a jury in a capital case recommends that the offender be sentenced to life imprisonment, with or without the possibility of parole, the trial court must impose the recommended sentence. In that situation, the first part of the sentencing law controls the outcome, and the latter section – which requires a separate sentencing opinion – is not applicable.

Therefore – by a seven-to-zero vote – we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals denying Stewart’s requested writ.

NOTE: The case referred to is: State ex rel. Stewart v. Russo, 145 Ohio St.3d 382, 2016-Ohio-421. Case No. 2015-0457. Decided February 9, 2016. Opinion Per Curiam.