August 08, 2004

Comments on US v. O'Daniel, No. 02-CR-159-H (N.D. Okl., August 6, 2004)

In United States v. Danny Eugene O’Daniel, No. 02-CR-159-H (N.D. Oklahoma, August 6, 2004), a case involving a pre-Blakely guilty plea with a rather detailed plea agreement, the district court held:

  • Blakely applicable to the federal sentencing guidelines;
  • that defendant had waived his right to jury fact-finding (Note: the Court had earlier indicated intent to vacate guilty plea post-Blakely, the Government and defendant objected, with defendant insisting his plea was a voluntary and knowing one, so the court said it would then proceed to sentencing with judicial fact-finding);
  • that the Rules of Evidence would apply at sentencing as to any sentencing enhancements; and
  • that the Court would make findings on enhancements based on the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

The Court explained that Blakely concerned both the right to jury trial and the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. It also indicated that Blakely made the right to jury fact finding interchangeable with judicial fact finding upon a proper waiver and consent, but that what was not interchangeable was the notion of jury fact-finding using a beyond a reasonable doubt standard with the rules of evidence applying and judicial fact-finding using a preponderance of the evidence standard and no rules of evidence applying.

The Court concludes that a clear purpose of Blakely is to ensure that each fact necessary to support a sentencing enhancement must be proved under the rules of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury or, upon a proper waiver and consent, to a judge. This will have its greatest impact in the area of relevant conduct. In this regard, the Court simply comments that, at least to some extent, relevant conduct has long caused discomfort to those involved in the criminal justice system, and Blakely directly speaks to that discomfort.

I must applaud this Judge with how he handled the issue of the burden of proof and the rules of evidence. What I have difficulty with, is the Court’s conclusion that the federal sentencing guidelines can be implemented in a manner consistent with the Sixth Amendment and Blakely by the Court. This can only be done if one determines that the Sentencing Reform Act’s provisions for the Court to be the fact-finder can be changed by judicial fiat, rather than by Congress. Setting aside for a moment the complex issues that will arise in charging juries with some of the more complex aspects of the sentencing guidelines, clearly intended to be explored by legal minds, I have no doubt that the statute and the guidelines can be re-written to comply with Blakely. But is this not a job for Congress and the Sentencing Commission, rather than the Courts? In any event, I urge you to read this opinion, as there is much more in it than what I have addressed here.