Criminal justice system

Man in prison

An Adams County judge violated a man's constitutional rights when he departed from established legal principles during sentencing, the Court of Appeals determined on Thursday.

The case implicated the U.S. Supreme Court's 2004 decision in Blakely v. Washington, in which a majority of justices found that trial courts infringe on a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial when they impose a sentence that exceeds the standard range — even if that range is lower than the maximum allowed under the law.

Subsequently, the Colorado Supreme Court advised that there are certain circumstances in which judges may increase a punishment beyond the range. District Court Judge Roberto Ramirez, a three-member Court of Appeals panel found, relied on none of those reasons when sentencing Ronnie Gene Crutcher.

"This error was both obvious and substantial because it contravened Colorado case law and may have added years to Crutcher’s sentence," wrote Judge Neeti Vasant Pawar in the July 15 opinion.

A jury in 2018 found Crutcher guilty of second degree assault and child abuse against his children. On appeal, both the prosecution and defense agreed that his sentencing range was two to eight years' imprisonment. However, Ramirez had opted for a range of one to 16 years.

His calculation was "based on the age and the relationship to the victims in this case as well as the lasting impact that Mr. Crutcher left on his victims, this provides the Court the basis to find that this is an exceptional circumstances case," the judge said. He gave Crutcher eight years of incarceration and three years of parole.

The state Supreme Court, in interpreting the Blakely decision, noted there were four factors that would support a sentence beyond an established range. First, if there were facts found by a jury to support the increase; second, if there were facts the defendant admitted; third, if the judge found additional facts; and fourth, if there were facts about prior convictions.

"When a judge inflicts punishment that the jury's verdict alone does not allow, the jury has not found all the facts," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in Blakely's majority opinion, and "the judge exceeds his proper authority."

Although Colorado law allows judges to exceed the range based on "extraordinary mitigating or aggravating circumstances," they still must apply the Blakely factors in doing so.

The panel determined Ramirez had relied on none of the accepted factors when expanding Crutcher's sentencing range. The appellate judges consequently sent the case back to the trial court for resentencing.

The case is People v. Crutcher.

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