Vt. high court slams sentencing law
By JOHN ZICCONI Vermont Press Bureau | December 24,2005
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday changed a quadruple murderer's punishment and deemed a nearly 20-year-old Vermont sentencing law unconstitutional.
The ruling is expected to alter — and in some cases shorten — the prison terms of an unknown number of other murderers.
"It is unclear how widespread this decision may be," said Janet Murnane, a Vermont assistant attorney general. "I don't anticipate the floodgates opening wide. But we will be reviewing it."
The high court unanimously ruled that Douglas Provost, who murdered four people in Belvidere in 2001, was improperly sentenced to life without parole.
The court altered Provost's sentence to four life sentences with minimum terms of 35 years to be served consecutively, which will keep him behind bars for life.
But in reviewing his case, the court found that Vermont law — which allows judges to increase prison sentences beyond the statutory maximum without consulting a jury — violates the Constitution's Sixth Amendment.
The ruling is expected to trigger appeals from other prisoners sentenced beyond the statutory maximum by a judge instead of a jury.
"We won the principal, but unfortunately our client has 140 years before he is paroled," said Charles Martin, Provost's attorney. The ruling, however, "changes for the future how people are sentenced."
The Provost case involved homicide. It was not immediately clear if the court's decision also affects rapists, kidnappers and other violent criminals who can be sentenced beyond the statutory guidelines.
"I think that might be stretching it a little too far," said Matthew Valerio, Vermont's defender general. "But there is definitely an argument that can be extended beyond homicide."
Murnane, however, said Vermont's homicide statutes are unique and predicted the court ruling would not extend beyond murder convictions.
Vermont in 1987 passed a law allowing judges to increase the maximum sentence for both first- and second-degree homicide if they find "aggravating factors" that justify harsher punishment.
The statute lists eight aggravating factors — including brutality and multiple victims — that can be used to increase a sentence.
Judge Edward Cashman sentenced Provost to life without parole, instead of the statutory maximum of life with a minimum term of 35 years, for each person he killed.
The ruling complied with state law, but violated a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said any penalty beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and the citizen panel must conclude the aggravating factors are true beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Increasing that sentence to life without parole on the basis of any facts, other than a prior conviction, that the jury has not found beyond a reasonable doubt violates the Sixth Amendment," which guarantees citizens the right to a jury trial, the Vermont Supreme Court wrote in a 10-page ruling.
Lee Suskin, Vermont's court administrator, said the Legislature will have to change Vermont law to comply with the court's decision.
Prisoners sentenced under the old statue must file an appeal if they want their sentences altered, he said.
"Anyone who thinks their sentence is unjust … can request a review," Suskin said. "It will be a case-by-case kind of thing."
Contact John Zicconi at firstname.lastname@example.org.