Law experts hash out hot-button jury issues

By on February 2, 2011

Jurors aren’t aware of the mandatory minimum sentence that could await a guilty party in America’s justice system, and according to attorney Timothy Moynahan, that needs to change.

Moynahan gave his argument alongside Connecticut law experts at Friday’s “Juries and Justice” forum at the School of Law’s Grand Courtroom, co-sponsored by the Connecticut Bar Foundation along with contributions from the Criminal Law Society and Student Bar Association.

The panelists discussed whether juries should be involved in criminal sentencing. Currently, jurors are not told the defendant’s possible sentence before they deliberate in criminal trials.

“The present system is straightforward,” Connecticut’s Chief Administrative Judge Robert Devlin said. “We ask one question: Is the defendant guilty? Yes or no?”

But it’s not that simple, Moynahan said. He offered a story of a young man charged with home invasion – the jury had no idea that a guilty verdict would land the man a 10-year minimum sentence. Such knowledge could have led the jury away from what he felt was an unfair sentence.

Leonard Boyle, deputy chief state’s attorney of Connecticut, said that the issue is coming to a head and needs to be addressed.

“There should be a policy determination on whether or not [the jury] wants to sentence,” Boyle said.

Advocates of the status quo would oppose, arguing that a judge is more qualified to make sentencing decisions than a jury.

Nicole Fernandes, a third-year law student who helped organize the event, offered her opinion.

“The role of a juror should be one of a fact-finder,” Fernandes said. “However, I also feel that jurors should be made aware of mandatory minimum sentences. They should know this and assess the penalty as such.”

Fernandes said law professor Jeffrey Meyer, another event organizer, recently wrote an article dealing with the same topic. They wanted to raise awareness of this debate by holding a forum because it was such a hot issue.

“The discussion was very involved and interesting, and there was a good turnout in students who attended,” Fernandes said. “All told, it was a wonderful afternoon.”

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