Login | November 26, 2020

Rape sentence cannot be increased without jury considering use or threat of force

DAN TREVAS
Supreme Court
Public Information Office

Published: November 20, 2020

A Hamilton County man’s prison sentence of 25 years to life for rape based on compelling a child victim to submit by force violated the man’s constitutional rights because the trial court, not the jury, determined force was used, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court affirmed a decision by the First District Court of Appeals, which directed the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to sentence Adam Bowers for rape for a fourth time. The Court agreed with the First District that the trial court made an error by imposing a 25-years-to-life sentence, stating the sentence was not an option based on the charges presented to the jury.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor explained that the original jury in Bowers’ case was only asked whether – and agreed – that the prosecution proved Bowers raped a victim under the age of 10. Under Ohio law, at that point the trial judge had the option of sentencing Bowers to either life in prison without parole or 15 years to life in prison. Any attempt to raise the minimum sentence to 25 years required the jury to rule on additional facts, such as whether Bowers used force to commit the crime.
Justice Patrick F. Fischer did not participate in the case. Tenth District Court of Appeals Judge Frederick D. Nelson, sitting for Justice Fischer, joined the opinion.
Trial Court Believed It Had Sentencing Options
In November 2014, Bowers was convicted of the rape of a child under age 13 under R.C. 2907.02(A)(1)(b). The victim was his stepniece, who was about 5 or 6 years old at the time of the events leading to Bowers’ conviction. The only specification presented to the jury was to find that the victim was under 10.
At sentencing, the trial court had the option of sentencing Bowers to a definite sentence of life in prison without parole, or it could choose a sentence under R.C. 2971.03, which provides for sentences of 10, 15, or 25 years to life based on certain factors.
Under R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(a), a trial court can impose a 10-years-to-life prison sentence for rape. R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(b) then states that, if the victim is under 10, a 15-years-to-life sentence can be imposed. Finally, under R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(c), if the offender “purposely compels the victim to submit by force or threat of force,” or if the offender had a prior rape conviction or caused serious physical harm to the victim, then a 25-years-to-life sentence can be imposed.
The trial court sentenced Bowers to 25 years to life in prison.
Series of Appeals Began
Bowers appealed to the First District. The First District ruled the trial court incorrectly sentenced Bowers because it relied on R.C. 2971.03(A), which did not apply to his case. The First District remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing.
The trial court again sentenced Bowers to 25 years to life, this time under R.C. 2971.03(B), but it did not make any factual findings concerning the matters identified in R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(c). The trial court believed that 25 years to life was the only option it had aside from life without parole.
Bowers appealed again, and the First District ruled that the trial court erred because a sentence of 25 years to life was not the trial court’s only option if it chose not to impose a sentence of life without parole. Bowers also could be sentenced to 15 years to life under R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(b) because the jury found that the victim was under 10.
The First District also stated the trial court could sentence Bowers to 25 years to life under R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(c) because there was “ample evidence that Bowers compelled his victim to submit by force.” It further stated that it would not violate Bowers’ rights under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to give him the harsher 25-years-to-life sentence based on a finding that force was used made by the trial court, rather than the jury. Again, the case was remanded to the trial court for resentencing.
On the third sentencing attempt, the trial court sentenced Bowers again to 25 years to life, noting that it believed from the First District’s decision it had the option to choose from between 15 years to life and 25 years to life. Bowers appealed again.
On the third appeal, a new three-member First District panel ruled the sentence was unauthorized because the Sixth Amendment requires that any finding that the victim was compelled by force or the threat of force under R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(c) be made by a jury, rather than the trial court. The First District remanded the case again for sentencing.
The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the First District’s decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Court Analyzes Sentencing Requirements
Chief Justice O’Connor explained the prosecutor’s argument requires the Court to consider the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in two cases – Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) and Alleyne v. United States (2013). Collectively, these cases state that any fact leading to an increase in the mandatory minimum a defendant will face must be submitted to a jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.
The prosecutor argued that under the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the judge could pick a sentence between the range of 15 years to life and life without parole. Bowers argued that because the court, not the jury, found that he committed the rape by force, a sentence of 25 years to life was not an option.
The Court agreed with Bowers.
It agreed with Bowers that “a sentence of 25 years to life under R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(c) was not an option in the absence of a finding that the victim was compelled to submit to force or that one of the other factors under that provision were present.” The Court then stated that, under the language of the law and the decision in Alleyne, the finding that force was used must be made by a jury. Imposing a 25-year sentence based on a finding by the trial court that force was used violated Bowers’ Sixth Amendment rights. The Court remanded the case to the trial court to resentence Bowers.
2019-1282. State v. Bowers, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5167.


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