Monday, March 7, 2011

SCOV Takes on Sentencing in Three-Part Disharmony

State v. Rooney, 2011 VT 14


This case is Defendant Brian Rooney’s appeal from his conviction for aggravated murder and life sentence to prison for the sexual assault and killing of Michelle Gardner-Quinn.  The events that led to this case were very much in the news during the fall of 2006, when the murder took place.  The victim was a University of Vermont student, whose disappearance after spending the evening with friends in downtown Burlington shocked the community, and whose story became tragic when her body was later found. 

On appeal, Defendant raised two issues.  First, he argued that his due process rights were violated by the State’s failure to disclose internal validation studies of the Vermont Forensic Laboratory’s DNA testing procedures.  Second, that his equal protection rights were violated by the sentencing schemes under Vermont’s first-degree murder and aggravated murder statutes. 


The SCOV unanimously agrees that there was no due-process violation regarding the lab’s internal validation studies, but it splits on the question of whether Defendant’s sentencing violated his equal-protection rights.  Three justices—Burgess, Skoglund, and Reiber—agree that life sentence under the aggravated murder statute was proper, and thus affirmed the sentence.  Justice Johnson, writing a dissent, joined by Justice Dooley, concluded that the criminal statutes violated Defendant’s equal-protection rights. 

The easy issue in this case was the question of whether the State suppressed evidence that defendant could have used to impeach the State’s DNA evidence, and thereby possibly create the necessary doubt in the mind of the jury as to defendant’s guilt.  This type of suppression claim is known as a Brady claim after the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), in which the SCOTUS held that “the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.”  The current test for a Brady claim is a three-part test:

  • the State must have suppressed the evidence;

  • the evidence must have been favorable to defendant in that it either showed innocence or reflected negatively on testimony offered by the State; and

  • the defendant must have been prejudiced as a result of the suppression. 

Defendant claimed here that the State failed to provide internal validation studies related to DNA testing at the Vermont Forensic Laboratory, and that those studies could have been used to impeach the State’s DNA evidence. 

Defendant’s attorney, however, had specifically called attention to the studies and to the fact that the State had never produced the studies during trial—implying that the State failed to provide critical evidence needed to convict defendant.  Based on this and Defendant’s active cross-examination of the State’s forensic scientists, the SCOV concluded that “everyone appears to have known of the existence of the studies” and that “[u]nder these circumstances, defendant cannot meet the first Brady prong—that the State suppressed the validation studies.”  And so ends the easy part of this opinion.

The second issue Defendant raised in his appeal calls out a difference in the sentencing provisions for first-degree murder and aggravated murder under the Vermont statutes.  First-degree murder carries a sentence of thirty-five-years-to-life in prison, (13 V.S.A. §§ 2301, 2303(a)(1)(A)), while aggravated murder carries a mandatory life sentence, (id. § 2311(a)(8)).  Defendant argued that because the elements for his aggravated murder charge of murdering another person while perpetrating a sexual assault were the same as the elements for first-degree murder, it violated his equal protection rights to subject him to the harsher sentencing provisions of the aggravated murder statute.  Defendant’s appeal called on both the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution.  He argued that by creating these disparate sentencing schemes for essentially the same crimes, the Legislature created an inherently arbitrary system that leaves prosecutors with too broad discretion and no standards by which to choose between the charges. 

Justice Burgess, writing for himself and the Chief Justice, concluded that the two statutory provisions could coexist without creating a constitutional violation because the issue is one of prosecutorial discretion.  The legislature gave prosecutors the ability to charge under one of two murder statutes, and prosecutors must decide based on the facts whether to seek first-degree murder or aggravated murder. 

Justice Skoglund, concurring with this outcome offered slightly different reasoning.  She concluded that the Court must conclude that the Legislature impliedly repealed the overlapping portions of the first-degree murder statute and the aggravated murder statute, and that the aggravated murder statute governs.  By doing this, she neatly bypass the constitutional issue and makes the decision one of statutory interpretation—which in this case is supported, in part, by the confusing legislative history that showed, to a certain extent that the legislature did not know what it was passing when it review and approved the aggravated murder statute.    

Justice Johnson, writing for herself and Justice Dooley, concluded that the statutes violate equal protection rights.  The basis of the dissent is best summed up in its first two sentences: “To define crimes and fix corresponding punishments is a quintessential legislative function.  To define identical crimes and affix strikingly different punishments is a perversion of that function.”  For the dissent, the legislature’s confusion is neither harmless (as the plurality sees it) or fixed by the judicial approximation of rounding up (Justice Skoglund), it is a violation of the duty of the legislature to define crimes and to set sentencing.  The confusion here has created two crimes with identical elements but widely different sentencing.  Without a compelling reason, the dissent finds it unconstitutional and would send Defendant back for sentencing under the first-degree murder statute.

If you dig the constitutional implications and want a close look at the disagreements between the Justices, you should read the full opinions.  They offer a full vetting of this issue, in which reasonable minds disagree.  But truly, I think that this decision screams for Legislative action to bring some clarity to the murder statutes.  Despite the plurality’s opinion, there really is no good reason to hover so close to the brink of equal protection violations (or perhaps to cross over the brink, depending on your perspective).  The legislative history shows that the committees reviewing this law were confused on several issues and may have intended a different piece of legislation.  Given that a majority of the SCOV think that there is something wrong with the law as it is written (Justices Johnson, Dooley, and Skoglund), the legislature should, at the very least, have legislative counsel review thing.  I haven’t heard of any Legislative action on this front—anyone else?

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