Court Corrects Sentence Involving Allied Offenses
Once a trial court determines an offender is guilty of allied offenses of similar import, Ohio law requires the sentences to be merged and allows the prosecutor to choose the offense for sentencing. If a trial court then imposes separate sentences, the sentence is void and can be challenged at any time, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
In the majority opinion authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the Supreme Court concluded that the Summit County Common Pleas Court made a sentencing error in its journal entry after finding Cameron D. Williams guilty of two counts of aggravated murder and one count of murder. The Supreme Court today corrected the sentence to impose life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving 30 full years of imprisonment on a single count of aggravated murder.
Justice O’Donnell noted the opinion does not change the amount of prison time Williams received but expected the decision “will clarify the path going forward for lawyers, litigants, and judges of our state.”
In separate dissenting opinions, Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Sharon L. Kennedy objected to what they characterized as the majority’s expansion of its “void sentence doctrine.” Justice Lanzinger explained that except in some limited circumstances, an offender can only challenge a sentence on “direct appeal,” which must be filed within 30 days after a conviction. Justice Kennedy explained that prior Ohio Supreme Court decisions have limited the use of the void sentencing doctrine to those cases when a court fails to impose a mandatory sentencing provision and should not be expanded.
Williams Sentence Listed As Concurrent
In 2007, Williams broke into the apartment of his ex-wife, Tamara Hughes, and shot Darien Polk to death. He then kidnapped Hughes at gunpoint and engaged in sexual conduct with her. A Summit County jury convicted Williams of two counts of aggravated murder, each with a death penalty specification, and one count of murder, along with seven other offenses that included kidnapping and aggravated burglary. During the penalty phase, the jury did not find the circumstances warranted the death penalty, but it recommended a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for each of the aggravated murders.
In accord with R.C. 2941.25, the trial court found the three murder charges merged into one offense for purposes of sentencing. The state elected to have Williams sentenced for one count of aggravated murder. However, the court’s sentencing entry indicated that the court sentenced Williams on each of the three murder convictions and ordered the sentences served concurrently instead of sentencing him for one offense.
With the addition of a 30-year sentence for the other charges and a nine-year sentence on firearm specifications, the trial court in 2008 imposed a total sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole in 69 years.
Failure to Merge Sentence Not Challenged on Appeal
Williams filed his direct appeal shortly after his conviction, but he did not argue that the trial court made an error by imposing separate sentences on allied offenses. The Ninth District Court of Appeals in 2009 reversed one count for violating a protection order, but it affirmed the other convictions and upheld his sentence.
In 2014, Williams asked the trial court to correct his sentence, asserting that the concurrent sentences imposed on his murder convictions should be merged into one offense and that he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. The trial court denied the motion, and the Ninth District affirmed the denial, indicating that Williams was too late and could have raised arguments about his sentence during his direct appeal. The appellate court concluded that the doctrine of res judicata barred Williams from seeking a new sentence through successive postconviction filings.
In 2015, the Ninth District certified that its ruling conflicted with a 2014 Eighth District Court of Appeals decision in which the offender was convicted of two allied offenses of similar import and given two separate sentences. The convict did not challenge the sentence on direct appeal or even in a petition for postconviction relief but raised the issue on a motion to vacate his sentence. The Eighth District ruled that the right to challenge the sentence was not barred by res judicata because the sentences were contrary to law, and void. The Supreme Court agreed to resolve the conflict.
Parties Contest Whether Sentence Was “Void” or “Voidable”
Justice O’Donnell explained that the state and Williams had different positions regarding whether the incorrect sentence was “void” or “voidable,” and he pointed out that the seemingly similar words have different impacts on Ohio sentencing law.
Williams argued that state law requires a trial court to merge allied offenses and impose one sentence. If a court fails to do that, the sentence is not authorized by law. When a court imposes a sentence that is not authorized by law, the sentence is “void,” Williams maintained, and a void sentence can be challenged at any time and is not restricted by res judicata.
The state countered that when a trial court makes an error in sentencing, not intentionally adding or deleting from the sentence required by law, then the sentence is “voidable.” A voidable sentence can be reversed on direct appeal, which must be filed within 30 days of the original sentence, and is restricted by res judicata.
Legislature Controls Sentencing
Justice O’Donnell explained that once a trial court decides the offender has been found guilty of allied offenses of similar import, R.C. 2941.25 prohibits the imposition of multiple sentences, citing the Court’s 2011 State v. Damron decision. He also noted that imposing concurrent sentences is not the same as merging the allied offenses. The penalties for crimes are set by statute, and courts may only impose the penalty in the statute; a court has no power to make a sentence greater or less than what is stated in the law, he wrote.
Citing the Court’s 1984 State v. Beasley decision, Justice O’Donnell wrote that any trial court’s attempted sentence that disregards the statute is void. He cited a number of Court decisions in the following years where sentences were voided for such actions as failing to impose required postrelease control, failing to include a mandatory driver’s license suspension, and failing to include a mandatory fine. When a court disregards the law, the sentence can reviewed at any time, including on direct appeal or by “collateral attack,” which would happen in proceedings separate from the direct appeal.
The opinion described the Court’s void sentence precedent in allied offenses cases. Justice O’Donnell noted that when a trial court allegedly made an error in deciding whether convictions merged as allied offenses, the Court had held that the resulting sentence was not void and had to be challenged on direct appeal. And in the 2015 State v. Rogers decision, the Court concluded that because the accused had failed to raise the issue of allied offenses in the trial court, the Court could not reverse the sentence unless the failure to merge the convictions was an obvious error and reversal was “necessary to correct a manifest miscarriage of justice.”
Voiding Williams’ Sentence Consistent With Precedent
Justice O’Donnell noted the state’s brief claimed that finding for Williams would require overturning the Rogers decision and other cases with allied offense sentencing errors. Justice O’Donnell rejected that position, pointing out that the key distinction between this case and Rogers was that in Williams the trial court ruled that the offenses were allied offenses of similar import that should be merged. The court in Rogers and other cases cited by the state never reached the point of merging the offenses.
When the Court has declared a sentence void, it has remanded the case to trial court for resentencing, Justice O’Donnell noted. However, resentencing is not required in all cases. Article IV, Section 2(B)(2)(f) of the Ohio Constitution grants the Supreme Court the authority to modify a lower court’s judgment, and Justice O’Donnell wrote there was no need for a resentencing hearing for Williams because the state had previously notified the trial court of the count it chose for sentencing.
“Accordingly, we modify the judgment of the court of appeals to vacate the sentences imposed for murder in count one and aggravated murder in count two, which the trial court found subject to merger. The remaining convictions and sentences, including the sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 30 years imposed for aggravated murder in count three, are not affected by our ruling today. We recognize that our decision will not change the aggregate sentence Williams received,” he concluded.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill joined Justice O’Donnell’s opinion.
Dissent Advocates for Return to Precedent
In her dissent, Justice Lanzinger stated that she would reaffirm this court’s commitment to principles of res judicata and hold that Williams’s sentence is not void. She wrote that the case provided the Court with an opportunity to limit the majority’s “unusual conception of void sentences” to only postrelease-control cases, which the Court appeared to do in its 2010 State v. Fisher ruling.
Justice Lanzinger explained that under traditional jurisprudence, sentencing errors were not jurisdictional and that they were to be corrected on appeal. She stated that the Court began to depart from these clear principles when it attempted to remedy the problem of trial courts improperly imposing postrelease control sentences by failing to notify the offender it was part of the sentence. The Court declared the sentences void and allowed them to be challenged at any time.
Justice Lanzinger noted that rather than restrict the void sentence doctrine to postrelease control cases, the Court began to use it in other cases. She wrote that the expansion conflicted with the Court’s traditional position on what type of sentencing errors were void and which were voidable.
“Erroneous judgments, procedural mistakes, and sentencing errors can all arise because a mandatory statutory requirement was not followed. But these errors are not necessarily the result of attempts to act without authority or to disregard statutory requirements,” she wrote.
Justice Lanzinger explained that when a sentencing error is challenged on direct appeal, the appellate courts have a number of options to correct a sentence, and a prisoner jailed on a truly void sentence has the ability to seek release by filing a writ of habeas corpus.
She cautioned that by expanding the void sentence doctrine to the failure to properly merge allied sentence, the majority has essentially held that any mistake in sentencing will render that sentence void and that the principle of res judicata is nearly dead.
Justice Judith L. French joined Justice Lanzinger’s opinion.
Error Did Not Change Sentence
Justice Kennedy noted the trial court’s mistaken use of the term “concurrently” did not make the sentence void, but voidable, and only allowed for correction on direct appeal. She wrote that respect for precedent commands the Court to limit the voiding of sentences because of error to postrelease-control cases and other cases where the trial court has abridged the sentencing commands of the General Assembly.
Justice Kennedy explained that the majority’s decision departed from prior Ohio Supreme Court decisions where a violation of the allied offense statute was subject to plain error review. Plain error review can only be sought on direct appeal, and not in a postconviction motion like Williams filed, she said. Justice Kennedy pointed out that the Court could have previously declared such judgments void, but did not.
“Today, trial courts are applying complex sentencing guidelines mandated by the General Assembly. This holding by the majority will open up new avenues for defendants whose deadlines for filing direct appeals have long expired to argue that their sentences are void because the trial court, when imposing a mandatory sentencing provision, mistakenly used the wrong word in the journal entry,” she wrote.
Expanding the types of cases where a trial court’s sentencing error would make its judgment void rather than just voidable “will spawn a new wave of void-sentence litigation and severely undermine res judicata,” which bring cases to an end and prevents the endless relitigation of issues on which defendants already received full and fair hearings, she wrote.
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