Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Offender Convicted Nearly 20 Years After Crime Entitled to Shorter Prison Term

A Cuyahoga County man is entitled to a shorter potential prison sentence for rape and kidnapping because he should have been sentenced under the law in effect at the time he was convicted not when the crime occurred, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court voted 5-2 to affirm the Eighth District Court of Appeals decision to order a new sentence for Jermaine Thomas. Thomas was indicted in 2013 for a 1993 rape and kidnapping, and the trial court imposed a sentence based on sentencing guidelines in effect in 1993.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Judith L. French noted that since 1993 the Ohio General Assembly has twice enacted substantial changes to Ohio’s criminal sentencing laws and Thomas is entitled to the sentence under the system in place in 2014.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote that language added to criminal sentencing overhauls in 1996 and 2011 still allow those who committed crimes before 1996 to be sentenced according to the penalties in effect when the crime occurred.

Thomas Sentenced to 11 to 25 Years
A Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted Thomas in 2013 for multiple offenses stemming from a 1993 incident, and a jury found him guilty of one count of rape and one count of kidnapping. Both were first-degree aggravated felonies. He was also found guilty of the firearm specification attached to each crime.

Thomas’s sentencing took place in 2014 and, consistent with the law in effect for 1993, the trial court imposed 8-to-25-year prison terms for the rape and kidnapping and ordered the sentences to be served concurrently. The court merged the two firearm specifications into one three-year sentence to be served consecutively,leading to a total sentence of 11 to 25 years.

Thomas appealed his sentence to the Eighth District, arguing he should have been sentenced under the guidelines put in place in 2011 when the legislature passed House Bill 86. The Eighth District agreed, vacated his sentence, and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing.  The state appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Legislature’s Intent for Sentence of Older Crimes Unclear
Justice French wrote that when the intent of the legislature is unclear, the Court looks to certain rules for interpreting statutes contained in Ohio law.

In this case the Court is guided by two statutes, R.C. 1.58(B) and R.C. 1.52(A). The statute R.C. 1.58(B) states if an amendment reduced the punishment for an offense and the punishment has not already been imposed, then the punishment shall be the one stated in the amended law. And R.C. 1.52(A) states when two statutes conflict and the conflict is irreconcilable, the later-passed law prevails.

Ohio’s sentencing laws in effect in 1993 subjected Thomas to a prison term ranging from 5 to 25 years to 10 to 25 years for each offense. The trial court imposed a sentence of 8 to 25 years that fell into the middle of the range.

Justice French noted the sentencing scheme has undergone significant change since then, starting with Senate Bill 2 in 1996.

“The hallmark of this enactment was truth in sentencing, which it accomplished by eliminating indefinite sentences and replacing parole with postrelease control, which is a postprison period during which the Adult Parole Authority would supervise offenders and impose conditions designed to protect the community and aid the offenders’ successful reintegration into society,” she wrote.

Under an S.B. 2 sentence, Thomas would have been given a definitive sentence that could have ranged from a minimum of three years to a maximum of 10 years for each felony. Justice French explained that S.B. 2 also contained uncodified law, a provision that is not a law of general or permanent nature and is not given a permanent section number in the Ohio Revised Code.

A provision of uncodified law in S.B. 2 that was further amended that year with the passage of Senate Bill 269 stated: “The provisions of the Revised Code in existence prior to July 1, 1996, shall apply to a person upon whom a court imposed a term of imprisonment prior to that date and notwithstanding division (B) of section 1.58 of the Revised Code, to a person upon whom a court, on or after that date and in accordance with the law in existence prior to that date, imposes a term of imprisonment for an offense that was committed prior to that date.”

Justice French noted in the Court’s 1998 State v. Rush decision, the Court confirmed that the uncodified provision limited the sentencing provisions of S.B. 2 to those who committed their offenses after July 1, 1996. Because of that provision, Thomas would not be eligible for the sentences in S.B. 2.

Update Leads to Conflicting Statutes
In 2011, the General Assembly enacted H.B. 86, and Justice French noted that the legislature’s stated intent in enacting the law was “to reduce the state’s prison population and to save the associated costs of incarceration by diverting certain offenders from prison and by shortening the terms of other offenders sentenced to prison.” That bill also had definite person terms, and the offenses Thomas was convicted of had prescribed sentences that ranged from a minimum of three years to a maximum of 11 years

Like S.B. 2, this statute also included uncodified law. However, it was different than the 1996 bill. Consistent with the purpose of reducing costs by decreasing the prison population and shortening sentences, the penalty reduction provisions apply to those offenders to whom R.C. 1.58 applies, Justice French wrote.

“In other words, if the provisions of H.B. 86 reduced the potential sentence for an offense, then R.C. 1.58(B) gives offenders not yet sentenced the benefit of the reduced sentence,” she wrote.

Since Thomas was subjected to a 1993 plan that could sentence him to a maximum of 10 to 25 years, and since H.B. 86 was in effect when he was sentenced, then the shorter 3- to 11-year sentence applies to him, the Court concluded.

Justice French wrote that the uncodified section of S.B. 2 would have subjected Thomas to the longer sentences that existed in 1993, while the uncodified section of H.B. 86 would apply R.C. 1.58 and impose the shorter sentences in the amended law. Because the two laws irreconcilably conflict, the Court turned to R.C. 1.52(A) to resolve the conflict. That law states the later-enacted statute controls, and because H.B. 86 was passed later, its sentencing provisions must be applied to Thomas.

The Court remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and William M. O’Neill joined Justice French’s opinion.

Dissent Finds Laws Do Not Conflict
In his dissent, Justice O’Donnell maintained that the two sentencing reform laws did not conflict and that anyone sentenced after July 1, 1996, for a crime committed before that day is subject to the sentences that were in place on the day of the crime.

Justice O’Donnell wrote that with the passage of H.B. 86, the legislature did not expressly repeal the uncodified law in S.B. 2.  Citing the Court’s 1980 State ex rel. Specht v. Painesville Twp. Local School Dist. Bd. of Edn. decision, he stated “the judicial policy of Ohio has been that repeals by implication are not favored and will not be found unless the provisions of the purported repealing Act are so totally inconsistent and irreconcilable with the existing enactment as to nullify it.”

He asserts the uncodified language in H.B. 86 only applies to persons who committed their crimes after July 1, 1996 and were sentenced after September 2011. Because Thomas committed his offense before July 1, 1996, he is subject to the law in effect at the time, Justice O’Donnell concluded.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy joined his dissent.

2015-0473. State v. Thomas, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-5567.

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