Due Influence

The trial of Brandon J. Piekarsky and Derrick M. Donchak, two Shenandoah teens who beat Luis Ramirez to death almost a year ago didn’t go as planned.  Despite the racial overtones raised by the death of the Mexican immigrant, the teens were convicted only of simple assault. 

When time for sentence rolled around, however, this high profile case drew the attention of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who wrote a letter to District Attorney James P. Goodman expressing his views on sentencing, to be presented to the court.

From the bench Wednesday afternoon, county President Judge William E. Baldwin criticized Gov. Ed Rendell’s recent interjection into the sentencing of Shenandoah-area teens Brandon J. Piekarsky and Derrick M. Donchak.

“I’ve never before heard of a head of state giving a suggested sentence for a specific criminal case. I am not giving consideration to the governor’s recommendation,” Baldwin said.

While I’m no fan of victim’s input, whether in the trial process or sentencing, I nonetheless have difficulty understanding why Ed Rendell’s letter should be treated any differently than anyone else’s.  He is the governor of a state, but should that preclude his offering his views on the proper sentence to be imposed?

Rendell, being Ed Rendell, naturally overshot the mark by urging the judge to sentence the two teens as if they had been convicted of a racially-motivated murder rather than simple assault.

“I also believe … the maximum sentence is warranted given both the sheer brutality of Piekarsky’s and Donchak’s deadly attack and that the crime appears to be racially motivated,” Rendell said in the letter, which Goodman later shared with Baldwin and defense counsel.
I would assume that this was politically motivated, given the nature of the case and the potential to use his “outrage” when it comes time to court the vote for his next campaign.  But that aside, is it inherently wrong for a governor to offer his input to a judge on sentencing?  Clearly, Judge Baldwin believed so. 

Typically, the prosecution, defense and defendant will be heard at the time of sentencing.  The prosecution, an arm of the executive branch of government, is permitted to argue for the sentence it believes appropriate.  Often, the decision of what to argue, and what sentence to propose, is left to the individual assistant before the court, and whether harsh or lenient, whatever words spout from the prosecutor’s mouth represent the state’s view of what constitutes a proper sentence. 

The nature of criminal proceedings, reflecting a harm done to the people of the state rather than the wrong done to the individual victim, makes the prosecutor the appropriate person to speak on behalf of the state at sentence.  This is where the victim’s rights argument falls down, since criminal laws do not vindicate the rights of particular victims, but the will of the state.  This being so, then a statement by the governor, the chief executive officer of the state, would be particularly appropriate, as he more than anyone is charged with protecting and defending the interests of the citizenry.

While most district attorneys are elected independently of the governor, and are empowered to exercise independent discretion, this too offers no rationale for preventing the governor from being heard.  To the extent that both reflect the executive branch of government, Rendell’s letter merely informs an independently elected official within the same branch of government of his views, which suggests nothing inherently inappropriate. 

If the district attorney finds the governors views disagreeable, he can bury the letter, ask for a different sentence or do whatever his independent discretion demands.  The DA doesn’t work at the governor’s pleasure, so it’s not as if he’s obliged to take direction from “the boss.” On the other hand, if the DA succumbs to the governor’s influence, and fails to exercise independent discretion, then the problem is with a weak DA, not a strong governor.

From a posture less deferential to the citizenry, the governor also remains a citizen, with the right to express his personal views on matter of public concern.  Certainly, a criminal prosecution and sentence falls within the ambit of a matter of public concern.  As the issues have captured the attention of the citizen who holds the office of governor, and he has personal feelings on the subject, why should he be denied the same right that any citizen would have to voice his views?

Mind you, no judge need take the views of the governor, or any elected official or private citizen, into account in determining sentence.  Judge Baldwin was under no constraint to give Ed Rendell’s views any greater weight than anyone else’s, or ignore them altogether.  Sentence is imposed by the judge, who is a part of the third branch of government and does not serve the executive.  There is absolutely nothing that Ed Rendell could do to force Baldwin’s hand; he had no greater authority over the sentence than anyone else, save Judge Baldwin.  And as Judge Baldwin made clear, he was not swayed by the governor’s influence.

Granted, Ed Rendell’s letter urging the court to impose “the maximum sentence” upon crimes for which the teens weren’t convicted leaves him looking like a bit of a fool.  But isn’t that a politician’s right too?

And not leave anyone hanging, Brandon J. Piekarsky and Derrick M. Donchak were sentenced to six months. 

H/T Doug Berman