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Supreme Court rules judges alone cannot impose extra-long prison terms

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) _ A wealthy Washington rancher who kidnapped his estranged wife at knifepoint had his sentence overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which put state sentencing guidelines in question by ruling that judges alone cannot impose extra-long prison terms.

Ralph Howard Blakely II was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for the 1998 kidnapping. He forced the woman into a coffin-like box and drove her to Montana in the back of his pickup truck.

A judge had said Blakely acted with ``deliberate cruelty'' and deserved a longer prison term than the four years set out in state sentencing guidelines.

But the high court ruled 5-4 on Thursday that juries must decide whether to impose sentences beyond the guidelines.

The right to a jury trial ``is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure,'' Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for an odd lineup of concurring justices from both the left and the right.

Blakely ``was sentenced to prison for more than three years beyond what the law allowed for the crime to which he confessed,'' on the basis of a trial judge's unilateral decision, Scalia wrote.

The Constitution's framers ``would not have thought it too much to demand that, before depriving a man of his liberty, the state should suffer the modest inconvenience of submitting its accusation'' to a jury, Scalia wrote.

Scalia said the case was not about the constitutionality of state sentencing systems that give judges a limited range of sentences for a given crime, but dissenters in Thursday's case predicted it will wreak havoc across the states and the federal courts.

Guidelines used by many states and the federal court system were meant to produce more uniform sentences. Some judges chafe under guidelines they say can be too rigid and inflexible.

The decision dismayed Grant County Prosecutor John Knodell, who prosecuted Blakely in 2000 and argued the case before the Supreme Court.

``They have taken what is essentially a baseline and they've made that a borderline instead,'' Knodell said.

Blakely and others in his situation will either have their sentences reduced to fit the guidelines, Knodell said, or a jury will re-sentence them. Under the guidelines, Blakely's prison term would end around July 1.

Jeffrey Fisher, Blakely's attorney, said the court's decision will prevent judges from sentencing people unfairly.

``The reason we have this protection is so people don't get extra time in prison for stuff they didn't do,'' Fisher said. He said he had not yet spoken to Blakely about the ruling.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with Scalia. That majority includes the court's two most liberal members _ Stevens and Ginsburg _ and its two most conservative _ Scalia and Thomas.

The dissenters were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.

O'Connor wrote the most vociferous of three dissents. She predicted that complications arising from the ruling would lead states and the federal government to ``either trim or eliminate altogether their sentencing guidelines schemes, and with them 20 years of sentencing reform.''

Blakely kidnapped his estranged wife three weeks before a scheduled court hearing involving the couple's assets, which exceeded $2.5 million. Blakely also forced their 13-year-old son to follow them in the family car, threatening to shoot Yolanda Blakely if the boy did not.

The son escaped unharmed at a Moses Lake truck stop. After about a dozen hours in the box, Yolanda Blakely was let out in Gallatin County, Mont., and escaped with minor injuries.

Yolanda Blakely's attorney, Dennis Hession of Spokane, said she and her three children _ the son and two older girls _ have moved away from Washington state.

``She has gone on with her life,'' Hession said, noting that after the kidnapping Blakely understandably feared her husband. Her son now attends college, Hession said.
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