Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Constitutionality of Victim Impact Statements

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today concluded the Massachusetts statute that allows crime victims to personally address the judge who is about to impose sentence on defendants is constitutional.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. McGonagle

The defendant was found guilty by a West Roxbury District Court jury of committing an assault and battery.  At the time of his trial, the defendant was in the midst of serving a one-year jail sentence for an unrelated restraining order violation.  The prosecutor asked the judge to sentence the defendant to serve two and a half years in jail on the new assault and battery conviction, and asked that the new sentence be served consecutively (which means it would not begin until the defendant’s current sentence was over).  There is a law in Massachusetts that specifically authorizes a victim to either submit a letter to the sentencing judge or to make an oral statement at the defendant’s sentencing hearing that: describes the effect of the crime; and recommends a punishment for the defendant.  The victim in this case exercised his right to speak directly to the judge.  The victim said he wanted the defendant to receive the maximum sentence (which is two and a half years for assault and battery) and he wanted it to be served consecutively.  In other words, the victim asked for the same sentence that was recommended by the prosecutor.  The defense attorney asked the judge to sentence the defendant to serve nine months in jail to be served concurrently with (which means at the same time as) his current sentence.  The judge imposed a sentence somewhere in the middle of the attorneys’ recommendations.  He sentenced the defendant to serve 18 months in jail, concurrent with his current sentence.  The judge reasoned the sentence was appropriate given the injuries suffered by the victim and the extent of the defendant’s criminal record.

After the imposition of the sentence, the defendant challenged the Massachusetts statute that allows for a victim to give an impact statement prior to sentencing.  The defendant relied on a series of United States Supreme Court decisions related to victims making impact statements in death penalty cases.  In those cases, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that allowing family members to recommend a sentence to the jury responsible for determining if a convicted murderer would receive the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment to the federal Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.  Here, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the cases relied upon by the defendant were inapplicable to his case.  First, noted the SJC, the U.S. Supreme Court cases involved the death penalty, which has always been treated differently than all other types of cases.  Second, in this case, the victim impact statement was made to the judge instead of the jury.  The SJC said it trusted judges to make decisions based on the evidence and not emotion (which is the danger in allowing jurors to impose proper punishments).  Therefore, according to the SJC, the Massachusetts system allowing for victim to make impact statements to sentencing judges is constitutional.