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Sentencing – Factors – victim’s criminal record – due process right to accurate sentencing information

State v. Yolanda M. Spears, 227 Wis.2d 495, 596 N.W.2d 375 (1999), affirming State v. Spears, 220 Wis.2d 720, 585 N.W.2d 161 (Ct. App. 1998)
For Spears: Richard D. Martin. SPD, Milwaukee Appellate

Issue/Holding: Spears killed the “victim” (Young) after he assaulted her and took her purse. She entered an Alford plea to a homicide charge. At sentencing, a dispute arose as to whether Young actually used force in taking her purse (no dispute, though, that he took it, or that it was, in the sentencing court’s view, “an assaultive offense against the defendant” that provoked the killing). The victim’s “family questioned whether Young had violently assaulted Spears.” This contention created “the only disputed question for the purpose of this appeal.” Spears sought to bolster her view of the events, i.e., Young actually used force against her, by introducing Young’s criminal record, which included “a history of violent crimes.” The circuit court ruled this evidence irrelevant. From the lead opinion (three votes): A sentencing court must consider three primary factors, including gravity of the offense. ¶20. Young’s criminal history was relevant to gravity: “Information that would have tended to clarify the events leading to that crime should have been considered relevant by the court. … The victim’s criminal record is such evidence.” ¶23.

Though this seems like a very broad statement, the holding is – as the court cautions – probably much narrower. Young’s record was relevant to a complete understanding of the event; and, Spears also had a right to use it to refute statements by Young’s family claiming that his non-violent character meant that he hadn’t used force against her. ¶¶24-29. “In conclusion, we hold that where a victim’s criminal record supports a defendant’s version of a crime, the gravity of which crime is a sentencing factor, it should be admitted as evidence at the defendant’s sentencing hearing. Of course, once such evidence is admitted, the weight to be given any of the factors the circuit court considers in sentencing is fully within its discretion.” ¶30. (The court of appeals, it should be noted, held that Spears had a right to refute claims of Young’s virtuous nature, but the supreme court declines to address that issue. Fn. 1.) Justice Bablitch casts the fourth and deciding vote, and because his concurrence represents the narrowest position on which four justices would agree, the holding may be found there. See Marks v. US, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977) (holding is position taken by those justices concurring in judgment on narrowest grounds). He explicitly disputes the idea that a victim’s criminal record is admissible just because it might support the defendant’s view of the crime. ¶32. Instead, he “read(s) the majority as holding that when the victim or his or her supporters disputes the provocative circumstances leading up to the crime by misstating a material fact about the victim, the defendant does not have to stand helplessly by in the face of the lie.” ¶33. Young’s family lied in portraying him as someone who “would never hurt a woman.” “A defendant has a right to correct a victim’s lie about a material fact[.]” ¶37. (Presumably, this lie was “material” because it went to the incident itself, though the concurrence doesn’t spell this out.)

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