Published on: Sunday, July 2, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday decided - for now - not to weigh in on the legality of judges increasing prison sentences for criminal defendants based on charges for which they were acquitted - a practice that critics have said violates basic constitutional rights (article available here).

In statements accompanying the Supreme Court's order denying certiorari, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch said the cert denial in McClinton v. U.S. and related cases "should not be misinterpreted" and that the use of acquitted conduct to alter the range of the federal sentencing guidelines "raises important questions."

McClinton was convicted over his role in a group robbery of an Indianapolis CVS pharmacy in 2015. The robbery turned deadly, and an alleged accomplice, Malik Perry, was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head, purportedly after refusing to share the proceeds of the heist.

Prosecutors accused McClinton of killing Perry, but a jury only convicted him of robbery and gun charges and acquitted him of robbing and killing Perry. At sentencing, however, the district court judge concluded by a preponderance of the evidence that McClinton was responsible for Perry's murder and sentenced him to approximately 19 years in prison. If not for the use of his acquitted conduct, McClinton would have faced a guideline range of roughly five to six years.

Some current and former Supreme Court justices have questioned whether judges should be permitted to extend a defendant's prison sentence based on acquitted conduct.