Cunningham v. California: the media misses the point

Ray Suarez started his questioning of Marcia Coyle about yesterday’s Supreme Court Cunningham decision with the following:

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s Sentencing Guidelines which had allowed judges the discretion to increase prison time for convicted criminals based on factors not considered by a jury during trial.

As a fan of the NewsHour, I’ll give credit where it’s due: this summation actually does a better job of legitimately stating the issues involved in the case than most major media outlet were able to accomplish. Yet it’s a heck of a loaded beginning for this story.

First we hear the phrase about allowing judges discretion to “increase prison time for convicted criminals”. That sure sounds like a good thing doesn’t it, why would the Supreme Court disallow that? But what’s the alternative? Increasing prison time for acquitted defendants? (We are pretty close to that already.)

And the phrase “based on factors not considered by a jury during trial” is pretty watered down. Yet this is exactly what was at issue in the case. The intro would be better phrased:

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s Sentencing Guidelines which had allowed judges to increase prison time above the maximum allowable punishment for some crimes, despite a jury not convicting the defendant of the aggravating factors.

I wrote that in a hurry, and perhaps it could use some copywriting help, but it properly focuses the listener on the real issue involved in the case. 

The right to a jury trial means, essentially, the jury must convict you beyond a reasonable doubt, and no judge may increase your punishment based on “factors not considered by a jury during trial”.  Thank goodness six justices of the Supreme Court are starting to enforce that right.

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