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People v. Stringham

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and kidnapping, and given consecutive sentences when the judge considered the victim’s family’s opposition to Defendant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter. Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A victim’s next of kin may be given the opportunity to express their opinions to the court concerning the appropriateness of a plea bargain.

    Facts.

    Guy Stringham (Defendant), along with others, beat and abducted Paul Snipes for allegedly stealing from them. Defendant participated in the beating and handed a gun to a friend, who killed Snipes. Defendant was originally charged with murder by torture, a capital offense. However, the prosecutor agreed to accept a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter, because he believed he would not be able to get testimony from two important witnesses, including a detective who elicited Defendant’s confession, but who subsequently had a heart attack. Snipes’s family strongly rejected the plea bargain and accused the prosecutor and judge of bias. A new judge, Judge Buffington, was brought in from another county to handle the case. A hearing was conducted on January 23, 1987, during which Snipes’s father was permitted to read a statement in which he ardently opposed the plea bargain and said that Defendant was a murderer and should be prosecuted as one. Judge Buffington told Snipes he could write a letter to the court including any further comments that would also be considered in the sentencing decision. The matter was rescheduled for January 30, when both parties requested acceptance of the plea bargain. The prosecutor outlined various obstacles to a murder conviction; however, Judge Buffington decided that the case should still be tried. Defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and kidnapping, and given consecutive sentences. Defendant appealed, arguing that it was inappropriate for Snipes’s father to make a statement at the hearing, because it was not yet a technical sentencing hearing at which next of kin have a right to be heard. Defendant also challenged the content of Snipes’s father's comments, complaining that they were inflammatory and distracting in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

    Issue.

    Whether a victim’s next of kin may be given the opportunity to express their opinions to the court concerning the appropriateness of a plea bargain.

    Held.

    Yes. Defendant’s conviction is affirmed. A victim’s next of kin may be given the opportunity to express their opinions to the court concerning the appropriateness of a plea bargain.

    Discussion.

    Section 1191.1 was enacted as part of a statutory scheme meant to promote crime victims’ rights and grants the right of a victim, or his next of kin, to express his opinions during sentencing proceedings, including hearings, about the acceptance of plea bargains. Section 1191.1 mandates the procedure of the next of kin’s appearance, where it was optional before requires the judge to consider the views at all sentencing proceedings. Here, the hearing conducted by Judge Buffington on January 23 was a sentencing proceeding within the meaning of § 1191.1. A sentencing proceeding is very flexible and may include many different procedures, including motions for a new trial and challenges to a guilty plea. It would frustrate the legislature’s purpose if victims or next of kin were not given the chance to express their opinions to the court regarding whether a plea bargain is appropriate. The statements of Snipes's father were directly related to Defendant’s responsibility for the crimes charged. In addition, the remarks do not violate the Eighth Amendment. Prior cases that bar victim-impact statements during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial did so because such statements inflame and distract the jury. Here, Snipes's father was not speaking to a jury during the sentencing phase of a capital trial. 


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