In a case that has gained international attention, the infamous I-95 McDonalds ice cup thrower will only be sentenced to suspended time for her road rage incident.
Jessica Hall, a mother of three from North Carolina, was driving to New York when she found herself stuck in traffic on Interstate 95 in northern Virginia. After allegedly being cutoff several times by another vehicle, Ms. Hall pulled alongside the car and threw her McDonalds cup of ice into the vehicle. Though no one was injured by this act, Ms. Hall was charged with numerous offenses, the most serious of which was throwing a missile at an occupied vehicle. A class 4 felony, this charge carried with it the possibility of 2 ot 10 years in prison.
After hearing the evidence in the case, the jury in the case found the defendant guilty. Despite the fact that Ms. Hall had no prior criminal record, the jury imposed a two year prison sentence. However, in a hearing to set aside the jury's verdict, Judge Frank Hoss of the Stafford County Circuit Court decided that Ms. Hall's lack of a criminal record merited a reduction of the sentence. He instead suspended the period of incarceration and placed Ms. Hall on probation for 5 years.
What this case points out is the serious problem Virginia has with jury sentencing. A defendant charged with a felony has the option of being tried either by a judge or by a jury. While statistics suggest that bench trials (trials by a judge) are more likely to result in convictions than jury trials, judges have more options available for sentencing than does a jury.
Most important is that a judge is allowed to suspend some or all of a defendant's jail sentence - juries are not allowed to give suspended time. Another key difference is that judges are able to review sentencing guildelines. Guidelines are prepared by a probation and parole officer after a defendant has been found guilty of a felony. Point values are applied to various factors in a defendant's background, primarily consisting of past criminal convictions. Through a series of computations, a range of incarceration time is recommended by the guidelines, along with a midpoint. In many cases, the recommended sentence is significantly lower than the maximum amount provided by law. Juries are not allowed to view these guidelines, and can only select a period of incarceration that falls within the range set forth by the criminal offense statute. Finally, juries tend to be more harsh in sentencing than judges because they do not know what the "going rate" for a certain crime is. Judges on the other hand hear criminal case on a regular basis and have a larger pool of knowledge to draw on when determining what an appropriate sentence would be.
What does all this mean? Simply put, the current state of jury sentencing in Virginia discourages defendants from taking jury trials. While a conviction might be slightly more likely with a judge hearing the facts, there is a better chance of receiving a lighter or alternative sentence if convicted. The McMissile case is a perfect example of what can happen by electing for a jury trial. The punishment handed down by the jury did not fit the crime for which Ms. Hall was convicted. Fortunately, Judge Hoss was reasonable enough to recognize that the interests of justice required a departure from the jury's sentence, though this situation was certainly an exception to the rule. To avoid these types of occurrences in the future, Virginia needs to amend the current jury sentencing format by either abolishing it altogether and vesting that power with the judge exclusively, or by allowing juries to view the sentencing guidelines and impose suspended sentences. I'm not going to hold my breath for either scenario to occur in the near future.