The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that California judges may not hand out tougher sentences without a jury finding reason to do so.
The 6-3 ruling will likely affect thousands of inmates who have been sentenced under the state's Determinate Sentencing Law, which sets out low, middle and maximum penalties for most felonies.
In San Joaquin County alone, prosecutors file roughly 6,000 felony cases each year, said Dan Bonnet, one of four chief deputy district attorneys for the county. How the state will handle the ruling remains to be seen, but Bonnet said the "worst case scenario" could involve countless new sentencing trials.
That's what an appeals court had ordered for Sarah Dutra, a college student convicted of manslaughter in the high-profile case involving victim Larry McNabney, of Woodbridge. He disappeared Sept. 11, 2001, and his body was found five months later buried in a Clements vineyard.
Investigators tracked McNabney's wife, Laren Sims, also known as Elisa McNabney, to Florida, where she confessed to poisoning her husband with horse tranquilizer, implicated Dutra, then committed suicide while awaiting extradition.
After a two-month trial, a jury convicted Dutra of manslaughter and Judge Bernard Garber gave her the maximum 11-year sentence. Under California law, manslaughter also carries lesser penalties of three or six years unless "aggravating circumstances" justify the highest sentence.
In a ruling similar to Monday's, the 3rd District Court of Appeals sent the case back to Garber for a sentencing trial. But the California Supreme Court then decided differently in an unrelated case, and Garber declined to hold a new trial.
In December, the appeals court once again sent the case back to San Joaquin County, this time ordering that a different judge handle the matter. Like Dutra, many other inmates could also be entitled to a new sentencing trial, which would require impaneling a new jury and presenting enough evidence to explain the case.
How the state will deal with the Supreme Court decision is yet to be seen, and justices left it up to California officials. Some states now include sentencing factors in the jury trial, and others simply give judges more leeway.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a written statement, said he and newly elected Attorney General Jerry Brown will determine how the ruling will affect California.
"I support longer sentences for criminals who deserve them. As governor I will work to ensure that this decision will not be a threat to public safety," he said.
The decision came on the first day of a week-long conference of the California District Attorneys Association, attended by most of the state's top prosecutors.
The case was brought by John Cunningham, a former Bay Area police officer who was sentenced to 16 years in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing his 10-year-old son.
New Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, joined the majority. The dissenters were Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and new justice Samuel Alito.
First published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007