North Carolina Court Takes New Approach to Sentencing after Supreme Court Ruling

The recent Supreme Court ruling that prevented judges from sentence enhancements based on aggravating factors not determined beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury was just the latest in a string of rulings on that issue. Paul Pelham’s North Carolina conviction was one of the cases impacted by those rulings.

In 2002, Pelham was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill, three counts of assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer, and various lesser offenses. The sentencing judge made a finding of on aggravating factor – that the offense was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest – for each of the assault charges.

That aggravating factor increased the maximum sentence the judge could impose on Pelham, and he imposed that maximum sentence. However, Pelham never admitted that he had shot the officer in order to avoid arrest. Rather, his criminal defense maintained that he had been awoken by the officer in his house and fired in self-defense, not realizing his victim was a law enforcement officer until afterward. And the jury never determined that Pelham was attempting to avoid a lawful arrest.

The Blakely v. Washington case in 2004, and a string of rulings since, established that a judge couldn’t impose a sentence more severe than the one authorized by a jury verdict unless the necessary facts for aggravation were determined by a jury or admitted by the defendant.

In most similar cases, the case would be remanded to the sentencing court for sentencing in accord with the jury’s verdict, and the defendant’s sentence would be reduced accordingly. However, whether as a means of establishing precedent or simply because the shooting victim was a local law enforcement officer, the Cumberland County prosecuting attorney and the sentencing court took a unique approach. This week, jury selection began in a proceeding intended solely to determine whether aggravating factors were present. The prosecuting attorney’s office has acknowledged that it may be the first case of its kind in the state.

Although structured like a regular trial, with jury selection, opening and closing statements, and the opportunity for both sides to present evidence, the scope of the hearing will be limited to whether two aggravating factors are present: that Pelham committed the crimes to avoid lawful arrest, and that the victim’s injuries are permanent and debilitating.