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Ohio Supreme Court: Jury Must Find Use of Force, Not Sentencing Court, for Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Adam Bowers was convicted of raping his 6-year-old step-niece, a child younger than 13, in violation of R.C. 2907.02(A)(1)(b). The sentencing provision for this statute allows the court to sentence the defendant to life without parole under R.C. 2907.02(B) or to choose from the available sentences under R.C. 2971.03(B). Section (B)(1)(a) provides a mandatory “minimum term of ten years and a maximum term of life.” Under (B)(1)(b), if the victim is under 10 years of age, the mandatory term is 15 years to life. Under (B)(1)(c), if “the offender compels the victim to submit by force or threat of force,” the term is 25 to life. The latter section also applies if the defendant is a repeat offender.

At trial, the verdict form submitted to the jury asked them to find the elements of the base offense and specifically added a question asking whether Bowers was guilty of raping a child under the age of 10. The jury was not asked to find whether Bowers used force or the threat of force to compel his victim to submit.

Bowers was found guilty of the rape and was sentenced to 25 years to life. The sentence was overturned twice on appeal, yet the trial court reimposed the sentence at each subsequent hearing. The court refused to explain its rationale other than to state that the sentence was “appropriate.”

On his third appeal, the Court of Appeals determined the trial court made a factual determination at sentencing regarding the use of force and that this deprived Bowers of his right to have any fact, which raises his mandatory minimum sentence found by a jury.

On appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, the State argued that the trial court need not make a finding at sentencing regarding the use of force where the record at trial makes that element clear, and even if it did so and this was an error, the 25-to-life sentence was still within the proper “statutory range” of 15 to life.

The Court referred to both Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013), in reaching its decision. In Apprendi, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Sixth Amendment requires “any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum” (except for a prior conviction) “must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” Alleyne extended the jury requirement to “facts that increase the mandatory minimum sentence.” However, the Apprendi Court instructed that trial courts may still “exercise discretion – taking into consideration various factors relating to both offense and offender – in imposing a judgement within the range prescribed by statute.”

Following this line of authority, a determination of whether Bowers used force or the threat of force against his victim was a determination for the jury to make, because this fact was an element that triggered a higher mandatory minimum sentence, the Court explained.

As to whether the 25-to-life sentence was within the allowable statutory range, the Court found that the sentencing statue prescribed exact sentences, not ranges. Referencing related statutes, R.C. 2929.01(X) defines “mandatory prison term” to include a sentence imposed “pursuant to division (B)(1)(a), (b), or (c) ... of section 2971.03 of the Revised Code.” Further, R.C. 2971.04(A) states that the parole board shall review the offender for release every two years, starting “upon the completion of the offender’s service of the minimum term under the sentence.”

The Court explained that these related statutes support the conclusion that each term prescribed in Section 2971.03(B)(1) is a discrete and definite sentence available to a court at sentencing, not an “authorized range.” Thus, the trial court had only two options for Bowers at sentencing: (1) life in prison without parole under R.C. 2907.02(B) or (2) 15 to life under R.C. 2971.03(B)(1)(b).

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Related legal case

State v. Bowers



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