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Court Weighs Hate-Crime Sentences

November 29, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether judges can impose longer sentences under state hate-crime laws based on their own determination that someone was motivated by bias to commit a crime.

The court said it will hear a New Jersey man’s argument that a jury, not the judge, must decide whether racial bias was a motive when he fired shots into a black family’s home.

Charles C. Apprendi Jr. was arrested in 1994 after shots were fired into the home of a black family living in his otherwise all-white neighborhood in Vineland, N.J. No one was injured in the shooting.

Apprendi admitted to police he fired four or five shots into the house, and said he wanted to give family members a message that they did not belong in his neighborhood.

But he later said he was unfairly pressured into making that false statement to police, and that his gunfire really had been randomly directed when the house’s purple front door caught his eye.

There was no racial intent in the shooting, his lawyers said in court papers.

Apprendi pleaded guilty to a firearm violation and possessing a bomb in his house, which carried a maximum 10-year prison sentence. At the plea hearing, he admitted his purpose for shooting at the house was to frighten the family.

Prosecutors sought an enhanced sentence under New Jersey’s hate-crime law. The judge imposed a 12-year term, saying prosecutors had shown that Apprendi’s act was racially motivated.

Apprendi appealed the sentence, saying that issue should be decided by the jury using the highest legal standard _ whether prosecutors provided proof of racial bias beyond a reasonable doubt.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against Apprendi and upheld his 12-year sentence.

In the appeal acted on today, Apprendi’s lawyers said his intent at the time of the crime ``critically affects his sentence″ and should have been treated as an element of the offense to be considered by the jury.

New Jersey Attorney General John J. Farmer Jr. said the state’s hate-crime law punishes motive _ traditionally is a sentencing issue decided by a judge, not a jury.

The case is Apprendi vs. New Jersey, 99-478.

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