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Court: Only Juries Can Decide Motive

June 27, 2000

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. (AP) _ No one questioned whether Charles C. Apprendi Jr. fired shots into the home of a black family living in his predominantly white neighborhood. He admitted it.

At issue in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued Monday was his motivation. Apprendi, who is white, claimed there was no racial intent, but the judge in his case deemed otherwise and sentenced him to a longer prison term of 12 years under New Jersey’s hate-crime law.

The decision of whether Apprendi’s act was motivated by bias and deserved extra punishment should have been decided by a jury _ not a judge, according to the ruling from the nation’s highest court.

``He should get out now. I’m going to petition for his release,″ said Apprendi’s lawyer, Joseph O’Neill.

Apprendi, 45, has served more than five years in prison. His lawyer said he would have been sentenced to five years with the hate-crime designation.

Almost all states have some type of hate-crime law. Monday’s ruling was not expected to have much of an impact because many states already specify that a jury, not a judge, must decide a defendant’s motivation.

However, legal experts said it could have huge implications on other criminal laws.

Brian Levin, a California State University law professor who filed a friend-of-the-court brief for a group of human-rights organizations, said the decision’s ``real effect will be on legislatures to restructure individual offenses with higher maximum penalties.″

Jeff Green, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Sidley & Austin, said the ruling will have enormous ramifications for both federal and state criminal statutes.

``Anything that would include something about bodily injury, or taking of money, or harm to a child or harm to a vulnerable adult is likely to fall within the category of something which must go to a jury if it increases the maximum statutory sentencing,″ he said.

New Jersey’s hate-crime law, adopted in 1981, bans acts of racial or ethnic intimidation, such as burning crosses or painting swastikas. It was expanded in 1990 to provide stiffer sentences for such common crimes as assault and harassment if the defendant acted with a ``purpose to intimidate″ because of factors such as race, sex or religion.

Apprendi, who was arrested in December 1994, pleaded guilty to a firearm violation and possessing a bomb in his house, which carried a maximum 10-year sentence. No one was injured in the shooting in the Vineland, N.J., neighborhood.

The trial judge said prosecutors _ who had sought a longer term under the hate-crime law _ showed by a ``preponderance of the evidence″ that Apprendi’s act was racially motivated. The justices, however, said such decisions must be made by a jury using the highest legal standard _ whether prosecutors offered proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Apprendi’s mother, Bernice, said her son was looking forward to ``starting his life over again.″

``It’s just an overwhelming thing because it’s such an important issue and it came through in his favor,″ she said.

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On the Net: Supreme Court decisions: http://www.supremecourtus.gov or http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct