The jury in Kyler Carriker’s case is not permitted to know that if convicted, Carriker will face a mandatory 20 year minimum sentence. This rule is not unique to Carriker’s case. Juries are expected to come to their verdicts without any understanding of the potential, or in this case mandatory, consequences of their choices.
Unfortunately, many jurors probably have preconceived notions about sentencing laws that have been derived from news coverage on previous, unrelated cases. Many crimes carry what appear to be harsh sentences, but more often than not, those convicted of crimes do not serve the maximum amount of prison time allowable by law. A person sentenced to five years in prison may well be out on parole in two years or even less.
In Carriker’s case, felony murder, carries, under Kansas state law, a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years, which means that Carriker cannot be paroled, and, if convicted, would be required to serve the full twenty years, and not even the judge has the power to change this.
The idea behind not informing jurors of sentencing guidelines stems from the notion that a jury’s responsibility is to judge the charges based on the evidence, so as to determine guilt or innocence. However, the way this system is designed, there are no safeguards in place to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. We entrust jurors to determine guilt or innocence, but jurors are not entrusted with the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Jurors have no power to determine whether or not a defendant actually deserves the potential or mandatory sentence, because this information is withheld from them.
Ultimately, the sentence of a person convicted of a crime is determined by the judge, unless the death penalty is an option, in which case a jury is granted the power to decide on the sentence (Carriker’s case does not carry the death penalty as an option).
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been criticized for years, because even judges do not have the discretion to make exceptions based on the circumstances of an individual case. In Carriker’s case, the judge does not have the power to reduce this twenty year sentence if Carriker were to be convicted. Judge David Kaufman, who presided over previous hearings in Carriker’s case, referred to the charges against Carriker as harsh, but allowed the charges to move forward, because under the law he is required to “view the evidence in a light that is favorable to the prosecution“.
Criminal defense attorney and CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara said this, in reference to mandatory minimum sentencing:
“We rely on judges to assist in dispensing justice, and to be the arbiter between the state and the defense. While the legislature has the absolute right to make laws, it should not hamstring a judge’s ability to dispense appropriate justice under the specific circumstances of individual cases. When a judge faces a minimum mandatory sentence, her hands are tied, she becomes a mathematician rather than a dispenser of justice. If the facts and the law support a harsh sentence, a judge has the discretion to impose it, but we should not force their hands when minimum mandatories produce obviously unjust sentences.”
In Carriker’s case, the jury will not know that their decision could place a man in prison for twenty years, not because he is accused of killing anyone, but merely because he told someone where to buy a single bag of marijuana, and if he is convicted, Carriker’s judge will have no choice but to impose this unjust sentence.