A strange decision from the Ohio Supreme Court

State v. Bevly, No. 2015-Ohio-475 (Ohio Feb. 11, 2015).

Damon Bevly confessed to detectives that he had had sexual contact with an eleven-year-old girl. The State of Ohio charged him with the crime of “gross sexual imposition,” and he pleaded guilty. Under the Ohio law that defines gross sexual imposition, if the crime is corroborated by “evidence other than the testimony of the victim,” the offender gets a mandatory prison term. That sort of evidence corroborated Bevly’s crime, since his confession had been taped. Without that evidence, Bevly would simply have been eligible for prison, rather than predestined to it. 

Does it violate the Equal Protection Clause to give offenders more prison time when there’s corroborating evidence? According to the Ohio Supreme Court, it does. But as a persuasive dissent points out, Ohio, like many states, allows juries to consider their residual doubt of a capital defendant’s guilt when they are deciding whether to sentence the defendant to death. If that’s OK, then it’s also got to be OK to allow the quantum of evidence to influence the sentencing of other kinds of defendants too—as long, of course, as that quantum is equal to or exceeds “beyond a reasonable doubt.” So this equal protection decision seems quite wrong. Plus, it eliminates one potential policy route to a less harshly punitive (or at least a more nuanced) criminal justice system. 

The Ohio Supreme Court also holds that the law violates the Sixth Amendment’s jury-trial requirement. The corroboration requirement, says the court, is a fact that increases the offenders mandatory minimum sentence, and therefore must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This conclusion seems far less dubious than the equal protection holding.