Racist beliefs can justify increased sentence, Idaho court rules

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Idaho trial judge can take a defendant’s racist beliefs and associations into account in increasing his sentence, an appeals court ruled recently.

Lunde Eugene Justice pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft for stealing an acquaintance’s pickup truck, and to four counts of forgery for taking checks from a friend and cashing them at various businesses. The prosecution agreed to a 10-year fixed sentence on each count, all to run concurrently. That would mean that Justice would serve 10 years.

However, after Justice pleaded guilty, the district court ordered a pre-sentence investigation and mental-health examination — a common procedure under Idaho criminal law. The investigation and examination revealed that Justice harbored hard-core racist beliefs and showed no remorse for his past crimes.

During an earlier period in prison, he had joined the Aryan Knights, a white-supremacist prison gang. He told the mental-health evaluator:  “Something is wrong with me because I don’t feel guilty for doing things. I mean I could beat a black kid to death and I wouldn’t feel bad at all.” He also said he didn’t respect anyone who is African-American or Asian.

After receiving this information, the district court sentenced him to a 28-year fixed term.

On appeal, Justice argued that the district court had violated his First Amendment rights by considering his racist beliefs and associations. He cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dawson v. Delaware (1992), in which the high court ruled that a lower court had erred in admitting into evidence a defendant’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood when such an association was not relevant to the defendant’s crime. “[E]lements of racial hatred were … not involved in the killing,” the Supreme Court said.

At first glance, Dawson would seem to provide strong support for Justice’s position, as his crimes of grand theft and forgery were unrelated to his racist beliefs. The Idaho Court of Appeals acknowledged as much.

But the court still found no First Amendment error in introducing the racist beliefs and associations. The judges reasoned that Justice’s comments indicated he presented a danger to others in society. “Such comments were relevant to assess the danger he presented to society, a factor that is unquestionably legitimate for consideration by a sentencing court,” the appeals court wrote in its May 12 opinion in State v. Justice.

The appeals court did reduce his sentence to a fixed term of 14 years, finding that the 28-year fixed term “is longer than reasonably necessary to achieve the goal of rehabilitation.”

Tags: , ,