White supremacist loses in sentencing appeal

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

An Ohio appeals court has rejected a defendant’s argument that a trial court violated his First Amendment right to freedom of association by considering his membership in a white-supremacist gang before sentencing him.

Joseph Bennett pleaded guilty to several charges arising from an incident in which he led police on a high-speed chase through Akron. He also pleaded guilty to narcotics possession while in a jail. A trial court sentenced Bennett to 12 years in prison.

On appeal, Bennett made several arguments, one centering on the First Amendment right to freedom of association.  The trial court had considered Bennett’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood before imposing sentence. Bennett claimed that doing so violated the principles established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dawson v. Delaware (1992).

In Dawson, the Court determined that a lower court had erred in considering the petitioner’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood during sentencing when his crime had nothing to do with his racist beliefs. The Court wrote that “Dawson’s First Amendment rights were violated by the admission of the Aryan Brotherhood evidence in this case, because the evidence proved nothing more than Dawson’s abstract beliefs.”

The Court of Appeals of Ohio, 9th District, acknowledged in State v. Bennett Aug. 15 that in Bennett’s case, “there is nothing in the record to indicate that race played a role in the crime.” This view would seem to indicate that Bennett would prevail under the reasoning in the Dawson case.

However, the Ohio appeals court pointed to other parts of the Supreme Court’s Dawson opinion, which said a court could use evidence of a defendant’s membership in such a group to the extent it shows that the person may re-offend or commit future crimes.

Furthermore, the Ohio court said, the defendant failed to include in the appellate record a copy of the pre-sentencing report, which mentioned his membership in the Aryan Brotherhood. “Without the presentence investigation report, we are unable to properly review the trial court’s sentencing decision, so we must presume the validity of the trial court proceedings,” the court wrote.

Related:
9th Circuit rejects inmate’s free-speech claim
Calif. high court rejects white-supremacist inmate’s challenge

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