Above-standard punishment is still possible for Robert L. Doney Jr., who murdered his girlfriend’s baby because he was angry with the girlfriend, a judge ruled Friday.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque rejected a defense motion that would have derailed plans to impanel a new jury on Sept. 6 to consider aggravating circumstances that would authorize a sentence in excess of Doney’s standard maximum of 271/2 years in prison for first-degree murder.
Doney, now 30, was three days into his jury trial in March when he admitted he deliberately murdered Joan Richards’ 2-year-old daughter, Victoria Ramon, on Dec. 26, 2003. He said he shoved the toddler into a door frame of the apartment he shared with Richards at 1412 W. Dean because he was angry at Richards.
At the time, Washington’s sentencing guideline system was in chaos because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that invalidated part of the law. The Supreme Court said defendants were entitled to have juries decide all facts used to justify above-standard sentences – not judges, as Washington law specified.
The state Legislature was working on a repair, and Leveque improvised procedures based on what he anticipated lawmakers would do. Leveque and many other judges previously had ruled they lacked authority to fashion a remedy on their own, but the Washington Court of Appeals had recently ruled that trial judges had inherent authority to impanel special juries to consider aggravating circumstances.
Leveque kept Doney’s trial jury in session and brought the jurors back for a special session to consider information that hadn’t been presented before Doney pleaded guilty. The jury ruled Doney was guilty of three aggravating factors – deliberate cruelty, multiple injuries and “extreme lack of remorse.”
The Legislature’s new procedures took effect on April 15, and Leveque declared that his improvised procedures were in compliance. As other judges have done, Leveque also ruled that the new law was retroactive to pre-existing cases such as Doney’s.
But Leveque ruled last month that he made a mistake by refusing to let Doney give the jury a transcript of a statement of remorse that he made in a pretrial hearing outside the presence of the jury. Leveque’s ruling would have been correct for trial evidence, but he decided in retrospect that the unusual jury session actually was part of a sentencing procedure.
When defendants are sentenced, they have a right to tell the judge pretty much whatever they wish without being questioned by lawyers. Leveque reasoned that the new law brought juries into the sentencing phase of ordinary criminal trials, much as they are involved in determining whether the death penalty should be imposed in capital cases.
That raises a question of whether Doney will be allowed to make an unfettered statement in his mini-trial next month. Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz and court-appointed defense attorney Tim Trageser, have opposing views about that. But Trageser said the issue may be moot because Doney plans to give formal testimony.
Trageser argued Friday that Leveque lacked authority to impanel a new jury. He cited the legislation to repair the sentencing law and a state Supreme Court decision in April, both of which call for aggravating factors to be heard by the same jury that decides overall guilt or innocence.
The state Supreme Court said it would be improper to impanel new juries to consider aggravating circumstances in cases overturned on appeal. Trial juries can’t be reconvened after they are released because they are considered “tainted.”
But Steinmetz argued that Leveque had “inherent authority” to prevent “absurd results” that fly in the face of legislative intent.
Leveque said he had no clear guidance, but felt he did have authority to impanel another jury “under these unique circumstances.”
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