updated 1/24/2005 12:09:19 PM ET 2005-01-24T17:09:19

The Supreme Court asked federal courts Monday to reconsider sentences for hundreds of defendants who contend they were wrongly punished under a sentencing system the court declared unconstitutional earlier this month.

Justices instructed the lower courts to review more than 400 appeals from defendants sentenced for crimes ranging from drug possession to theft and securities fraud. They had argued that judges had improperly boosted their sentences based on factors that had not come before the jury during trial.

The Supreme Court ruled Jan. 12 that the federal guidelines violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because the 18-year-old guidelines required judges to make factual decisions that affect prison time, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime or amount of money involved in fraud.

Under the ruling, the guidelines are no longer mandatory but advisory. As a result, federal judges are free to sentence convicted criminals as they see fit, but they may be subject to reversal if appeals courts find “enhancements” to the sentence “unreasonable.”

Are enhancements ‘reasonable’?
In all, thousands of cases are expected to be reviewed by the lower courts to determine whether the defendants were harshly punished. That will hinge on what the appeals courts consider “reasonable” — for example, whether the new advisory guidelines set a reasonable range or judges should have wider leeway.

Among the cases the high court sent back to lower courts Monday was that of Peter Kay Stern, a North Carolina man whose sentence for tax and bank fraud was boosted from three years to 12 years by a judge.

“This court has clearly held that every defendant has the right to insist that the prosecutor prove to a jury all facts legally essential to the punishment,” Stern argued in his court filing.

Key 2005-2006 Supreme Court cases

In another case, pharmacist Robert Courtney contested his 30-year sentence for diluting cancer drugs.

Courtney, of Kansas City, pleaded guilty to 20 counts of product tampering and adulterating drugs meant for chemotherapy patients. Prosecutors have said the scheme might have affected about 98,000 prescriptions for 4,200 patients.

Courtney’s lawyers said prosecutors should have had a jury, not a judge, decide factors that gave him a longer sentence, including whether Courtney’s actions caused psychological injuries.

“A defendant subject to the federal sentencing guidelines should only be held accountable if the factual record proves that a departure is warranted. The psychological injuries were not proven,” Courtney argued.

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