In a ruling called a landmark by attorneys, the Michigan Supreme Court has overturned a long prison sentence given to a man who was acquitted of a 2013 homicide but convicted on a firearm charge.

In the unusual case, a jury found Eric Beck not guilty of fatally shooting Hoshea Pruitt after a fight but guilty of firearm charges.

When Beck was sentenced to consecutive prison terms of five years for felony firearm and 20-33 years for felon in possession, his attorney balked, saying the sentences were departure from guidelines of 22-76 months. 

Judge James Borchard of Saginaw County Circuit Court said at sentencing that despite the acquittal, he believed Beck had killed Pruitt and gave him five years for felony firearm plus 20-33 years for being a felon in possession of a firearm, to be served consecutively.

Borchard said there was a “preponderance of the evidence that this gentleman did shoot the victim” and cited Beck's criminal history, including prior convictions on murder and firearm charges.

To “sentence within the guidelines would not be proportionate to the seriousness of the defendant’s conduct or the seriousness of his criminal history,” Borchard said.

The court agreed with Beck's attorney and ordered Beck resentenced in a July 29 opinion.

“Without any doubt, the Michigan Supreme Court is now this nation’s strongest and leading voice in support of the principle that guilt is decided not by the government, a judge, or prosecutor, but by the people,” said Beck’s attorney, Matthew Gronda.

Legal experts say the ruling could guide others who believe judges used conduct for which the defendant was acquitted to dole out harsh sentences.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if defense lawyers for people sitting in prison now tried to reopen their cases,” said Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University in California, adding: “It’s a bold decision and it highlights a real injustice.”

Beck sought an appeal shortly after he was sentenced in 2014 as a fourth-offense habitual offender for being a felon in possession of a firearm and carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony, second offense.

In 2015, the state Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and remanded his case for further proceedings.Beck then sought a leave of appeal through the Michigan Supreme Court, claiming the lengthy sentence violated his constitutional rights.

The state Supreme Court's majority opinion noted "a few state courts have concluded that reliance on acquitted conduct at sentencing violates due process, grounding that conclusion in the guarantees of fundamental fairness and the presumption of innocence."

In a statement issued along with the court’s majority opinion Chief Justice Pro Tem David Viviano rejected the lengthy sentencing by the judge, saying it violated the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees criminal defendants a right to trial by jury.

“Because the finding that defendant committed homicide exposed him to a longer sentence, the Sixth Amendment requires that it be found by a jury or admitted by the defendant," Viviano wrote. "Here, it was only found by a judge. Therefore, I would hold that the sentence at issue violates the Sixth Amendment.” 

Borchard did not respond to a request for comment.

During sentencing, Borchard said he believed the jury’s verdict had been affected by inconsistencies in preliminary examination testimony from a witness who died before the trial.

Mary Loyd-Deal identified Beck as the person who shot Pruitt after the pair argued about a woman, according to court records.

Borchard noted the jury “could not find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the homicide. But the court certainly finds that there is a preponderance of the evidence that he did. And I am not substituting my opinion for (the jury’s). I am just bound by a different standard in this matter. And that is the reason for the court’s finding that, in fact, this gentleman, in my opinion, did kill the victim for no reason other than jealousy.”

Such instances where a judge’s personal opinion overstepped a jury verdict are not typical, said David Moran, a law professor at the University of Michigan who directs the Michigan Innocence Clinic. “This usually only comes up in a case where a defendant is tried on multiple charges and is acquitted of the most serious ones. … It is very troubling as a matter of due process and fairness. Most judges are better than that.”

In his statement, Viviano said that “finding elements of a crime only by a preponderance of the evidence is unconstitutional, even if there is a possibility that it is logically consistent with an acquittal.”

His fellow justices also criticized the sentencing decision.

“Because the sentencing court punished the defendant more severely on the basis of the judge’s finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed the murder of which the jury had acquitted him, it violated the defendant’s due-process protections,” Chief Justice Bridget McCormack wrote.

Three justices dissented.

“An acquittal means only that the jury held a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt of that crime, not that the underlying conduct did not occur,” Justice Elizabeth Clement wrote. “At sentencing, the standard of proof is lower, requiring only that the facts considered by the trial court are supported by a preponderance of the evidence.”

Legal experts say the sentencing violated Beck's due-process rights.

“In this case, the trial judge committed an error in sentencing the defendant by using a crime that the defendant was acquitted of to increase the sentence,” said Larry Dubin, a law professor emeritus at the University of Detroit Mercy.

That was enough reason to challenge it, Gronda said, adding Beck, 49, had been “effectively facing a 30-year sentence.”

 The state Supreme Court's decision could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, Weisberg said.

Beck, who remains at a state correctional facilityon the original sentencing, welcomes the chance to shorten his incarceration, Gronda said.

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