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Ballard v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia
Oct 12, 1984
321 S.E.2d 284 (Va. 1984)

Summary

In Ballard v. Commonwealth, 228 Va. 213, 321 S.E.2d 284 (1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1085 (1985), this Court decided that a juvenile who is transferred to circuit court and prosecuted for capital murder, but convicted by a jury of first degree murder, was properly sentenced by the judge rather than the jury.

Summary of this case from Thomas v. Commonwealth

Opinion

44700 Record No. 831519.

October 12, 1984.

Present: All the Justices.

Code Sec. 16.1-272, requiring Court sentencing of convicted juvenile does not deny juvenile equal protection and is constitutional.

(1) Constitutional Law — Fundamental Right — Defined.

(2) Criminal Procedure — Constitutional Law — Statutory Construction — Jury — Trial — Sentencing — Ascertainment of Punishment (Code Sec. 19.2-295) — While Right to Jury Trial on Issue of Guilt or Innocence is Fundamental, Jury Sentencing is Purely Statutory.

(3) Criminal Procedure — Constitutional Law — Equal Protection — Statutory Construction — Juveniles — Court Sentencing — Power of Circuit Court Over Juvenile offender (Code Sec. 16.1-272) — Rational Basis Rather Than Strict Scrutiny Test Should be Applied.

(4) Criminal Procedure — Constitutional Law — Equal Protection — Juveniles — Court Sentencing — Power of Circuit Court Over Juvenile offender (Code Sec. 16.1-272) — Rational Basis Test Stated.

(5) Criminal Procedure — Constitutional Law — Equal Protection — Juveniles — Court Sentencing — Purpose and Intent (Code Sec. 16.1-227); Power of Circuit Court Over Juvenile Offender (Code Sec. 16.1-272); Ascertainment of Punishment (Code Sec. 19.2-295) — Rational Basis Exists for Court Sentencing of Juveniles While Also Providing for Jury Sentencing for Adults.

(6) Criminal Procedure — Constitutional Law — Equal Protection — Juveniles — Court Sentencing — Power of Circuit Court Over Juvenile offender (Code Sec. 16.1-272) — No Denial of Equal Protection by Code Sec. 16.1-272 Because Some Other Method of Sentencing Might be Fairer, Etc.

A juvenile was convicted of first degree murder by a Jury when tried as an adult in the Circuit Court on a charge of capital murder in the commission of robbery while armed with a dangerous weapon [Code Sec. 18.2-31(d)]. His sentence was fixed by the Court at life imprisonment. The juvenile contends on appeal that he was denied equal protection, Code Sec. 16.1-272 requiring sentencing by the Court for a juvenile whereas Code Sec. 19.2-295 requires an adult tried by a Jury to have his sentence fixed by the Jury.

1. A fundamental right is one explicitly or implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution.

2. While the right to Jury trial on the issue of guilt or innocence is a fundamental one, the right granted adults to have their sentences fixed by Juries is purely statutory in both origin and nature (Code Sec. 19.2-295).

3. Whether withholding from a juvenile the statutory right to Jury sentencing is a denial of equal protection of the laws should be determined by applying a rational basis test rather than a strict scrutiny test, the latter test requiring the showing of a compelling state interest.

4. In applying the rational basis test, courts will not overturn a statutory classification on equal protection grounds unless it is so unrelated to the achievement of a legitimate purpose that it appears irrational.

5. A rational basis exists for the legislative classification withholding Jury sentencing in the case of juveniles under Code Sec. 16.1-272 while providing for Jury sentencing of adults under Code Sec. 19.2-295, juveniles enjoying a privileged status in the law not enjoyed by adults. The Commonwealth has special concern for juveniles. Code Sec. 16.1-227 provides that in all proceedings the welfare of the child is the paramount concern of the State and Code Sec. 16.1-272 permits the Circuit Court to treat a juvenile accused in all respects as a juvenile, although treating him as an adult with respect to determining guilt or innocence and subjecting him to adult penalties in the sentencing phase of his case.

6. Although the General Assembly could have permitted a juvenile to be sentenced by a Jury as an adult is sentenced, in enacting Code Sec. 16.1-272 the General Assembly perceived that a Jury might not be able to comprehend the differences in sentencing a juvenile defendant as an adult and the treatment of the defendant under the juvenile court laws. There is no denial of equal protection in the sentencing provision of Code Sec. 16.1-272 because some other method might seem fairer or wiser or afford more protection to the juvenile accused.

Appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond. Hon. William E. Spain, judge presiding.

Affirmed.

Sterling H. Moore (Craig S. Cooley; Haskins Moore; Brown, Bruner Cooley, on brief), for appellant.

James E. Kulp, Senior Assistant Attorney General (Gerald L. Baliles, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.


This appeal involves a constitutional challenge to the Virginia procedure in criminal cases whereby an adult tried by jury has his sentence fixed by the jury, Code Sec. 19.2-295, while a juvenile transferred to circuit court and tried by jury has his sentence fixed by the judge, Code Sec. 16.1-272. The question for decision is whether the denial of jury sentencing to juveniles deprives them of equal protection, rendering Code Sec. 16.1-272 unconstitutional.

Sec. 19.2-295. Ascertainment of Punishment. — Within the limits prescribed by law, the term of confinement in the penitentiary or in jail and the amount of fine, if any, of a person convicted of a criminal offense, shall be ascertained by the jury, or by the court in cases tried without a jury.

Sec. 16.1-272. Power of circuit court over juvenile offender. — A. In the hearing and disposition of felony cases properly before a circuit court having criminal jurisdiction of such offenses if committed by an adult, the court, after giving the juvenile the right to a trial by jury on the issue of guilt or innocence and upon a finding of guilty, may sentence or commit the juvenile offender in accordance with the criminal laws of this State or may in its discretion deal with the juvenile in the manner prescribed in this law for the hearing and disposition of cases in the juvenile court.
B. If the circuit court decides to deal with the juvenile in the same manner as a case in the juvenile court and places the child on probation, the child may he supervised by a juvenile probation officer.

This question arose in the case of John Robert Ballard, a juvenile who was transferred to circuit court for trial as an adult on a charge of capital murder in the commission of robbery while armed with a deadly weapon. Code Sec. 18.2-31(d). Ballard was tried by jury and convicted of first degree murder. Thereafter, the trial judge sentenced Ballard to life imprisonment.

This appeal does not involve, and we do not decide, the question whether a juvenile who is convicted by a jury of capital murder should be sentenced by the judge in accordance with Sec. 16.1-272 of the juvenile court law or by the jury pursuant to Sections 19.2-264.3 and -264.4 of the death penalty statutes.

The record shows that Ballard, then aged seventeen, planned with three accomplices to enter the home of John Edward Lawler and steal his property. Upon arrival at the Lawler residence on the evening of December 30, 1982, one of the accomplices gave Ballard a pair of bolt cutters and told him "to go in the house and knock [Lawler] out." Ballard complied, entering the house and striking Lawler numerous times while an accomplice stole the victim's property. Lawler died from his injuries.

On appeal, Ballard contends that when the Commonwealth grants adults the right to have their sentences fixed by juries but denies juveniles the same right, the denial offends the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This discrimination, Ballard says, allows an adult "two bites of the sentencing apple," that is, an adult has the right to have the jury fix his sentence and then, if he considers the sentence too harsh, he may request a presentence report and ask the court to reduce the sentence or consider alternatives to incarceration. On the other hand, Ballard maintains, a juvenile tried as an adult is denied the "first 'bite of the apple,' " viz., jury sentencing, and "is limited to the sentence imposed by the trial judge." Obviously, Ballard submits, "such a limitation is both unreasonable and unfair."

Continuing, Ballard argues that the strict scrutiny test, requiring the demonstration of a compelling state interest, applies to this case and controls the question whether the classification of juveniles created by Code Sec. 16.1-272 passes constitutional muster. Ballard acknowledges that the strict scrutiny test applies only when a classification impermissibly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right or operates to the peculiar disadvantage of a "suspect" class. Ballard concedes, and we agree, that juveniles do not constitute a "suspect" class. State v. Rice, 98 Wn.2d 384, 399, 655 P.2d 1145, 1154 (1982). Ballard contends, however, that the right to jury sentencing is fundamental.

Ballard argues that the right to a jury trial on the issue of guilt or innocence is fundamental and that when the Commonwealth expands this right to include jury sentencing for the adult segment of the population, jury sentencing itself becomes a fundamental right. Ballard then asserts that, absent a showing of a compelling state interest, the Commonwealth cannot withhold from juveniles tried as adults the right to jury sentencing. Ballard finally says that because the Commonwealth has not shown a compelling state interest in the subject matter of the classification at issue, the classification must be stricken and Code Sec. 16.1-272 declared unconstitutional.

[1-4] We disagree with Ballard. While the right to jury trial on the issue of guilt or innocence is a fundamental one, Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 157-58 (1968), it does not necessarily follow that, merely because the Commonwealth grants one segment of the population the right to jury sentencing, this latter right is also fundamental. A fundamental right is one explicitly or implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. See San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 33-34 (1973). Yet, Ballard admits that he has found no case which holds that jury sentencing is a constitutionally guaranteed right, and we have found none. This void in decisional law becomes especially noteworthy when it is considered that neither in the federal system nor in most states is jury sentencing permitted.

Furthermore, Ballard concedes, as, indeed, he must, that the General Assembly could at will withdraw from adults the right to jury sentencing and thus eliminate the differential treatment of which he complains. But, if the right to jury sentencing is fundamental, it could not be treated in such a fashion; the legislative withdrawal of a fundamental right, if challenged, would require the showing of a compelling state interest.

In our opinion, the right granted adults in Virginia to have their sentences fixed by juries is purely statutory in both origin and nature. Any complaint Ballard may have, therefore, must be based, not upon a purported deprivation of a fundamental right, but upon an alleged denial of equal protection resulting from the fact that a statutory right granted others has been withheld from the class of which he is a member. And, in determining whether this withholding is permissible, we do not apply the strict scrutiny test but one directed toward ascertaining whether a rational basis exists for the statutory classification in which Ballard has been placed. See Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93, 97 (1979). In applying the rational basis test, courts will not overturn a statutory classification on equal protection grounds unless it is so unrelated to the achievement of a legitimate purpose that it appears irrational. Id.

We believe a rational basis does exist for the classification in question. Code Sec. 16.1-227, part of the juvenile court law, provides that "in all proceedings the welfare of the child . . . is the paramount concern of the State." Hence, juveniles enjoy a privileged status in the law, a status not enjoyed by adults. While, for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence, a transferred juvenile is treated as an adult, and although he may be subject to adult penalties in the sentencing phase of his case, Code Sec. 16.1-272 permits a circuit court to treat him in all respects as a juvenile, with full panoply of beneficent alternatives available in juvenile court, including the use of a juvenile probation officer.

The Commonwealth's singular concern for juveniles and the special treatment they may be afforded when they are tried as adults should be sufficient to demonstrate the rational basis of the statutory classification in question. Ballard argues, however, that the Commonwealth's concern for the welfare of children could be satisfied by permitting the sentence of a transferred juvenile to be fixed by the jury and then allowing the court to explore all the alternatives for disposition the law now allows.

Several observations come to mind, however, concerning this argument. First, the choice of sentencing procedures is a matter for legislative determination. Second, in enacting Code Sec. 16.1-272, the General Assembly obviously opted for judge-sentencing for transferred juveniles because it perceived the "inability of juries to adequately comprehend the differences in the sentencing of a juvenile defendant as an adult, and the treatment of that same child within the framework of the juvenile court laws." Hopper Slayton, The Revision of Virginia's Juvenile Court Law, 13 U. Rich. L. Rev. 847, 868 (1979). Finally, although the sentencing plan proposed by Ballard might have merit, the particular sentencing procedure chosen by a state "does not run foul of the Fourteenth Amendment because another method may seem . . . to be fairer or wiser or to give a surer promise of protection to the prisoner at the bar." Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 (1934); see also McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 221 (1971).

Finding no deprivation of constitutional right in this case, we will affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Affirmed.


Summaries of

Ballard v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia
Oct 12, 1984
321 S.E.2d 284 (Va. 1984)

In Ballard v. Commonwealth, 228 Va. 213, 321 S.E.2d 284 (1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1085 (1985), this Court decided that a juvenile who is transferred to circuit court and prosecuted for capital murder, but convicted by a jury of first degree murder, was properly sentenced by the judge rather than the jury.

Summary of this case from Thomas v. Commonwealth
Case details for

Ballard v. Commonwealth

Case Details

Full title:JOHN ROBERT BALLARD v. COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

Court:Supreme Court of Virginia

Date published: Oct 12, 1984

Citations

321 S.E.2d 284 (Va. 1984)
321 S.E.2d 284

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