Almost everyone saw the headlines regarding the sentencing hearings of Larry Nassar and the photos and videos of the hundreds of gymnasts, former gymnasts, and parents who made personal statements in court. This news coverage provided a glance into part of the criminal justice process with which not many people are familiar – sentencing hearings.

After someone pleads guilty to a crime or is convicted at trial, the judge must order a sentence to be served. In some simpler cases, the judge may have a sentence ready at the time of a guilty plea, especially if a specific reduced sentence was part of a plea agreement. However, in many cases, the defendant will have a separate hearing through which the judge will determine the appropriate sentence.

Sentencing Hearing Procedures

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution can provide arguments for its recommended sentence and the defendant can provide any mitigating factors that may support a lesser sentence. In addition, a probation officer will often examine the circumstances of the case and prepare a presentence report with any specific recommendations for sentencing. It is important for the defendant to retain skilled defense representation through this part of the process to ensure they do not receive an overly harsh sentence.

First, the judge will examine the presentence report submitted by the probation officer assigned to the case. All too often, such reports are not rooted in factual findings and a defense attorney will have the chance to challenge the basis of the presentence recommendations. This is important, as many judges give significant weight to these reports and defendants want to ensure that all information accurately reflects their situations.

At the hearing, the prosecutor will then recap the facts of the case and reasons why they are seeking a particular sentence. This often includes highlighting any possible aggravating factors that may support a more severe sentence.

Prosecutors can also bring victims and their families into the courtroom to make victim impact statements. These statements can focus on more than just the facts of the crime, as victims can relay the emotional and practical impact of the crime on their lives. They can talk about any psychological or physical injuries they suffered and treatment they needed, or simply how their lives have changed since the crime. If a victim is unavailable to appear in person, they can have a written statement read in court. If a victim passed away, family members can recount how the death affected their lives. Victim impact statements have become an increasingly powerful part of the sentencing process, as witnessed in the Larry Nassar case.

Because the presentence report, the prosecution, and victim impact statements can be so influential on a judge in sentence determinations, it is critical for a defendant to have an attorney who understands how to present the defendant’s side of the case. The defense can present many different mitigating sentencing factors depending on the circumstances of the case. Some factors that may lessen a sentence may include:

  • The defendant played a relatively minor role in the offense.
  • The defendant committed the offense in a manner that was unlikely to cause harm to others.
  • The victim was also culpable for the events leading to the offense (i.e. participating or instigating a bar fight).
  • The crime occurred under unusual circumstances – such as intense provocation or emotional distress – and the defendant is unlikely to commit another crime.
  • The defendant has no criminal record or any prior criminal convictions are minor and unrelated.
  • The defendant believed the crime was necessary, such as stealing groceries to feed a family.
  • The defendant experienced difficult life circumstances that led to their criminal activity.
  • The defendant committed the crime due to addiction.
  • The defendant is truly remorseful for the crime and has demonstrated responsibility for their actions.

One of the most persuasive parts of a sentencing hearing is the statements of the defendants themselves. Criminal procedure rules give the defendant the right to speak at a sentencing hearing to apologize and tell the judge anything else that may affect a sentence. A defendant should work closely with their defense attorney to ensure they make the best use of this opportunity. The judge may announce a sentence at the close of the hearing or may take some additional time to make the determination.

Contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Just because you have pled guilty or were convicted does not always mean your sentence is set in stone. You need the right defense attorney during every stage of your case. Please consult with The Zeiger Firm for free by calling 215-546-0340 or contact us online today.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.