Alaska v. Graham

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Justia Opinion Summary

A drunk driver lost control of his truck on a wet roadway and struck and killed two teenage girls. The driver pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder with a sentencing range of 13 to 20 years for each count. At the sentencing hearing, members of both victims’ families and two local law enforcement officers spoke, and the sentencing court viewed tribute videos for the two young victims. The court imposed a term of 20 years in prison with 4 years suspended on each count, for a composite sentence of 32 years to serve, noting that it was the highest sentence imposed in Alaska for an unintentional vehicular homicide. The court of appeals vacated the sentence based on several perceived errors in the sentencing court’s calculation of the appropriate sentence; it also identified evidentiary errors which it believed contributed to the emotionally charged sentencing hearing and improperly influenced the judge’s decision. The court of appeals directed that a different judge preside over resentencing. The State appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court properly began its sentencing analysis in the benchmark range for second-degree murder and appropriately considered an aggravator. The Court could not conclude, as the court of appeals did, the superior court gave too much weight to the sentencing goals of general deterrence and community condemnation. The Supreme Court found it was an abuse of discretion to allow the testimony of two police officers as victim impact evidence and to admit victim tribute videos without first reviewing them for relevance and unfair prejudice. "We cannot say that the unusually severe sentence was untainted by these errors, but we do not believe that the superior court’s admission of the challenged evidence requires recusal on remand." The sentence was vacated and the case remanded for re-sentencing by the same judge.

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