JACKSON — Even the Mississippi Supreme Court gets to change its mind.
And it did so in April, ruling that judges can sentence people convicted of rape to life in prison, even if the jury didn't recommend a life sentence. In that 5-3 ruling, the court overturned 40 years of its own decisions that had previously found only a jury could sentence a rape defendant to life in prison.
The ruling came in an appeal by Charles Bester, who pleaded guilty to rape and robbery charges in Jones County in 1992. He was sentenced to life by a judge after the plea, but appealed in 2012, saying the court had erred.
Bester lost his case before the circuit judge and Court of Appeals. He might have felt hopeful when the high court agreed to review the appeal. But it turns out a majority of justices used the case to announce two dozen previous decisions were wrong and the court had been misreading Mississippi's criminal code since 1975.
"We think it pernicious, i.e., harmful, for this court to continue to exceed its constitutional authority by judicially amending (the law) and limiting a judge's sentencing authority as established by the Legislature," wrote Associate Justice Ann H. Lamar, acknowledging the court was overturning decades of precedent. She was joined in the decision by presiding justices Jess H. Dickinson and Michael K. Randolph, as well as associate justices Josiah D. Coleman and Dawn Beam.
Lamar wrote that life imprisonment was included in language that said a judge could sentence a defendant "for any term as the court, in its discretion, may determine."
She noted the Legislature structured other laws governing sentencing in ways that limit a judge's authority. For example, a jury can agree to sentence a convicted kidnapper to life in prison, but if a jury can't agree to a life sentence, a judge can sentence the kidnapper to a term between one and 30 years in prison.
It's a tough-on-crime ruling in an election year — four of the court's nine seats are up this year. Kitchens, Beam and Justice Jimmy Maxwell — are seeking election. Lamar is retiring.
Three dissenters, though, said the majority had it all wrong. Associate Justices Jim Kitchens and Leslie King, in separate dissents that were both joined by Chief Justice Bill Waller, wrote that Lamar was misinterpreting the law. Both Kitchens and King said that "term," in the context of this law, meant a sentence for a set number of years and not an indefinite life sentence.
"This court consistently has distinguished 'life imprisonment' from 'term' for nearly forty years," Kitchens wrote, citing 23 separate cases over that period. He wrote that federal courts follow a similar approach, allowing only a jury to impose a life sentence.
Just as importantly, the dissenters said that even if the court had been wrong 40 years ago, the majority was throwing decades of precedent into the trash far too lightly.
King wrote that the court shouldn't have acted on its own to discard precedent, especially because the state hadn't sought a change: "Such action on the part of this court is surely to be an unpleasant shock to the criminal defense bar of this state."
Kitchens, if anything, was harsher.
"As troubled as this court may be by the statute's perceived unconstitutional lenience in sentencing rapists and armed robbers, today the court itself acts unconstitutionally by overruling an interpretation of the statute that has been as consistently ratified by the Legislature as it has been consistently applied by this court," he wrote.
Bester remains imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Jeff Amy is a writer for the Associated Press based in Jackson.)