A while back, I ran across an interesting phenomenon which I think may be unique to Virginia, or at least to the few States which allow jury sentencing. In Virginia, accommodation is an imperfect defense to drug distribution. Accommodation is basically the distribution of drugs for another without any expectation of gain. If an offender is convicted of distribution of a schedule I or II drug it's an unclassified felony and the jury must impose 5-40 years in prison. If that same person is convicted of distribution of a schedule I or II drug as an accommodation it's a class 5 felony and the jury may impose 0-10 years in prison. The decision of which felony to convict the defendant is a jury decision. However, this decision is not made during the trial; it's done during the sentencing hearing.
The prosecution has to prove guilt of distribution during trial. During the sentencing phase, and only during the sentencing phase, the defense can try to prove that the distribution was not for the defendant's gain. In other words, the prosecution must prove the illegal act, then the defense must prove which type of felony his client is actually guilty of (or default to the max).
That's an interesting way to structure a trial and I must admit to never having thought of it before. It led me to some interesting thoughts on how statutes might be changed to fit within this framework.
~-~ THIS IS NOT HOW VIRGINIA LAW ACTUALLY WORKS
JUST HOW IT COULD ~-~
JUST HOW IT COULD ~-~
What if Virginia rewrote her statutes, or the appellate courts interpreted them, so that the prosecution only had to prove the general offense (larceny, distribution, homicide)? The default punishment would be the maximum under that offense. The defense could only raise perfect defenses during the trial on guilt or innocence. If the defendant is found guilty, the defense would raise any imperfect defenses during the sentencing hearing which would lower the offense from the maximum sentence.
For instance, the maximum punishment under Virginia's larceny scheme is 2-20 years (larceny over $200 with intent to sell). Let's assume that this would be the maximum punishment if the offense was changed simply to larceny. During the guilt or innocence phase of a trial the Commonwealth would merely have to prove a larceny. The defense could raise perfect defenses during the guilt or innocence phase, such as an alibi showing the defendant was playing poker at a buddy's house when the larceny occured. Assuming that the defendant is found guilty, during the sentencing hearing the defense would put on evidence trying to lessen the range of the sentence. In other words, the defense would show that there was no intent to sell, lowering the range to 0-20 years, the defense could show that the item stolen was a farm animal, lowering the range to 0-10 years, the defense could show the item was not worth $200, lowering the range to 0-12 months.
It's an interesting idea and, as the accommodation defense demonstrates, it could be done. I can see some procedural difficulties it might cause, but I can't come up with any constitutional bar.