Judge Struggles with Sentencing to Incorporate New Legislation

By Alexander Ramirez and Sofia Leguria

SACRAMENTO, CA – During the Sacramento County Superior Court Dept. 10 morning calendar last Friday, Clayton Wesley Sullivan was sentenced for a probation violation and possession of methamphetamine—but the judge had to consider new factors in making his decision.

The history of the case was read, which included a quarantine that postponed matters until Friday, before continuing with the inclusion of an acquaintance of Sullivan who was invited to the stream by, presumably, Defense Attorney David Lynch.

The court was told Sullivan had a troubled upbringing, and that his father encouraged him to take drugs to escape from his troubles, which affected his childhood.

Deputy District Attorney Kenda Havlick still concluded Sullivan was a danger to the public because of numerous felony convictions dating back to 2006.

In one of those incidents that occurred in 2015, the DDA said, “the defendant repeatedly punched a female in the face, choked her, then grabbed a revolver, pointed it at her and threatened to kill her,” Havlick quoted from her report. Two firearms were found when police searched Sullivan’s residence, she added.

Havlick explained another incident in 2017 that involved a domestic violence charge where the son called 911 because he said his mom was assaulted, before going to the hospital with her, because of a dislocated shoulder she experienced.

“The victim reports that the defendant got mad at her, choked her four to five times, and allegedly said he was going to kill her. That was the day prior, and then the day after she packed some things in her backpack, he got angry and said she couldn’t leave him, shoved her to the ground, and that’s how she injured her shoulder,” Havlick reported.

Two ounces of meth were also found on his person, similar to the amount in court at the time, the DDA added, arguing, “Based on his record, based on the amount of time that he has spent in custody and it has still not changed behavior, or his criminal record. I believe midterm times two is appropriate.”

Defense Attorney Lynch explained the court does now look at the circumstances of the individual and even the state legislature says the court needs to consider helping the accused if possible. He also argued that according to the account from the acquaintance invited to court, Sullivan had an extremely damaging upbringing.

“I’ve been informed that it’s more than that (referring to Sullivan’s abuse as a child.) That, actually, (the father) was drunk a lot of the time. He was an alcoholic and he beat his mother in front of Mr. Sullivan and I remark on that because I see that pattern in what the district attorney just repeated as to the criminal history of Mr. Sullivan.”

Because of this, Lynch argued for a lower term for Sullivan against the probation report’s suggested four years, which didn’t include anything about Sullivan’s formative years and his abuse.

The new rule in question here is Senate Bill 567, signed into effect by Gavin Newsom on the first of this year. It essentially states that the court is mandated to give a lower sentence to those who have been a victim of violence or trauma in their youth unless the aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation.

Judge Sawtelle stated, “I will confess that this is new and difficult trying to figure out what a new law means to the system as a whole…with trying to put every case in perspective and trying to accomplish what the legislature’s new law is.”

The court would like judges to take into consideration the personal background of the defendant, but there is little guidance as to how much weight to give that.

Judge Ernest W. Sawtelle noted there is no requirement to prove the defendant is suffering from childhood trauma.

“I don’t know how much weight I am supposed to put into this without an official PTSD diagnosis or a specific psychological diagnosis from childhood…based on your argument you are not really sure either,” said Judge Sawtelle.

The judge noted that a high percentage of people who commit crimes have a bad upbringing, and that is just a fact of the justice system, he said.

“Almost every case that I have seen, most defendants are here in relation to their childhood. In the criminal justice system we have people that have come frequently and probably the supermajority of them have had childhoods that were not good. I don’t know how much weight to put on that,” he said.

In the end the judge sentenced Sullivan to a lower term of 32 months in prison.

In the end Judge Sawtelle addressed the defendant and the court: “Mr. Sullivan, since you are the first person I have sentenced under this new law…I am used to putting an emphasis on prior convictions because it gives me a long history of people and what they have done in the past, and what their future is going to look like.”

About The Author

Alexander Ramirez is a third-year Political Science major at the University of California, Davis. He hopes to hone his writing skills in preparation for the inevitable time of graduation.

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