"The grievous error ... cries out for resolution"

You might have heard about the case of Marquis Dixon, the Albany teen convicted of stealing a pair of sneakers from another teen in downtown Albany in March of 2014. His case has gotten has a lot of attention -- from advocates such as Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration, and a series of columns written by Chris Churchill at Times Union -- because Dixon was sentenced to nine years in prison for the crime.

Advocates for Dixon have argued that sentence is unfairly harsh, especially given the limited evidence that he might have displayed or implied he had a gun during the crime (Dixon admitted to stealing the sneakers but said he never had a gun).

On Thursday a state appellate court ruled on Dixon's appeal. And the short story is that it decided Dixon should get youthful offender status and that his sentence be reduced to 1-3 years in prison.

You can read the decision online, which walks through the various elements in the case. For example: The court was unpersuaded that the limited evidence about the gun -- basically, the word of the victim that he saw something black and blocky tucked into Dixon's waistband -- should knock out that part of the case.

But the part about considering Dixon for youthful offender status is remarkable. (Presiding justice Karen Peters raised the issue during the oral arguments in the appeal.) The court basically concludes that everyone involved in the case screwed up on the question of whether Dixon should be eligible for the status.

A clip:

Here, all counsel before Supreme Court, as well as the Probation Department, misunderstood the relevant sentencing provisions. The presentence investigation report inaccurately stated that, although defendant would have been eligible for youthful offender treatment based upon his age, he was ineligible for such treatment because he had committed an armed felony. At sentencing, trial counsel for defendant acknowledged - but seemingly did not dispute - the presentence report's representation of defendant's youthful offender status. Nor is there any indication in the record that the People were aware that youthful offender treatment was an available option. For its part, Supreme Court sua sponte addressed defendant's potential eligibility to be treated as a youthful offender, stating on the record, "To the extent that anyone perceived youthful offender to be considered it is denied." The court's summary denial, however, was insufficient to satisfy the statutory mandate of CPL 720.10.

[The decision then goes into some detail about how Dixon's potential eligibility for the status given mitigating circumstances should have been determined on the record by the court.]

The grievous error of the Probation Department, the People and defense counsel, while not specifically raised on appeal, cries out for resolution. Since we are vested with the broad, plenary power to modify a sentence in the interest of justice, we can address this injustice and, if warranted, exercise our power to adjudicate defendant a youthful offender ... Thus, we consider first whether defendant is an "eligible youth" for purposes of youthful offender treatment by assessing whether "mitigating circumstances [exist] that bear directly upon the manner in which the crime was committed" (CPL 720.10 [3]). We conclude that such mitigating circumstances are present here.

The court then goes on to explain the decision, citing the fact that no one was injured during the crime and Dixon never made any gestures with the object said to be a gun.

Mistakes happen, even when people are well intentioned and trying to do a good job. That's one of the reasons there are appeals courts.

But it does make you wonder about how many of these sorts of mistakes happen to teens or people who otherwise aren't in a position to know all the rules -- or able to afford an attorney to sort them out -- in cases that don't get attention. And how often do those people end up having the mistake addressed?

Comments

Chris Churchill deserves a lot of credit for his "J'accuse!" columns where he repeatedly raised the issue of the disproportionate punishment for the crime. I'm sure other people and groups also came to this young man's defense, but Churchill has a wide audience as a T.U. columnist and he did not let up on this story. He should get a prestigious journalism award for this.

That is some strong language in a court document.

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