On Tuesday, January 14, 2012, the Montana Supreme Court issued a ruling in State v. Benn in which it revisited, and ultimately upheld, its precedent that a defendant’s death during the course of an appeal renders that appeal moot.
Wesley William Benn was convicted of sexual intercourse without consent and sexual assault. Benn’s sentence was as follows:
The District Court sentenced Benn to 100 years in the Montana State Prison, with 50 years suspended, for sexual intercourse without consent, and to 50 years in prison, with all 50 years suspended, for sexual assault to run consecutively with the sentence for sexual intercourse without consent. The court imposed a 25-year parole eligibility restriction, designated Benn a Level II sexual offender, and ordered Benn to pay the costs associated with the victim’s therapy.
Unlike most other states, Montana lacks an intermediate court of appeals. Therefore, all appeals are heard by the Montana Supreme Court. Benn’s appeal reached the Montana Supreme Court on three issues:
1) whether the District Court erred in instructing the jury on the sexual assault charge; 2) whether Benn’s trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to move for a continuance of a hearing when a witness became ill; and 3) whether Benn’s lengthy sentence “shocked the conscience” and violated his constitutional rights in light of his failing health.
Benn died a month after filing this appeal.
In crafting this decision, the Montana Supreme Court revisited its prior holding in State v. Holland in which it held that “the death of an accused pending the appeal of a judgment of conviction abates the appeal.” The judgment was vacated and the indictment dismissed, but only because the defendant was dead.
In the present case, the State argued that the court’s ruling in Holland was flawed because it does not recognize victim’s rights. After the Holland decision was rendered, Article II, Section 28 of the Montana Constitution was amended to add restitution for victims as a principle of the State’s criminal justice policy. This was implemented through legislation providing for “restitution, reparation, and restoration to the victim of the offense.” The State sought to have the appeal dismissed as moot under the policy of restitution for victims. The crucial difference between the outcome in Holland and the current outcome that the State sought in Benn is that under Holland, the deceased defendant is no longer deemed to have committed a crime; the conviction is void. The State sought to have the criminal conviction remain in place and render the appeal void.
Benn’s counsel, on the other hand, argued that Benn’s mother should be permitted to carry on his appeal “to continue to protect his reputation and clear his name, and because Benn’s criminal conviction may affect potential civil litigation.” This standard would be similar to the law that permits “substitution of a party upon death in a civil case.”
The Montana Supreme Court formally overruled Holland by ruling in favor of the State, holding that voiding the judgment is “an inappropriate resolution of a case when the defendant has died.” Upon conviction, “the judgment is presumed to be valid” and “the burden to demonstrate error is on the defendant.”
The court also rejected the argument of Benn’s counsel that Benn’s mother should be permitted to carry on the appeal. Benn’s counsel demonstrated that substitution of parties is permitted in civil cases, but there is nothing providing for this in criminal cases. Regardless, the court also found that Benn’s issues for appeal were mooted by his death. The third issue, Benn’s lengthy sentence, is clearly mooted by his demise. The court held that the first two issues are also moot because challenging Benn’s sexual assault conviction and the effectiveness of his counsel would require further trial or post-conviction proceedings, which “are now impossible to undertake, given Benn’s death.”
The court did not conclude that a criminal appeal is always moot when the criminal defendant dies. Specifically, the opinion stated that “[t]he determination that a criminal case is not moot … would be premised upon the identification of concrete interests which survive the defendant.” The court did not attempt to identify what these issues might be; it was content to conclude that these issues did not exist in Benn’s case.
A copy of the full opinion can be found here with a search for State v. Benn, 2012 MT 33.