Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, September 7, 2012


Page 1


Judge Not Required to Consider Jurors’ Plea for Sentencing Leniency, C.A. Rules in Shooting Case


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Sixth Amendment’s jury trial guarantee does not require a sentencing judge to honor a post-verdict request by jurors for leniency, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.

Div. Six, in an unpublished opinion by Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert, said San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John Trace was well within his discretion when he sentenced Steven Jon Smith to 12.5 years in prison for the attempted manslaughter of Gina Stanko. The victim had been in an intimate relationship with Smith and was pregnant, apparently with his child, when he came to her residence and shot her three times.

Stanko, who was 33 at the time, said she and Smith began a relationship after meeting at a Paso Robles bar and communicating over the Internet. Smith, she said, acknowledged living with another woman, Renee Coppini, but said he was no longer his girlfriend but merely a roommate.

Smith and Coppini were married at the time of trial. The prosecution and defense stipulated that it was 99.9 percent probable that Smith was the father of Stanko’s sixth child.

Smith told police he “snapped” because Stanko and a woman who claimed to be Stanko’s friend were harassing him and Coppini. He said he went to her home to get her to stop, and took a gun for protection, but that she grabbed the gun and it accidentally fired, then fired again when he backed away from her.

The defense called the fathers of Stanko’s older children to testify that she was physically abusive and had harassed them and their families. A defense expert testified that Smith suffered from intimate partner battery, which kept him in the relationship with Stanko.

Prosecutors claimed Smith was upset because he didn’t want to be a father and Stanko refused to have an abortion. Jurors convicted Smith of attempted voluntary manslaughter, while acquitting him of the attempted murders of Stanko and her teenage daughter—an alleged target of the third shot, although Smith denied seeing her—and of burglary.

The trial judge acknowledged at sentencing that he had received numerous letters from citizens, some arguing for leniency and some against it. In imposing a sentence six years below the maximum, he said he had weighed the pleas for leniency—three of which came from jurors—against the fact that the victim, who was 8.5 months pregnant at the time, was particularly vulnerable.

He sentenced Smith to the upper term of 5.5 years for attempted manslaughter, plus seven years in enhancements for great bodily injury and personal use of a firearm.

The defense argued on appeal that the line of cases beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) 530 U.S. 466—holding that a statutorily aggravated sentence may only be imposed on the basis of facts found by a jury or admitted by the defendant, or on prior convictions—barred the judge from imposing the upper-term sentence.

Gilbert noted that under the current version of the Determinate Sentencing Law, a judge may impose the lower, middle, or upper term as the judge deems appropriate. A defendant, he said, bears a “considerable burden” of showing that the sentence is an abuse of discretion.

Smith failed to meet that burden, Gilbert said, explaining:

“Smith took a loaded, concealed firearm to the home of a woman who was pregnant with his child. He fired the weapon three times at her face, the last in the presence of her teenage daughter. Rather than seek a protective order, Smith chose a violent and dangerous method to remedy a harassment problem. Although Smith’s youth, lack of a criminal record, and positive community involvement are factors in his favor, they do not outweigh the substantial seriousness of the offense.”

The case is People v. Smith, B232525.


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