When a trial court makes an error during criminal sentencing, the mistake cannot be challenged through postconviction proceedings, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently.

The Supreme Court further clarified its stance on “void and voidable sentences” by deciding that in 2017 Cuyahoga County prosecutors could not seek to correct the 1999 sentence of Roger T. Henderson. Henderson was supposed to receive a 15-years-to-life sentence for murder, but was sentenced just to 15 years, along with three years for a firearm charge.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French stated that after three decades of confusion caused by prior Court decisions regarding challenges to sentencing errors, the Court is returning to its historical position that sentences that contain an error are voidable, not void. 

“The state had a full and fair opportunity to object to or challenge the trial court’s sentence. It did not,” she wrote.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court to vacate its entry resentencing Henderson.

Justice French stated this decision takes the Court to the “next and final step toward the traditional understanding” of sentencing errors after the Court ruled in May that a trial court’s failure to properly impose postrelease control during criminal sentencing makes the sentence voidable, and the error must be raised on direct appeal.
 
Under this decision, a trial court’s failure to follow a statutory mandate during criminal sentencing renders the sentence voidable.

The Court reversed the decision of the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which had ruled a state law allowed for the automatic transformation of Henderson’s invalid sentence for a definite 15-year period to the indefinite sentence, which should have been imposed.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice French’s opinion. Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in judgment only without a written opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only with separate written opinions expressing their concerns with the majority opinion.

Along with joining in the majority opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote a concurring opinion to state that although the Court did not expressly say the doctrine of res judicata applies to the state when it fails to file a direct appeal to correct a sentencing error, it may be implied from the majority  opinion. He noted nothing in the opinion should “cause anyone one to doubt” that res judicata applies both to the state and to defendants.

Henderson was arrested Sept. 22, 1999, for his involvement in the death of Lester Bryant. In November 1999, he pleaded guilty to one count of murder with a three-year firearm specification. At the time of his sentencing, the murder conviction carried an indefinite sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

During his sentencing, the trial court told Henderson the charge carried a mandatory 15-years-to-life sentence to follow the required three-year prison sentence for the firearm conviction. When imposing the sentence, the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge stated: “Boy, Mr. Henderson, you’re really pathetic. Fifteen years on the underlying offense, three-year firearm specification, to be served prior to and consecutive with the 15 years. Mr. Henderson, shame on you.”

The trial court did not mention the “life tail,” which made 15 years the minimum amount of time Henderson could serve and provided for the option of keeping him in prison for life. The trial court’s sentencing entry also did not note the life tail. Neither Henderson nor the prosecutors filed a direct appeal of the sentence.

In 2009, Henderson began to file postconviction motions to invalidate his sentence, which the trial court either rejected or refused to consider.

In 2011, the state Bureau of Sentencing Computation sent a letter to the trial court and prosecutor informing them that Henderson had been mistakenly sentenced to a definite 15-year term. In June 2011, the prosecution filed a motion to correct the sentence to add the life tail. The trial court did not act on the letter or the state’s motion.

In August 2017, Henderson requested that the trial court recalculate jail-time credit he sought to receive for the time between his arrest and his plea to the charges in 1999. He sought to be released on Sept. 16, 2017, rather than the Sept. 19 date calculated by the state.

On Sept. 15, just days before Henderson’s scheduled release, the prosecutor requested that Henderson be resentenced. The state argued that his original sentence was void because the sentence was not the one imposed by state law. The state then argued that, under R.C. 5145.01, Henderson’s erroneous definite sentence automatically transformed into the indefinite life sentence that should have been imposed. The trial court agreed and ordered Henderson to be resentenced.

Henderson appealed the decision to resentence him to the Eighth District, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. Henderson appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Justice French explained that for decades the Court ruled that if a trial court had jurisdiction over the subject matter and the person, any judgment made by the trial court that is not permitted by law is voidable, which allows the trial court to correct the error.

The Court also ruled that the doctrine of res judicata applied to a voidable judgment, and if an erroneous judgment was not directly appealed, it could not be challenged in future proceedings. The purpose of the rule is that it “secures parties’ expectations in the finality of a judgment,” she wrote.

The majority opinion explained the Court began to “shift” its position on sentencing challenges in its 1984 State v. Beasley decision. In that case, the Court did allow a postconviction challenge to a wrongly imposed sentence. Similar challenges followed, but the opinion noted the Court rejected several, abiding by its traditional rule.

However, in 2004, the Court began to consider a series of cases challenging errors made by trial courts when imposing postrelease control. The Court ruled that the portions of criminal sentences that did not follow the law were “void” and could be challenged at any time. Justice French noted the Court expressed its intent was to allow this exception to the traditional rule for a “narrow vein of cases” in which the trial court failed to properly impose postrelease control.

However, the Court did not limit its application of the void doctrine to cases involving postrelease control.  It began to declare as void sentences that contained other errors. Lower courts began to lament about the confusion the Court created by allowing the postconviction challenges to sentencing errors, the Court noted.

“Rather than provide a clear, simple, workable standard, we have created uncertainty, inconsistency, frustration, and confusion,” the opinion stated. “Our decision today will remove that confusion. It will restore predictability and finality to trial-court judgments and criminal sentences.”

The Court stated a judgment or sentence is void only if it is rendered by a court that lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the case or personal jurisdiction over the defendant. Those sentences can be challenged at any time before defendants complete their sentences, the opinion concluded.

Based on the Court’s return to its traditional position, the opinion stated the prosecution clearly had no right to seek to alter Henderson’s sentence. Henderson was charged with the felony crime of murder, and Ohio’s common pleas courts have subject-matter jurisdiction over felonies. The court has personal jurisdiction over Henderson because he was arrested and arraigned in Cuyahoga County and pleaded guilty to the charges there.

Under these circumstances, his unlawful 15-year sentence was voidable, and it could not be challenged by the prosecution through a postconviction motion.

“In fact, it did not seek to correct the error for almost 12 years, and it then waited 6 more years before filing the motion at issue in this appeal,” the opinion noted.

Chief Justice O’Connor stated in a concurring opinion that the majority opinion simply takes “our case law back to the starting line” after decades of precedent  to the contrary. She explained the concerns that the void-sentence jurisprudence addressed —particularly, sentencing errors that may not be apparent until after the time for direct appeal has passed — still exist. She stated the majority opinion’s return to a “traditional view” may leave certain sentencing errors without a remedy, and the consequences will be felt more acutely by defendants who rely on counsel to interpret complex sentencing statutes and for whom errors result in an unwarranted amount of time in prison, the chief justice stated.

“Will courts elevate predictability and finality over fairness and substantial justice?” she wrote.

Justice Kennedy noted in her concurrence that the majority did not consider the May 2020 State v. Harper decision to be binding precedent on the matter of void sentences. She faulted the majority opinion for suggesting that Harper only applied to cases involving the failure to properly impose postrelease control.

By making the distinction that Harper applied to one line of challenges and noting this decision applies to a case in which the trial court failed to impose an indefinite term instead of a definite term, she wrote this leaves the door open to “piecemeal” challenges of other sentences not involving postrelease control or “life tails.”

The concurrence stated the majority should adopt Harper as a decision that applies to all sentencing challenges, to avoid future litigation of the issue.