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Prison Sentences that Shock the Conscious: The Gwynne Decision and Meaningful Appellate Review

By: April Campbell

When Gwynne got sentenced to sixty-five years in prison as a first-time offender for a bunch of theft offenses, the Fifth District took notice. State v. Gwynne, 2017-Ohio-7570. That is a life sentence, the Fifth District declared. Yes, the trial court made its consecutive sentence findings. And it is not like Gwynne’s actions did not deserve some prison. But come on, that long? 

With this in mind, the Fifth District modified Gwynne’s sentence. After all, meaningful appellate review of an overall sentence requires looking at the statutory seriousness and recidivism factors to come to a big number like that. Or at least, so sayeth the Fifth. 

The decision, frankly, breathed new life into appellate review of prison sentences, which have abated in meaning thanks to wildly stringent standards on appeal. But one should never count their chickens before they hatch. The State appealed, and the Supreme Court of Ohio reversed. State v. Gwynne, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4761 (Nov. 21, 2019).

Splintered in its decision, the Gwynne decision leaves us with more questions than it answers. The main takeaway from the lead opinion seems to be this: statutory seriousness and recidivism factors do not apply to consecutive prison sentences. They only apply to individual felony sentences. Reeking like defeat for Ohio’s Constitutional right to meaningful appellate review, the lead opinion leaves no guidance.

Artfully pointing out why are the concurring and dissenting justices; who sprinkle their opinions with fun turns of phrase, like calling the lead opinion at “loggerheads” with other decisions, or a “shortsighted rush to reach a copasetic result.” But more importantly, if you find hope when justices pick up on the gut-wrenching reality of what happens to defendants like Gwynn who are led into their sentencing hearings like lambs “to slaughter;” the dissenting opinion is truly worth the read.

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