Ruling upholds sentencing laws on harm to victims

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Eric Coulter By Christina O'Haver Eric Coulter By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX (AP) -- A new court ruling has upheld Arizona criminal sentencing laws that allow courts to consider the emotional and financial harm inflicted on victims and their families in handing down stiffer sentences.

Finding any such harm at all is sufficient to trigger tougher punishment, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in the case of a Chandler man who shot and killed his girlfriend.

Eric James Coulter, now 22, argued the sentencing provisions on harm to victims are unconstitutionally vague.

After failing to reach a verdict on second-degree murder, a Maricopa County Superior Court jury in 2013 convicted Coulter of manslaughter in Monique Cota's death. Coulter maintained the 2011 shooting was an accident that occurred as he inspected a rifle.

With no standards on how much harm was required to trigger an enhanced sentence, any crime involving a victim results in "some sort of negative feelings and some amount of financial loss," Coulter's appeal argued.

The Court of Appeals said it was permissible for the sentencing laws to be broad and to have a jury decide whether any particular harm was inconsequential.

In Coulter's case, the victim's mother testified that the family had to pay for funeral costs and transportation of the body. And jurors heard testimony that family members were distraught when they learned of the victim's death and later felt other effects that included nightmares and trouble sleeping, the court noted.

"Coulter caused emotional or financial harm to the victim's family," Judge Sam Thumma wrote in the ruling.

The jury also determined two other circumstances could warrant a stiffer sentence: The killing involved domestic violence, and it was a "dangerous" offense.

A judge gave Coulter a 21-year prison term, the maximum under Arizona's sentencing code for a first-time dangerous offense for such a charge. The minimum would have been seven years, and the normal sentence 10.5 years.

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