Thursday, July 07, 2022

References To Defendant's Amish Community In Sentencing Was Not Improper

In State of Wisconsin v. Whitaker, (WI Sup. Ct., July 5, 2022), the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a defendant's claim that his religious liberty and associational rights were violated when the judge sentencing him made reference to his Amish community. According to the court:

As a teenager, Westley Whitaker preyed on his three younger sisters, repeatedly sexually assaulting them while they all were living in an Amish community in Vernon County. Whitaker's parents and elders in the community became aware of the assaults, but failed to protect the victims by either stopping Whitaker from continuing his sexual abuse or alerting secular authorities. A decade later, Whitaker confessed, was charged with six counts of sexual assault, and pled no contest to one of the charges. The circuit court sentenced Whitaker to two years of initial confinement and two years of extended supervision.....

In sentencing Whitaker, the judge said in part:

I happen to live in the midst of an Amish community. They're my neighbors. And sexual assault of sisters is not something that is accepted. I understand it often happens and that it is dealt with in the community. And that's not sufficient. That's not sufficient when it is not a one-time thing and not when the women, the daughters, the wives in the Amish community are not empowered to come forward.... I'm hoping that this sentence deters, as I said, the community.

In upholding the sentence, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said in part: 

[W]e conclude that the circuit court's challenged statements bore a reasonable nexus to the relevant and proper sentencing factors of general deterrence and protection of the public. Nothing in the transcript suggests the circuit court increased Whitaker's sentence solely because of his religious beliefs or his association with the Amish community.... Therefore, we will not disturb the circuit court's wide sentencing discretion.