The Missouri Supreme Court has been asked to resolve “peculiarities” in the rules of criminal procedure that have left it uncertain if a man properly appealed his 135-year sentence for child molestation.
The Court of Appeals Western District on Dec. 13 transferred Jarrad Ryan Vandergrift’s case to the high court for a final ruling. The court made relatively short work of Vandergrift’s argument that he deserved a new trial and tentatively affirmed the conviction. But 40 of the opinion’s 55 pages were spent discussing whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case at all.
Vandergrift was convicted of three counts of child molestation and statutory sodomy in February 2021 in Callaway County Circuit Court. Judge Jeff Harris sentenced him that April to 15 years for each count of child molestation and 30 years for each count of sodomy, all of them running consecutively. The defendant appealed a week later, but at that point there was no written judgment other than the docket entries in Case.net.
The clerk’s office filled out a judgment form using a standardized form published by the Supreme Court, but it was never entered into the record. A similar form wasn’t officially put into the record until December 2021, when Vandergrift obtained a copy of the legal file for his appeal.
Judge Cynthia L. Martin, writing for the Western District, noted that court rules do require such a written judgment to be entered into the record, listing among other things the crimes of which the defendant was convicted. But, she argued, the form is merely a ministerial duty of the circuit court and doesn’t affect when the appeal can be filed.
Unlike civil cases, where a written judgment signed by the judge is required before an appeal can be filed, criminal cases become final when the judge sentences the defendant in open court. Martin said that distinction was made clear in a 1980 revision of the court’s rules that gives defendants 10 days after the “rendition of final judgment” to appeal their case.
Nevertheless, at least five opinions from all three appellate districts have held that right to appeal isn’t triggered until that form is filed. Martin said those cases appeared to rely on precedents set prior to 1980, when the rules did require a written form.
Martin said the confusion also appears to have crept into some Supreme Court rulings and the official form used in criminal appeals, which requires a copy of the “judgment/sentence/order” to be attached. The uncertainty creates particular problems for criminal defendants, as their appeals must be dismissed if filed too early.
Martin wrote that “a state of affairs that leaves courts and parties alike guessing about whether the orally rendered judgment or a later entered written memorialization of that judgment is the ‘final’ judgment from which an appeal can be taken serves no one.”
“The Rules should be clarified to specify that there is only one final judgment, whether it is the oral rendition, or the written memorialization,” she wrote.
Martin said the court’s appellate forms and other portions of the rules of criminal procedure might need to be revised to remove inconsistent language.
“Guidance (if any) to address these peculiarities will need to come from the Supreme Court,” she wrote. Judges Karen King Mitchell and Anthony Rex Gabbert concurred.
The case is State v. Vandergrift, WD84462.