Caleigh Harris, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review
Remorse plays an elusive role in the justice system. The manner in which judges sentence criminal defendants and the discretion judges have exacerbates the ambiguity of remorse in sentencing. In State of Ohio v. Manson M. Bryant, the defendant was sentenced to an additional six years following an explicit outburst at his sentencing hearing, where the trial court cited a lack of remorse as the reasoning. The Supreme Court of Ohio is currently deciding the question of whether imposing additional time to a criminal sentence is contrary to law when the defendant disrespected the trial court in response to a judicial ruling.
This article will give a brief overview of State v. Bryant and the reasoning the 11th District Court of Appeals gave in affirming the trial court’s sentence. Furthermore, Part II will summarize the arguments of both the appellant and the appellee. Part III will discuss the ambiguous nature of remorse in judicial sentencing and argue that the Supreme Court of Ohio should reverse the trial court’s sentence and remand to the original sentence of 22 years.
In the early hours of July 6, 2018, Manson M. Bryant broke into a victim’s trailer with his accomplice, Jeffrey Bynes. At trial, the jury found Bryant guilty of aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and abduction. The trial record shows that Bynes was the principal of the crime, while Bryant acted as the aider and abettor; as such, Bryant’s defense argued that a 10-year sentence was appropriate, compared to the 12 years his co-defendant received.
Before sentencing, Bryant expressed remorse before the court, explaining that his drug addiction triggered many of his bad decisions, and he plead the court for the opportunity to make something of his life. The trial court imposed an aggregate sentence of 22 years for Bryant’s convictions. Bryant had two co-defendants who received much lighter sentences than his, given relative involvement in the crime. Upon receiving his sentence, Bryant started shouting profanities at the trial judge. He expressed phrases such as: “F*** your courtroom, you racist a** b****,” “You never gave me a chance,” and “F*** you.” At this point, the trial court replied, “When I said that you had a certain amount of remorse, I was mistaken. . . The court determines that maximum imprisonment is needed,” adding six years to the original term.
The 11th District Court of Appeals upheld the sentence, citing that appellate courts may only vacate/modify a sentence that is not clearly contrary to law when the appellate court finds that the record does not support the sentence by clear and convincing evidence. The 11th District wrote that although the verbal outlash does not necessarily mean Bryant lacked remorse, the trial court could still construe it as such. Here, the appellate court is granting broad discretion to the trial court, and held that the increase in sentence was not contrary to law.
Bryant’s appeal was accepted by the Supreme Court of Ohio, which heard oral arguments for the case on April 14, 2021. Bryant argued that his explicit outburst demonstrated a disrespect to the court, and not a lack of remorse. According to R.C. 2929.12, Ohio sentencing laws do not permit trial courts to consider a defendant’s attitude toward the court when evaluating their sentence. In fact, disrespect toward a court can be easily punished by Ohio’s contempt-of-court statutes. Bryant asserted that the proximity of his outburst to the sentencing announcement, as well as the content of his outburst, demonstrate a contempt of court authority, and not a lack of remorse or presence of rage directed toward the victim.
The State, however, argued that the trial court possesses the authority to change sentences that are not yet final, and deference must be given to the trial court when it believed the outburst demonstrated a lack of remorse. The State posited that nothing in the record demonstrated the trial court punished Bryant for his outburst; rather, the court reevaluated the mitigating factors of sentencing upon Bryant’s outburst and ultimately determined that the full sentence was warranted and not contrary to law.
The Supreme Court of Ohio should find that it was unlawful for the trial judge to increase Bryant’s sentence by six years due to his in-court outburst. This is not condoning the behavior of Bryant nor his disrespect toward the court, but rather examining how the judicial system can abuse its discretion in punishing such outbursts. There are certainly legal arguments to be made on both sides about whether the trial judge acted contrary to law when they added six years to Bryant’s imprisonment. However, there are also equitable principles and important social factors to consider when the concept of remorse played a significant role in this case.
As the defense has argued, there is no factor in Ohio’s statutory scheme that grants a trial court the power to enhance or mitigate a sentence based on one’s attitude toward the trial court. Bryant’s behavior falls squarely within the definition of contempt of court: “Conduct which brings the administration of justice into disrespect, or which tends to embarrass, impede, or obstruct a court in the performance of its functions.” Punishment for contempt of court can be a fine not to exceed $250, 30 days in jail, or both.
A full examination of the record demonstrates that this is exactly what Bryant was doing when he cursed out the judge. The disparities in sentencing between Bryant and his co-defendants showed Bryant’s expectation prior to receiving his sentence. Thus, the angry outburst most likely was in reaction to a perceived injustice by Bryant—a Black man—in a system where he is probably too familiar with the disparities between criminal defendants. The appellate court even conceded that the defendant’s behavior could be attributed to a negative emotional reaction and not his level of regret. Bryant shouting that the court “never gave him a chance” is highly indicative of his disappointment and frustration within the justice system.
Notwithstanding the actual verbal outburst from Bryant, the question of remorse in judicial rulings is far from a uniform concept. There is no standard for determining one’s level of remorse, and it is subject to a wide variety of biases from judges. Furthermore, these biases are prone to ills of racial discrimination and other prejudices within society.
Perceptions of remorse are subject to being painted in different lights between races, gender, social class, and other factors. Additionally, no studies have been done on what sitting judges think about remorse and its role in the judicial system. Some scholars argue that the role of remorse in sentencing should not be taken into account as much as it currently is. All of this is to say that Bryant’s outburst is not black and white, nor can his mental state be so easily determined when he received his sentence.
With remorse being an elusive legal concept that is susceptible to the biases that the rest of the criminal justice system faces, the outcome of this case can have broad implications for criminal defendants. Human beings are prone to emotional outbursts upon receiving bad news––whether that means the previous act of contrition was genuine or fake is not so clear-cut. Providing trial judges with unfettered discretion to make these decisions—especially when contempt of court is readily available as a punishment—further exacerbates the discrepancies seen in all facets of the criminal justice system.
The Supreme Court of Ohio has a tough legal decision to make; both sides provide valid arguments, but the defense for Bryant demonstrates a viable alternative to his outburst, rather than continuing to further the sentencing discrepancy between him and his co-defendants. The Court must grapple with the concept of remorse and what it actually means in this scenario. Ruling in favor of the State provides trial courts with too much authority to determine what a criminal defendant actually believes. The Court should find that the additional six years added by the trial court was unlawful and inequitable and instead hold Bryant in contempt of court for his actions.
 See generally Rocksheng Zhong, Judging Remorse, 39 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 133 (2015).
 11th Dist. Lake No. 2019-L-024, 2020-Ohio-438.
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 3.
 Merit Brief of Appellant at 5-6, State of Ohio v. Manson M. Bryant, 11th Dist. Lake No. 2019-L-024, 2020-Ohio-438.
 Id. at 6.
 Id. at 3.
 Id. at 13-14. (“Consider the sentences his co-defendants received, in light of their relative involvement. Mr. Bynes’s sentence was ten years less than Mr. Bryant’s initial sentence, even though Mr. Bynes helped Ms. Medina case the trailer before the robbery, wielded the gun, and assaulted [the victim]. Ms. Medina. . . was sentenced to only 45 days in jail and received community control.”).
 State v. Bryant, 2020-Ohio-438 at 4.
 Id. at 4. (Citing from State v. Miller, 11th Dist. Lake No. 2018-L-133, 2019-Ohio-2290, ¶10).
 Id. at 6.
 Id. at 4.
 Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §2929.12.
 Merit of Appellant at 1; R.C. 2705.01; R.C. 2705.05.
 Id. at 13.
 Merit Brief of Appellee at 5, State of Ohio v. Manson M. Bryant, 11th Dist. Lake No. 2019-L-024, 2020-Ohio-438. See also State v. Venes, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 98682, 2013-Ohio-1891 at 20. (“Appellate courts are prohibited form substituting their judgment for that of the trial judge” under R.C. 2953.08(G)(2).).
 Id. at 23.
 Merit Brief of Appellant at 9. Factors to consider for felony sentencing are “the seriousness of the offense, the offender’s likelihood of recidivism, and the offender’s military-service record.” (R.C. 2929.12(B)-(F)).
 Id. at 11 (Citing Windham Bank v. Tomaszcyk 271 N.E.2d 815 (1971)).
 Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §2705.05.
 Id. at 14.
 State v. Bryant, 2020-Ohio-438 at 6.
 Id. at 4.
 See generally M. Eve Hanan, Remorse Bias, 83 Mo. L. Rev. 302 (2018).
 Id. at 303.
 Zhong, supra note 1, at 134-35.