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March 1, 2013

Procedural rules now blocking efforts to undo convictions of federal defendants who are legally innocent

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Federal judge refuses to release innocent prisoners," a number of procedural issues are getting in the way of undoing federal convictions of defendants that the US Justice Department now recognizes are legally innocent.  Here are the details:

Even the federal prosecutors who put Gordon Lee Miller in prison couldn't get him out.  U.S. Justice Department lawyers took the unusual step in December of asking a federal judge to throw out Miller's conviction and free him because, they said, he had not actually broken the law.

But the judge's answer was still more unusual: No. 

The judge's ruling against Miller is among the latest in a handful of court decisions blocking — at least temporarily — efforts by defense lawyers and prosecutors to overturn convictions in hundreds of cases in which the Justice Department agrees that people were sent to prison improperly because of a misunderstanding of federal law. The decisions raise for the first time the prospect that scores of prisoners still waiting for courts to decide their cases might remain locked up.

"It's very frustrating," said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, which has been tracking the cases.  "These are cases where everybody is on the same page. The government and the defense agree.  The only one standing in the way is the judge."  Miller finished his prison sentence while the case was being decided, but still must serve three years on supervised release.

The legal dispute stems from a misunderstanding about which North Carolina state convictions were serious enough to make having a gun a federal crime.  A USA TODAY investigation last year identified 60 people who had been sent to prison on gun charges even though an appeals court later determined that it was not illegal for them to have a gun.  The Justice Department had initially asked courts to keep the prisoners locked up anyway, but dropped that position last year "in the interests of justice," and is now asking courts to let them out.

In response, judges have so far freed 34 people and taken at least 16 others off supervised release, court records show.  A Justice Department review last year identified 175 others in the smallest of the state's three judicial districts who are entitled to be released or have their prison sentences reduced.

But this month, U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad in Charlotte turned down petitions by Miller and another man seeking to have their convictions overturned, even though prosecutors said in court filings that they were "convicted for conduct that we now understand is not criminal." Another judge, Martin Reidinger, has expressed skepticism that he can free five other men, and has asked prosecutors and defense lawyers to prepare additional filings before he makes his decision.

A Justice Department spokeswoman, Allison Price, declined to comment on the specifics of those cases, saying only that "the court is empowered with great discretion and we respect the court's decision."  The department has until next week to tell Reidinger whether it still believes the men can be freed.

Miller was sent to federal prison under a law that bars people from owning guns if they have already been convicted of a crime that could have put them in prison for more than a year.  But Miller's prior North Carolina convictions could have put him in jail for no more than eight months. Conrad — the former chief federal prosecutor in Charlotte — said in a Feb. 15 order that he could not upend Miller's conviction.  Miller, he wrote, was "lawfully sentenced under then-existing law," and an appeals court's 2011 decision that changed that understanding of the law did not apply to cases that were already concluded.

Miller's lawyers, who declined to comment, have appealed Conrad's order.  If an appeals court upholds the decision, it could effectively block other judges from overturning convictions in similar cases that are still pending in federal courts throughout North Carolina.

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March 1, 2013 at 08:33 AM | Permalink


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If only there were some official in the same branch of the federal government as the Department of Justice with the ability to fix problems like this by issuing pardons and/or commutations without needing the approval of the sentencing judge . . . Oh well, no point wasting time on utopian fantasies.

Posted by: JWB | Mar 1, 2013 8:47:38 AM

It will take one or two enterprising lawyers to sue the state for significant damages for his clients to get this quagmire sorted.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Mar 1, 2013 12:33:34 PM

The story does not fairly reflect Judge Conrad's decision. He says he is bound by Fourth Circuit precedent while expressing doubt it is correct and certifies the question for appeal.

Eric, you think it would be "enterprising" to sue the State of North Carolina for a sentence imposed by a federal court in a federal case?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Mar 1, 2013 12:48:41 PM

sorry kent but actual innocence trumps EVERYTHING!

from where I set everyone locked up under this illegal judgement has the legal right to leave any way they can no matter who they have to hurt or even kill to do it.

Of course the govt could avoid it all. real simple. Make up a set of pardons based on innocence. Walk into the oval office.

Ok while your busy signing illegal executive orders and laws. Sign these!

Then just tell the judge to shut the fuckup and stay out of the way or get hurt!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 2, 2013 12:59:08 AM

Maybe, as JWB suggests, we do need new bureaucrats charged with seeing justice is done in cases such as this. Because lord knows existing federal bureaucrats (judges) are mostly worthless on that score.

The problem isn't so much that madness of this sort continues almost unabated. It's that the inappropriately named justice system needs to find something else to call itself...something more fitting and accurate: the punishment system, maybe?

Posted by: John K | Mar 2, 2013 11:35:51 AM

Rodsmith, did you make any effort at all to understand my comment?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Mar 2, 2013 12:01:24 PM

Sure I did!

Basically the judge is a chicken shit unwilling to tell the fourth circuit to kiss off. Innocence trumps everything!

He knows every well the higher courts have said they are in jail on under a law that was illegal when the sentence was issued. Everything else is bullshit!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 2, 2013 3:24:32 PM

Kent Scheiddeger is a typical big-government Republican. He believes States like North Carolina should be immune from any consequences for their dissemination of official information that results in imprisonment of individuals for harmless, regulatory crimes created by the big government Scheiddeger and his ilk love and perpetuate.

Posted by: Jason Arthur | Mar 4, 2013 8:27:49 AM

Has anyone pondered how 60 + 175 people who are unquestionably innocent could have been convicted and sentenced?

Well, it is because the 'system' rewards pleas and 'cooperation' and punishes (both in charging and at sentencing) anything else. (I'll bet most of those 60 + 175 people pled/pleaded guilty. (Pled or pleaded, which is it?))

The system also discourages appointed defense attorneys from lawyering. (I'll also bet most of those 60 + 175 people had court appointed attorneys.)

Posted by: Maverick | Mar 4, 2013 11:43:47 AM

I agree Kent. Innocense is king. Always has been and always will do.

Posted by: Charlie Naegle | Jun 18, 2013 7:10:08 PM

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