WASHINGTON - A U.S. Justice Department review has identified at least
175 federal prisoners who must be released or resentenced because they
have been locked up improperly.
The review, which followed a USA TODAY investigation,
found that some of those prisoners shouldn't have been imprisoned
because they hadn't committed a federal crime. Others received sentences
vastly longer than the law allows.
The problems stem from a
misunderstanding about which North Carolina state convictions were
serious enough to outlaw gun possession or require extended prison
sentences under federal law. The number of prisoners ultimately freed
or given shorter sentences is likely to be higher than 175 because the
examination by federal prosecutors was confined to the smallest of
North Carolina's three U.S. court districts. Justice Department
spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said "many more" cases could be upended when
all are reviewed.
USA TODAY's investigation
in June identified 60 people imprisoned even though a U.S. appeals
court said what they had done was not a federal crime. Still, Justice
Department lawyers did almost nothing to notify prisoners - many unaware
they were innocent - and asked federal judges to keep them locked up
anyway. The department reversed that position in August.
then, federal judges have ordered the government to free at least 32
prisoners, and have taken 12 more off post-prison supervision, court
records show. Some had served up to eight years before they were freed.
a huge number," said University of San Francisco law professor Richard
Leo. He said it is uncommon for any federal convictions to be
overturned, let alone for so many involving a single issue.
Justice Department's examination, completed in September but never made
public, is the first estimate of just how big that number could be.
Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C., whose office
conducted the review, said up to a third of gun cases his office
prosecuted in recent years could be thrown out. So many prisoners have
filed legal cases challenging their convictions that he has assigned
three prosecutors to them full time.
Prosecutors in the state's
two other districts did not conduct a similar case-by-case review, and
don't yet know how many of their own cases are in jeopardy. Instead,
officials said they are working with defense lawyers to identify cases
that should be overturned.
One such prisoner is Travis Dixon,
convicted in 2006 of illegally possessing a .44-caliber revolver. Court
records show none of his prior state convictions was serious enough to
make firearm possession a federal crime. In September, the Justice
Department asked a U.S. court to overturn his conviction and let Dixon go.
Dixon is still in federal prison in South Carolina while he waits for a
judge to act on the request. "I'm just not understanding why they're
taking this long," he said in an e-mail.
Another prisoner, Marion Howard, was freed only after he wrote a letter to the judge asking her to "please rule on my case before the holidays" so he could get home to see his family. The judge freed him on Dec. 5.
law bans people from having a gun if they have previously been
convicted of a crime that could have put them in prison for more than a
year. In North Carolina, however, state law set the maximum punishment
for a crime based in part on the criminal record of whoever committed
it, meaning some people who committed crimes such as possessing cocaine
faced sentences of more than a year, while those with shorter records
face only a few months.
For years, federal courts there said that
didn't matter. If someone with a long record could have gone to prison
for more than a year, then all who had committed that crime are felons
and cannot legally have a gun, the courts maintained. But last year, the
4th Circuit Court of Appeals said judges had been getting the law
wrong, ruling that only people who could have faced more than a year in
prison for their crimes qualify as felons.
The decision meant that
low-level state convictions should not have been enough to outlaw gun
possession or to justify extra-long prison sentences for people who went
on to be convicted of federal crimes.
It will take at least a
year to untangle all the cases like those, Rand said. His office's 20
criminal lawyers have been swamped by so many prisoners challenging
their sentences that they have been forced to delay some other criminal
prosecutions. "It's definitely been a huge burden," he said.