By Brad Heath, USA TODAY
Dozens of federal prisoners who are locked up even though prosecutors concede they are "legally innocent" could soon be released under new orders from the U.S. Justice Department.
The department confirmed Monday that it had instructed its lawyers to abandon legal objections that could have blocked - or at least delayed - the inmates from being set free. In a court filing , the department said it had "reconsidered its position," and that it would drop its legal arguments "in the interests of justice."
The shift follows a USA TODAY investigation in June that identified more than 60 people who were imprisoned for something an appeals court later determined was not a federal crime. The investigation found that the Justice Department had done almost nothing to identify those prisoners - many of whom did not know they were innocent - and had argued in court that the men were innocent but should remain imprisoned anyway.
Neither Justice Department lawyers nor defense attorneys would speculate Monday how many innocent prisoners eventually might be released. Some who were convicted of other crimes might receive shorter sentences; others might be tried for different offenses.
Chris Brook, the legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, called the move "an encouraging first step," but said "much more has to be done for these wrongly incarcerated individuals." He said the department still had not offered to identify prisoners who were sent to prison for something that turned out not to be a federal crime.
Federal 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: Only people who could have faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons. Its decision meant thousands of low-level offenders are not committing a federal crime by having a gun.
In many cases, prosecutors did not dispute that prisoners convicted of gun possession before that decision were innocent, but argued that they should remain locked up because of strict laws that limit when and how inmates can challenge their convictions. The department's new instructions directed prosecutors to drop those arguments.
Justice spokeswoman Adora Andy said the department had "decided to take a litigating position designed to accelerate relief for defendants in these cases who, by virtue of a subsequent court decision, are no longer guilty of a federal crime." She declined to elaborate on the details of the department's instruction. In at least one case on Monday, the government asked a court to set aside a defendant's gun possession conviction.
The shift was met with cautious praise Monday from defense lawyers scrambling to file challenges based on the court's ruling. Eric Placke, an assistant federal public defender in Greensboro, N.C., said it was "an appropriate response, a fair response, by allowing things to be handled on the merits rather than based just on procedural defenses."
One of those prisoners, Travis Bowman, said in an e-mail that he was hoping for "another chance at life" if his gun possession conviction is overturned. Bowman was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm; he was arrested after a high-speed police chase through rural Murphy, N.C. Under the appeals court's ruling, his prior convictions weren't serious enough to make having a gun a crime.
Bowman said he didn't know he was innocent until USA TODAY contacted him earlier this year. He later asked a federal judge in North Carolina to release him. "If that happens, I got so much stuff I wanna do with my life," he said.
Many of the practical effects of the Justice Department's new instructions remained unclear on Monday.
The legal issue underlying the gun possession cases could also have implications for many other federal inmates. That's because a person's felony record plays a key role in deciding how long a prison sentence he will receive when he's convicted of a federal crime. Hundreds of inmates have already gone to court arguing their prison sentences are too long because at least one of their prior convictions no longer qualifies as a felony under the appeals court's decision.
The ACLU, which last week asked Justice officials to do more to help the inmates, estimated last week that as many as 3,000 people could be eligible to either be released or have their sentences reduced. because of the 4th Circuit's decision. The department did not say on Monday whether it would also drop its legal objections in those cases.