Federal Courts Begin to Act on Wrongful Conviction Cases

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Last summer, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals changed the way the North Carolina justice system defines “felon.” After months of reviewing files for convictions that ran afoul of the new definition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation have a victory to their credit: Earlier this week, a federal judge reduced the sentences of three offenders and vacated the convictions of two men.

A representative of the North Carolina ACLU downplayed the significance of the rulings, characterizing them as “a positive first step.” Comprehensive justice, he said, will require much more work. The most encouraging part of these decisions for the defendants’ advocates was that prosecutors did not challenge the appeals.

North Carolina historically had some pretty tough sentencing laws. First, a felony is a crime punishable by death or more than one year in jail. Generally, crimes are designated as felonies in state statutes. Prior to the Fourth Circuit’s decision, North Carolina judges took a number of factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, into consideration when determining if a conviction required a felony-level sentence. The process resulted in sentences that fit neither the crimes nor the criminals.

Sentencing now is based on a so-called defendant-based evaluation of the defendant’s record. The analysis is fairly straightforward. The court must consider the offense class, that is, whether state law defines the crime as one of ten classes, Class A, B1, B2 continuing to Class I. For example, murder is a Class A felony, voluntary manslaughter a Class D felony and involuntary manslaughter a Class F felony. In addition to the offense class, the court must look at the defendant’s criminal history and must consider any aggravating factors.

As the courts were adjusting to the new scheme, prosecutors put up barriers to stall the appeals of offenders who had been sentenced wrongfully. Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened a few weeks ago, directing prosecutors to abandon their efforts to stall the appeals with procedural technicalities.

Without challenges from the prosecutors, the court was able to resolve the five offenders’ appeals this week. Again, though, there is more work to do before the state achieves comprehensive justice. But for those five men, that first positive step is a step toward freedom.

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