ACLU pushing feds to right wrongful convictions, sentences
Posted August 8, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — As many as 3,000 federal prisoners in North Carolina could be serving unfair sentences, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the U.S. Department of Justice isn't doing enough to solve the problem.
Anyone convicted of a prior crime punishable by more than a year in prison cannot legally own a gun. For about two decades, federal prosecutors in North Carolina applied that law using the worst-case scenario, meaning a defendant's actual sentence didn't matter.
Prosecutors used the theory that a defendant was guilty of a federal weapons violation if someone with a longer rap sheet could have gotten a year for a previous crime. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last August that wasn't a fair application of the law.
The ACLU says some people were unjustly convicted, while others were given as much as a decade more in prison than they should have received.
Chris Brook, state legal director for the group, said federal prosecutors haven't identified or notified most of the people wrongly convicted or sentenced. In some cases, he said, they have used procedural moves to keep innocent people in jail.
"First, identify who's potentially entitled to this relief. Second, where there is that relief, don't stand in the way of it coming down, and third, let's do this in a timely fashion," he said.
The anniversary of the appeals court ruling is next Friday, and Brook said prisoners could have a harder time appeals after that deadline.
Allison Price, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said the agency is reviewing the ACLU's request.
"We are in the process of finalizing our position, within the confines of the law and in the interests of justice, as to how best to provide relief for defendants who, by virtue of a subsequent court decision, are no longer guilty of a federal crime," Price said in a statement.