Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied for Dozens of North Carolina Inmates

The average cell in a U.S. federal prison is six feet by eight feet. Imagine your whole world ripped out from under you, replaced by 48 square feet of concrete and cold steel. And the worst part? You don't belong there.

It may sound like a nightmare, but it is stark reality for at least 60 inmates wrongfully convicted of federal gun crimes in North Carolina. Although even the U.S. Justice Department determined that these men committed no federal crime, scores of them remain behind bars as government lawyers throw up roadblocks to their release.


Each one of the 60 inmates was sent to prison for violating a federal law that makes it a crime for a convicted felon to possess a firearm. However, their prison terms were imposed as the result of a legal error; none of them had a serious enough criminal record to qualify as a felon under federal law.

The legal issues surrounding these men's situations are unique to North Carolina due to the state's "structured sentencing" policy. In North Carolina, the maximum prison term for a given crime is based on the record of the person committing it. Therefore, a relatively minor crime - for instance, writing a bad check - could carry a possible sentence of more than a year if an offender's record held enough black marks.

Under federal law, a felon is someone who has been convicted of a crime serious enough that he or she could have been sentenced to more than a year in prison. For years, federal courts in North Carolina held that if someone with a lengthy record could have been imprisoned longer than a year for a minor crime, then anyone convicted of that crime is a felon barred from owning a gun. For example, because some offenders could be incarcerated for more than a year for writing a bad check, everyone caught writing a bad check was considered a felon, even someone whose actual sentence could not have exceeded a year due to his or her insubstantial criminal background.

Last year, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that federal courts had been getting it wrong: only those who could have actually faced more than a year in prison for their crimes should be considered felons under federal law. Suddenly, owning a gun was no longer a crime for those with only light criminal histories.

For some inmates who had already been convicted of a federal gun crime, the definitional change nullified their offense. Yet, there followed no string of joyous homecomings, no mass prison exodus. Federal laws strictly limit when and how prisoners can come back to court to plead their innocence, and government lawyers can contest any case brought outside of these limitations - even one that is substantively meritorious. In addition, many of the affected inmates do not even know they are innocent: Justice Department officials have stated that it is not their job to notify prisoners who are incarcerated for something that is no longer considered a crime.


The 60 inmates being wrongfully held were discovered in an investigation by USA Today in June of 2012. As 2012 draws to a close, only 17 have retained a defense lawyer and taken their case back to court. What's more, in 12 of those cases the government has refused to drop its procedural argument, despite a Justice Department proclamation in August that such delay tactics should be abandoned "in the interests of justice."

For most of the North Carolina men who have righteously been declared innocent, and for anyone facing unjust charges in the criminal justice system, the six-by-eight cell is still a very real nightmare. But, hopefully, in a long-awaited day in court with the help of a strong legal advocate, it is one from which they will ultimately awaken.