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Court won't release prisoners innocent of a federal crime

Sometimes a court issues a decision that makes innocent certain actions that once were thought to be criminal. This brings up a problem for those who were convicted and went to prison for something now recognized as crime-free. Usually, if the prosecutor in a case requests a reversal of the conviction, the prisoner will be freed. In North Carolina recently, there were at least two instances of federal judges balking at federal prosecutors' requests to free prisoners wrongly convicted of committing a federal crime.

Federal prosecutors have been cooperating with defense attorneys in obtaining reversals in many cases where people were wrongly imprisoned. This is because a prior interpretation of federal law that sent many people to prison was later declared by a federal court of appeals to be incorrect and not a federal crime. Defense attorneys and federal prosecutors have since acted jointly to get the convictions reversed, but they're not getting universal cooperation from federal judges.

In one case, the convicted man served his sentence and was on supervised release when prosecutors asked a federal judge to reverse the conviction. The judge, a former chief federal prosecutor in Charlotte, refused that request along with one for another man. In the subject case, he ruled that the man was lawfully convicted under the law at that time. Another federal judge balked at a prosecution request to free five other men, and set the case for further argument.

The man has appealed the case to the federal appellate courts. The crime in question prohibits convicted felons from owning a gun. The appellate court decided that only those who could have faced more than a year of prison for the prior crime were felons. The man only faced up to eight months for his prior crime and was therefore not a felon.

One facing charges of committing a federal crime in North Carolina will benefit by seeking experienced counsel to make sure that all legal rights are being protected. It's important that all recent court cases be reviewed and used in the person's defense. In some cases, where a new ruling is issued by a higher court, an imprisoned individual will want to find out if the case is relevant and if it changes the status of the conviction.

Source: USA Today, "Federal judge refuses to release innocent prisoners," Brad Heath, Feb. 28, 2013

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