Dozens of prisoners could be set free

'Legally innocent' inmates are identified in newspaper probe


By Brad Heath
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — 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 an in-depth 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 convicted of 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 faced 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." 

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