RALEIGH — Civil libertarians and defense attorneys were heartened Wednesday when a federal judge vacated convictions of two men wrongly imprisoned on gun-related charges without any challenge from prosecutors.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle also reduced sentences for three other federal inmates seeking relief after a 2011 U.S. Court of Appeals case decision effectively changed the definition of who could be considered a felon.
Boyle’s rulings came several weeks after the U.S. Department of Justice told prosecutors to stop using procedural grounds to block legitimate appeals for relief.
“It was just an extra change in the way these cases have been handled,” said Scott Holmes, a Durham lawyer who saw his client’s conviction vacated. “It’s really encouraging.”
The hearing occurred several weeks after the federal Department of Justice issued guidelines for how prosecutors should handle a slew of gun possession cases rooted in a complex legal issue.
For many years, the federal courts in North Carolina treated defendants as felons when their criminal records were not serious enough for that designation, according to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case known as the United States vs. Simmons.
Coven Earl Gabriel-Vick was one of the federal inmates whose conviction was vacated on Wednesday by Boyle.
He was charged in May 2009 with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
He pleaded guilty to the accusations in July 2009, though neither he nor the courts knew at the time that he should not have been classified as a felon.
Now, three years later, he will get out of prison, innocent of the charges. Though a judge vacated his sentence, Gabriel-Vick was taken back to prison by federal marshals so the proper papers could be filed for his release.
“Usually, as a lawyer, I’m walking out after a hearing after my client’s heading for prison, wondering what the first night in prison might be like,” Holmes said. “It’s really rare to walk out and wonder what it’s going to be like for them to be free. That’s just real inspiring and energizing.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation have been working in recent months to identify which prisoners are either wrongfully incarcerated or serving unnecessarily long sentences because of the quirk in North Carolina sentencing laws highlighted in the federal court of appeals ruling.
The federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of a year, and someone convicted of such a crime is a felon.
But the federal courts in North Carolina were treating defendants as felons when their criminal records were not serious enough for that to be the case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found. As a result, a person with a less serious criminal record could be sentenced as if he had a lengthy one.
Though civil libertarians and defense attorneys would like more help from the federal government identifying hundreds of inmates caught in the ruling, they lauded the decisions on Wednesday.
“It’s certainly encouraging the government is no longer standing in the way of folks who are already bringing appeals,” said Christopher Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “I would label this as a positive first step. There need to be a number of other steps before we get comprehensive justice.”