16 September 2014

Federal Criminal Justice System Still Broken

[Edward] Young, now 43, was convicted of several burglaries as a young man but then resolved that he would turn his life around. Released from prison in 1996, he married, worked six days a week, and raised four children in Hixson, Tenn. 
Then a neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings. He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them. 
“He was trying to help me out,” Mumpower told me. “My husband was a pack rat, and I was trying to clear things out.” 
Then Young became a suspect in burglaries at storage facilities and vehicles in the area, and the police searched his home and found the forgotten shotgun shells as well as some stolen goods. 
The United States attorney in Chattanooga prosecuted Young under a federal law that bars ex-felons from possessing guns or ammunition. In this case, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, that meant a 15-year minimum sentence. 
The United States attorney, William Killian, went after Young — even though none of Young’s past crimes involved a gun, even though Young had no shotgun or other weapon to go with the seven shells, and even though, by all accounts, he had no idea that he was violating the law when he helped Mrs. Mumpower sell her husband’s belongings. 
In May, a federal judge, acknowledging that the case was Dickensian but saying that he had no leeway under the law, sentenced Young to serve a minimum of 15 years in federal prison. It didn’t matter that the local authorities eventually dismissed the burglary charges.
From here.

Another similar case more than ten years ago revealed the over breadth of the ACCA:
In 1998, Dan Yirkovsky was remodeling a home in Iowa and found a .22 caliber cartridge beneath some carpet. He put the tiny piece of ammunition aside and continued his work. Sometime later someone reported that Yirkovsky had stolen items and kept them at the home. Police searched the residence, found the bullet and arrested Yirkovsky.
Yirkovsky's previous crimes had been petty larceny and aggravated burglary, similar to Ed Young's. 
His appeals failed and he served a 15-year sentence. 
From here.

There is plenty of blame to go around in this case and cases like it.

Congress is at fault for passing the Armed Career Criminal Act that made it a federal crime for someone who was released from prison almost twenty years earlier on crimes that technically branded him an armed career criminal even though other federal statutes wouldn't even consider those convictions to be prior felonies because they are so old, with only one minor misdemeanor conviction since then that was more than five years old at the time, who didn't know he was violating the ACCA which he sincerely believed applied only to firearms and not ammunition, and had no intent to commit a crime, to a mandatory minimum fifteen year sentence.  It is also at fault for failing to take legislative action to reform this criminal statute which has long been known to be unjust.

The U.S. Supreme Court is at fault for gutting the 8th Amendment protection under the United States Constitution from cruel and unusual punishments with precedents that essentially make it impossible to invalidate a criminal sentence for a term of years that is disproportionate to the crime, particularly in the case of sentences for individuals with prior criminal convictions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also at fault for allowing a federal criminal sentencing hearing to consider flimsy evidence like criminal charges that are subsequently dismissed.

The trial court judge, and the three judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the sentence, are at fault for failing to either construe the statute to avoid a reading that would impose a harsh statute, or for failing to have the guts to rule that a case that arguably could be invalidated under existing 8th Amendment jurisprudence, is invalid. All four judges acknowledged that this sentence was clearly unjust and affirmed the sentence anyway.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Poole, who worked the case, and his boss, the United States attorney for the judicial district, William Killian, is at fault was prosecuting a clearly unreasonable charge based not on the belief that the federal crime committed actually deserved to be punished, but instead because he wanted to federally punish the defendant for a completely unrelated state law crime which he believed that the defendant did commit, but for which he was not in fact punished in any way under state law, in defiance of federalism principles and due process considerations.

There seems to be pretty convincing evidence that Young committed another non-violent burglary, even though state officials dropped those charges.  But, the notion that it is appropriate to arbitrarily apply over broad federal criminal statutes in a way that the facts relevant to the federal crime do not support to address completely unrelated state law crimes is deeply flawed.

The Justice Department is at fault for continuing to press the case on appeal, despite knowing that the state law criminal charges had been dropped, and for trying to infect the appellate court record with factual claims outside the trial court record knowing fully well that this was inappropriate.

President Obama is at fault for not using his clemency powers to intervene to commute unjust sentences in cases such as this one, despite his clear constitutional power and obligation to do so. President Obama's timidity is matched, of course, by almost all other recent Presidents and Governors with clemency power.

The State of Tennessee's legislature is at fault for not removing collateral consequences of felony convictions after a reasonable time, mostly because this would allow more black men to vote, as most states outside the South do. If it had done so, Mr. Young would not have been guilty of any crime in this case under the ACCA.

Edward Young is inappropriately going to spend fifteen years in prison because every single one of these critical participants in the criminal justice process failed. Even if the law that sent Edward Young is later reformed, his odds of being released early from prison are negligible.

The U.S. Supreme Court could still grant certiorari and add some long overdue flexibility to their 8th Amendment and sentencing jurisprudence in this case. And, President Obama (or any subsequent President) could still commute the sentence of Mr. Young. But, both possibilities currently seem remote, and to nearly amount to miracles.

The only players in the saga who have done their jobs are the news reporters, bloggers, think tanks, and academics who have called out this case as unjust.  But, none of them have the power to change the result.

How can we survive as a functional state when we lack the institutional capacity to prevent such obvious cases of injustice?

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