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Unjust Imprisonment in America

An excellent account of unjust imprisonment is provided by Alex Kozinski in Criminal Law 2.0 - Preface to the 44th Annual Review of Criminal Procedure.

The Ezell Gilbert case is a good example of how things can go wrong with justice in America. Despite acknowledging that several years had been wrongly added to Ezell Gilbert's sentence due to the incorrect belief that carrying a concealed firearm was a "crime of violence" that required a "career offender" sentence enhancement, the United States refused to reduce his sentence. Though the court agreed that Gilbert's first petition for sentence adjustment had been improperly denied, his new petition was rejected on the basis of the principle that a prisoner is entitled to only a single petition for sentence reduction. Alec Karakatsanis provides a good overview of this miscarriage of justice in a New York Times Op-Ed:

At his sentencing, Mr. Gilbert noted a legal error that improperly increased his sentence by approximately a decade based on a misclassification of one of his prior offenses. In 1999, without a lawyer, he filed a petition seeking his release. A court ruled against him.

Nearly 10 years later, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in another prisoner’s case, confirming that Mr. Gilbert had been right. A public defender helped him file a new petition for immediate release in light of this new decision.

Mr. Obama’s Justice Department, however, convinced a Florida federal judge that even if Mr. Gilbert’s sentence was illegal, he had to remain in prison because prisoners should not be able to petition more than once for release. The “finality” of criminal cases was too important, the department argued, to allow prisoners more than one petition, even if a previous one was wrongly denied.
- Alec Karakatsanis, President Obama's Department of Injustice, New York Times, August 18, 2015


More details of the case are provided by Lyle Denniston in SCOTUSBlog:

At his sentencing, Gilbert had argued that carrying a concealed weapon was not a crime of violence. Ultimately, that view proved right, when the Supreme Court in a 2008 ruling narrowed the scope of the definition of “crime of violence” under federal law — a decision that also applied to Guidelines treatment of career offenders. That 2008 decision, in the case of Begay v. United States, ultimately led the Eleventh Circuit to concede that Gilbert’s conviction on the weapons charge was not a violent crime. He thus did not qualify as a career offender.
- Lyle Denniston, No cure for a mistaken sentence?, SCOTUSBlog, December 29th, 2011


Judge James C. Hill strongly dissented from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on the case in 2011 (Ezell Gilbert v. United States), writing:

For this court to hold that it is without the power to provide relief to a citizen that the Sovereign seeks to confine illegally for eight and one-half years is to adopt a posture of judicial impotency that is shocking in a country that has enshrined the Great Writ of habeas corpus in its Constitution. Surely, the Great Writ cannot be so moribund, so shackled by the procedural requirements of rigid gatekeeping, that it does not afford review of Gilbert’s claim.
Much is made of the “floodgates” that will open should the court exercise its authority to remedy the mistake made by us in Gilbert’s sentence. The government hints that there are many others in Gilbert’s position – sitting in prison serving sentences that were illegally imposed. We used to call such systems “gulags.” Now, apparently, we call them the United States.
- Hans Sherrer, Federal Appeals Court Judge Declares Habeas Corpus Is “Dead In This Country”, Justice Denied, Issue 51 - Summer 2012, pp. 17-18 (also at http://justicedenied.org/wordpress/archives/1216)


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