Sentences challenged for Maryland prisoners deemed to have violent pasts

Supreme Court ruling triggers wide-ranging review in dozens of cases

June 21, 2014|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

A little-noticed and highly technical Supreme Court decision is opening the way for dozens of federal inmates from Maryland to seek reduced sentences — even though trial judges found they had violent criminal pasts.

For some, the high court decision has already meant that sentences of 15 years and more have been cut substantially. One inmate, for example, saw his sentence reduced from 15 years to about six years; he was released in February.

The legal challenges are the latest turn in an ongoing debate over the fairness of long federal prison sentences — a weapon frequently used in Baltimore to combat crime. Authorities and prisoner advocates are locked in a fresh debate over the consequences of the Supreme Court ruling, which has triggered a re-examination of years-old cases.

Prosecutors, including Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, said lengthy sentences are necessary to rid the streets of violent offenders who continue to carry guns or commit other crimes. "Defendants who indisputably committed violent crimes will get a break as result of this opinion," he said.

But advocates for the inmates say such sentences, which take certain previous convictions into account, are used indiscriminately and undermine the judiciary's role in crafting fair punishments.

"The petitions I've filed are going to undo the unjust incarceration of lots of people who should never have gotten these mandatory sentences," said Paresh S. Patel, an appeals attorney at the federal public defender's office. The office has filed challenges on behalf of 55 inmates and plans to pursue 13 more.

The petitions follow a 2013 Supreme Court decision that tweaked the way federal judges evaluate a defendant's criminal history when setting sentences in certain cases. Subsequent lower court decisions opened the way to the wave of challenges in Maryland.

The process shares some similarities to a blow to life sentences handed down in Maryland courts before 1980. A 2012 decision from Maryland's top court, known as the Unger ruling, called the validity of those convictions into question and led to dozens of inmates being released. Some of the cases triggered by the ruling are still working their way through the court system.

Federal prosecutors in Maryland have made aggressive use of gun laws and sentencing rules to lock away violent offenders in partnership with state authorities under a project called Exile. About 200 defendants a year from Baltimore alone are charged under the program.

Rosenstein said the new challenges differ from other recent moves to soften federal sentences — such as changes to sentencing rules and a mass clemency program — that are designed to benefit criminals not convicted of violent crimes.

"These are dangerous repeat offenders who committed serious crimes that most people would consider violent," he said. "Most of them carried guns, and some used them. Some of them will carry guns and use them again when they get back to Baltimore."

Among the inmates already resentenced is Steven Crockett Sr., whom prosecutors once held up as an example illustrating the value of enhanced sentences for repeat offenders.

Crockett was convicted in 2009 of being a felon in possession of a firearm after already having convictions for two rapes, two assaults and a drug offense, according to court records. He was arrested with the gun, according to prosecutors, after trying to grab a 19-year-old woman who had just gotten off a bus in Baltimore.

At the sentencing hearing, Judge Andre M. Davis said that, while some federal gun cases were troubling to him, Crockett was deserving of a 171/2-year prison term.

"Sir, you are a predator," Davis said, according to a transcript. "You are a clear and present danger to this community, sir."

But after the Supreme Court ruling, another judge cut the term to 10 years. The reason behind the sentence reduction is one that Justice Samuel A. Alito, the lone dissenter in the 8-1 decision, called "highly technical."

Defining 'violent'

A Reagan-era federal law called the Armed Career Criminal Act turns the 10-year maximum penalty for a felon like Crockett possessing a gun or ammunition into a 15-year minimum for anyone previously convicted of three or more "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses."

But determining which state laws should be included in those categories has continually vexed the courts. The Supreme Court case dealt with California's burglary statute, which covers everything from shoplifting to a violent break-in.

Federal judges had previously looked at the details of some prior convictions to determine whether an offender should be considered violent. That happened in Crockett's case, and his attorney argued that the available records did not qualify his client for the 15-year minimum sentence.

Davis rejected that argument, finding that one of the rapes and one of the assaults counted as violent felonies, and along with a drug conviction, that qualified him for the longer sentence.

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