Hundreds of convicted career criminals from Kansas and Missouri — murderers, sex offenders and armed robbers among them — could be released early from prison because of two recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions.
The Supreme Court opinions affect people with at least three prior convictions for what were deemed violent crimes in the past, said Tammy Dickinson, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
As a result of the court rulings, more than 600 current federal prisoners now have cases pending in federal courts in western Missouri and Kansas in which they are seeking to have their sentences reduced.
“An influx of recidivists are coming back into the community,” said Gene Porter, a deputy U.S. attorney in Dickinson’s office. “We’re not saying they are guaranteed to reoffend, but the risk is there.”
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While the two decisions involve complex and nuanced facets of federal sentencing law, the cases generally deal with how some prior convictions were classified as violent felonies for offenders convicted of being felons in possession of firearms.
Defense attorneys say that the Supreme Court rulings have cleared up years of confusion about what crimes should be classified as violent for sentencing purposes.
They note that many people received longer sentences because prior convictions like burglary or stealing a car had been considered crimes of violence.
“They were punished inappropriately for crimes of violence when they shouldn’t have been,” said Kansas City attorney John Picerno.
The cases started trickling in when the Supreme Court in June 2015 invalidated part of the Armed Career Criminal Act for being unconstitutionally vague.
Then in April, the flow of cases became a torrent when the Supreme Court ruled in another case that its June 2015 opinion should be applied retroactively to those sentenced before that ruling.
The rulings have had a nationwide impact, although officials with the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said they did not know how many inmates are affected.
But Dickinson, whose office covers the western half of Missouri, and Tom Beall, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas, said the cases have created a huge workload for their offices.
“They have become the bane of our existence,” said Dickinson.
She said her office is now handling 386 cases filed by prisoners who think they qualify for a sentence reduction.
Beall said his office is working on 234 of the cases.
Among those who have already benefited is Michael Ray Carter, previously convicted of murder, robbery and stealing. In 2007, he was sentenced under the career criminal law to 15 years in prison for possessing a stolen shotgun in Joplin.
However, after the Supreme Court rulings, his stealing conviction was no longer classified as a crime of violence, which made him ineligible for career criminal sentencing.
A judge resentenced him to 10 years, which made him immediately eligible for release.
Another inmate, Brian K. Legault, who had previous convictions for rape, sexual assault and robbery, was sentenced in 2012 to nearly 10 years in prison after Kansas City police caught him in a car with a shotgun.
But because of the Supreme Court decisions, a judge vacated that sentence and resentenced him to six years in prison, making him immediately eligible for release.
Because each prisoner’s case is unique, they have to be looked at individually to determine if the inmates qualify for a sentence reduction, attorneys said.
“We weren’t just going to roll over,” Dickinson said. “We’re looking for any legal reason to hold on to the sentences.”
She has had to detach one full-time prosecutor just to deal with the cases that were originally handled by lawyers who are no longer in the office. Other attorneys are handling the cases they originally prosecuted on top of their current caseload.
In addition, one office paralegal and members of the office’s appellate division are working on the cases.
In Beall’s office, attorneys assigned to handle appellate litigation are now spending the majority of their time on the sentence reduction cases.
“These cases are eating up an inordinate amount of time and resources,” Porter said.
But beyond the strain on prosecutors and courts, and the risk to public safety that repeat offenders can pose, the rulings also hurt victims of the original crimes, Dickinson said.
“It’s hard enough for them to go through the entire criminal justice process,” she said. “But then when they think it’s over, they find out that it’s not.”
It’s too early to know yet how many of those seeking a sentence reduction will actually prevail, attorneys said.
Already, defense attorneys assigned to represent indigent prisoners have reviewed some cases and determined that they would not qualify, according to court records.
But while working their way through the current batch of cases, attorneys are keeping an eye on yet another case pending in front of the Supreme Court.
That case involves broader federal sentencing guidelines, and not just the Armed Career Criminal Act covered by the two previous rulings.
In that case, the court is considering whether its ruling on the vagueness of the Armed Career Criminal Act would also apply retroactively to even more cases.
Federal public defender Laine Cardarella, who is handling many of the current cases in Missouri, has requested that some cases be stayed pending a decision in that case.
Cardarella said that courts had been struggling for years with the vagueness issue ruled on by the Supreme Court and that defense attorneys and their clients have been riding a “roller coaster” as a result.
“The court stopped all of that nonsense,” she said. “It was just a mess.”