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‘Legally innocent’ prisoner loses Supreme Court bid to challenge 27-year sentence

The Supreme Court altered precedent after Marcus Jones was sentenced to 27 years in prison but his fight to apply their ruling brought him back to the high court steps.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a 6-3 ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court said a federal inmate can’t challenge his conviction even though it is based on actions that were later found not to be a crime. 

“A federal prisoner may not, therefore, file a second or successive §2255 motion based solely on a more favorable interpretation of statutory law adopted after his conviction became final and his initial §2255 motion was resolved,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority

Justice Sonia Sotomayor — joined by Justice Elena Kagan — said the majority’s ruling “yields disturbing results.” 

“A prisoner who is actually innocent, imprisoned for conduct that Congress did not criminalize, is forever barred by 28 U. S. C. §2255(h) from raising that claim, merely because he previously sought postconviction relief,” the Obama appointee wrote. “It does not matter that an intervening decision of this Court confirms his innocence. By challenging his conviction once before, he forfeited his freedom.”

In 2000, Marcus DeAngelo Jones was sentenced to 27 years in prison for possessing a firearm as a felon and making false statements to obtain a firearm. During his trial, Jones said he was aware of his status as a convicted felon, but he believed his plea agreement had expunged his conviction. Jones challenged his conviction, claiming he was unaware of his status as a felon at the time he purchased the firearm, but his appeals all fell flat. 

A decade after Jones’ conviction, the Supreme Court ruled in Rehaif v. United States that the government has the responsibility to prove that a defendant knew of his prohibited status and his possession of a firearm. The new precedent meant that the government would have had to prove Jones knew it was illegal for him to own a firearm because of his felon status. However, Rehaif interpreted a statute and not set a new rule of constitutional law, so Jones was not able to challenge his conviction under normal procedures. Instead, he filed a habeas corpus petition. 

The district court dismissed Jones’ petition, claiming a lack of jurisdiction. Affirming the lower court ruling, the Eighth Circuit said Jones couldn’t challenge his conviction with a habeas petition because in the past he had an opportunity to raise his claims elsewhere. 

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Jones claimed the Eighth Circuit’s ruling offers a strained interpretation of the law that raises constitutional concerns. Saying he is "legally innocent," he argued that the ruling raises suspension clause concerns, barring him from any meaningful opportunity to show his conviction should be overturned. 

“Denying saving clause relief to someone convicted of no crime permits the sustention of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Daniel Ortiz, an attorney with the University of Virginia School of Law Supreme Court litigation clinic representing Jones, wrote in his brief. “Under any kind of proportionality analysis, punishment for no crime causes great concern. No matter how small the numerator of punishment, the denominator of crime is zero — a situation which is not only constitutionally but mathematically impermissible.” 

The government does not completely disagree with Jones. It states that while the Eighth Circuit’s ruling was correct, its holding was not. The disagreement surrounds the saving-clause exception of the law, which the government claims must be maintained to allow federal prisoners a narrow opportunity to challenge their convictions. However, the government says that Jones doesn’t meet the prerequisites for that narrow claim. 

“The saving-clause exception to 28 U.S.C. 2255(e)’s bar on habeas corpus petitions by federal prisoners preserves a narrow but important category of claims based on intervening statutory- construction decisions of this Court that establish that a prisoner’s conduct was noncriminal,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote. “Petitioner, however, cannot satisfy the strict prerequisites for such a claim, which require a showing of actual innocence that he cannot make.”

The court’s decision balances two statutes: the general habeas corpus statute and an alternative postconviction remedy for federal prisoners. Congress has traditionally said that prisoners challenging their sentences have to file a motion for postconviction relief instead of a habeas petition. Generally, prisoners cannot file a motion under both statutes unless one proves to be inadequate. 

When Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996, it said prisoners could not file two postconviction relief motions unless they were presenting new evidence or relying on a new constitutional law. The court took up this case to decide if federal inmates who did not challenge their convictions because precedent stood against them could bring a later habeas challenge if new precedent overturns the prior precedent. The majority’s ruling says they may not because of the limitation on successive postconviction relief motions. 

“Consistent with the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning, we hold that §2255(e)’s saving clause does not permit a prisoner asserting an intervening change in statutory interpretation to circumvent AEDPA’s restrictions on second or successive §2255 motions by filing a §2241 petition,” Thomas wrote. 

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a separate dissenting opinion to argue the majority’s interpretation was not Congress’ intention. 

“This stingy characterization does not reflect a primary aim of §2255(e), which was to ‘save’ any claim that was available prior to §2255(h)’s enactment where Congress has not expressed a clear intent to foreclose it,” the Biden appointee wrote. “Jones’s legal innocence claim fits that mold.” 

Jackson claims the majority takes a “nothing-to-see-here approach” to incarcerating a potentially innocent individual. 

“Apparently, legally innocent or not, Jones must just carry on in prison regardless, since (as the majority reads §2255) no path exists for him to ask a federal judge to consider his innocence assertion,” Jackson wrote. “But forever slamming the courtroom doors to a possibly innocent person who has never had a meaningful opportunity to get a new and retroactively applicable claim for release reviewed on the merits raises serious constitutional concerns.” 

Jones' attorney said the ruling was "a great disappointment."

The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment in the case.

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal

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