EDIT: 2012-06-19 07:00: Bikerdad pointed out that these people have been charged and are being held by the federal government. My confusion can be partially blamed on writing the story in the wee hours of the night and partially blamed on the story being downright confusing (mostly the former though).
The root cause of this problem regards the definition of who can and can’t have a firearm. According to the story:
Decades ago, Congress made it a federal crime for convicted felons to have a gun. The law proved to be a powerful tool for police and prosecutors to target repeat offenders who managed to escape stiff punishment in state courts. In some cases, federal courts can put people in prison for significantly longer for merely possessing a gun than state courts can for using the gun to shoot at someone.
To make that law work in every state, Congress wrote one national definition of who cannot own a gun: someone who has been convicted of a crime serious enough that he or she could have been sentenced to more than a year in prison.
Combine this definition with North Carolina’s rather interesting method of determining a person’s sentence:
Figuring out who fits that definition in North Carolina is not as simple as it sounds. In 1993, state lawmakers adopted a unique system called “structured sentencing” that changes the maximum prison term for a crime, based on the record of the person who committed it. People with relatively short criminal records who commit crimes such as distributing cocaine and writing bad checks face no more than a few months in jail; people with more extensive records face much longer sentences.
Finally combine the above two facts with a ruling that changed the laws:
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said federal courts (including itself) had been getting the law wrong. Only people who could have actually faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons under federal law.
The 4th Circuit’s decision came in a little-noticed drug case, United States v. Simmons, but its implications could be dramatic. For one thing, tens of thousands of people in North Carolina have criminal records that no longer make having a gun a federal crime. About half of the felony convictions in North Carolina’s state courts over the past decade were for offenses that no longer count as felonies under federal law.
Needless to say the so-called justice system in the United States is convoluted. The above scenario makes things confusing already but then you combine the fact that cases often get handed over to different courts and you have for some fun times:
Police checked the guns’ serial numbers and learned the shotgun had been reported stolen, so they arrested McCullum. (They didn’t realize until later that the gun had been stolen nine years earlier, by someone else, when McCullum was 12.) When they found out McCullum had a criminal record, they charged him with possession of a firearm by a felon, and turned the case over to the federal government.
What’s interesting is the implications of this mess. There are currently people being held in federal prison who are not actually guilty of federal crime, except they are, unless they’re not. We do know that the federal government “believe innocence is a valid case to release prisoners so those sitting in federal prison will likely be there for a while longer. Looking at this case from the current angle I have to ask where North Carolina is. Isn’t one of the duties of an individual state government to protect its people? Why isn’t the government of North Carolina up in arms over this? Shouldn’t they be making legal proceedings to get their people out? Should they not be readying themselves to storm the federal prison complex to free their people?
Like the federal government, the individual state governments don’t care about the people. Nothing is likely to change for those currently being held illegally in federal prisons. The federal government doesn’t believe innocence is a valid reason to free a prisoner and the individual state governments long ago became subservient to the federal government. We shouldn’t be surprised by this as it is the only logical result of having one entity with monopoly control over both law enforcement and the courts. There is a conflict of interest that results in the people being shafted.
I have left the post I originally wrote below for historical purposes and because I like to keep demonstrations of my failures around to remind myself to do better. Have fun reading:
Here’s another story sent in by Zerg539 via Twitter. Like the last one he sent in this one isn’t going to do well for those with heart conditions but it appears as though North Carolina has decided to completely do away with the idea of innocence:
A USA TODAY investigation, based on court records and interviews with government officials and attorneys, found more than 60 men who went to prison for violating federal gun possession laws, even though courts have since determined that it was not a federal crime for them to have a gun.
Many of them don’t even know they’re innocent.
The legal issues underlying their situation are complicated, and are unique to North Carolina. But the bottom line is that each of them went to prison for breaking a law that makes it a federal crime for convicted felons to possess a gun. The problem is that none of them had criminal records serious enough to make them felons under federal law.
North Carolina is throwing people in prison for lawful behavior. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody since such behavior is typical for a state. What really adds to this story though is that the federal government, who often claim their duty is to swoop in and protect people from the individual state governments, has decided this battle isn’t one they should be involved in:
Justice Department officials said it is not their job to notify prisoners that they might be incarcerated for something that they now concede is not a crime. And although they have agreed in court filings that the men are innocent, they said they must still comply with federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people can challenge their convictions in court.
“We can’t be outcome driven,” said Anne Tompkins, the U.S. attorney in Charlotte. “We’ve got to make sure we follow the law, and people should want us to do that.” She said her office is “looking diligently for ways, within the confines of the law, to recommend relief for defendants who are legally innocent.”
When it appears that George Zimmerman’s motivation for shooting Trayvon Martin were race-related the federal government swooped right in. They were investigating the local government because they felt racism may have been the reason Zimmerman wasn’t arrested. It appears as though the federal government is very selective in what they will oversea regarding potential abuses by local governments though since innocent individuals in North Carolina are currently being held illegally and no help is going to be forthcoming.
I’ve said it numerous times but it bears repeating, this country is a police state. When innocence of a crime isn’t enough to set you free then there is no law and order. Granted, the federal government has openly stated before that “Federal law does not recognize actual innocence as a mechanism to overturn an otherwise valid conviction“. Basically, once you’re in the prison system, you’re fucked. You’re not innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent, you’re simply guilty.