Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Constitution Is Not a Technicality

Yesterday's Baltimore Sun had an article entitled "Technical move cuts U.S. prison sentences," with a subtitle of "Defendants get Md. convictions dropped to trim federal time." (Thanks to Doug Berman for the pointer). Given those grave words, you'd think that violent Maryland convicts were walking out of prison, going straight to court, and using some arcane loophole in the law to have their conviction wiped off the books. Unfortunately, many people will get that impression, read no further, and be outraged. A little further reading shows that the folks being talked about are indeed having convictions erased, because their Constitutional rights have been violated.

The procedure, called a writ of coram nobis, is a last ditch post-conviction effort to seek a remedy for illegal convictions. Things like:

But Pettiford already convinced Baltimore Circuit Judge Evelyn O. Cannon to throw out his guilty pleas for cocaine distribution. She ruled that Pettiford - once viewed as a notorious symbol of the city's crippled courts - was wrongly penalized when he was ordered to serve a year behind bars as a condition of his probation.
Lawlor's client, Ernest Ellis, successfully argued before a Prince George's County judge that his cocaine possession conviction in 1997 should be thrown out because he was not told about his right to a jury trial and his maximum possible sentence.
Last year, Judge Kaye A. Allison ruled that Henderson knowingly pleaded guilty in 2001, but that his rights had been violated because there was no evidence on the record that his lawyer told him that he was presumed innocent.
The real outrage here is that these people served time in prison that they should not have, but it took too long to have their convictions overturned. But, of course, nobody cares much about that. The outrage generator in this situation appears to by the US Attorney for the District of Maryland, how rightfully points out that fewer prior convictions mean lower sentences for future Federal prosecutions.

Why is that a problem? It isn't, unless your job satisfaction is measured by how long you can send somebody away, regardless of the justice of their personal history. The Constitution, and the rights that it ensures, are not technicalities, even in Dubya's America.

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