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Seventh Circuit Admits Prisoner is Right but Denies Relief, Suggests Clemency

Seventh Circuit Admits Prisoner is Right but Denies Relief, Suggests Clemency

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), mandates sentence enhancements for certain federal defendants who commit crimes with firearms; those who have three or more prior “violent felonies” or “serious” drug offenses face a minimum 15-year prison term.

In some cases, however, prior state convictions should not quality as “predicate” offenses for the purpose of triggering an ACCA sentence enhancement.

In April 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a case involving federal prisoner Cody F. Ellerman, who had challenged his ACCA enhanced sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The appellate court noted that “Ellerman’s frustration with his inability to obtain relief is understandable given that he is correct, on the merits, that he never should have been sentenced as an armed career criminal.” The Court of Appeals found that “His prior drug convictions were all for selling marijuana in Kansas, ... and as level 3 felonies, did not subject him to a statutory maximum of at least ten years.... Accordingly, those convictions did not qualify as ‘serious drug offenses’ under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii), and Ellerman should not have been sentenced as an armed career criminal.”

However, he had not filed a direct appeal to his 2003 conviction, his post-conviction appeals were untimely and the Seventh Circuit wrote it was “not empowered to correct the sentencing error.”

The appellate court concluded: “Having fallen victim to the procedural complexity of collateral attacks, Ellerman is out of judicial remedies. But he may consider asking the President for a pardon or to commute his sentence.” See: Ellerman v. Walton, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 14-501 (April 21, 2014).

In cases raising similar issues, scores of federal prisoners convicted in North Carolina have been found legally innocent in firearm possession cases, including cases involving ACCA enhancements. Yet some of those prisoners have been denied relief and remain incarcerated, too. [See related article in this issue of PLN, p. 48].

Ellerman informed PLN in June 2014 that, following the suggestion of the Seventh Circuit, he had filed a petition for commutation with the Office of the Pardon Attorney. That may be an even longer shot than trying to obtain judicial relief, however, considering President Obama’s paltry track record of granting requests for clemency. [See: PLN, Jan. 2013, p.32; May 2011, p.36].

In February 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an expanded clemency initiative; the administration apparently has taken the change seriously, replacing Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers in April 2014.

The initiative may not help Ellerman’s chances for commutation, though, as it only applies to federal prisoners who have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant prior convictions, and were convicted of a nonviolent crime that would have resulted in a lower sentence had they been sentenced today. The expanded clemency initiative will be covered in greater detail in a future issue of PLN.

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Related legal case

Ellerman v. Walton