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Arkansas Prisoner’s Illegal Sentence Remanded Despite Filing Wrong Challenge

In a December 15, 2016 ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a trial court to re-sentence a prisoner who was illegally sentenced to an extra 10 years in prison. The Court issued the order even though it dismissed the prisoner’s appeal of his petition for judicial review challenging the illegal sentence.

Cody Ward was convicted of manslaughter, and received 240 months in prison plus a consecutive term of 120 months for a firearms enhancement. Page two of his sentencing order, however, said the total term to be served “for all offenses” was 240 months.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) initially calculated Ward’s parole date based on the 240-month total sentence. Later, prison officials changed that date due to the additional 120-month firearms enhancement. Ward filed a grievance arguing that, as a first-time offender, the maximum penalty under Arkansas law for manslaughter was 120 months, plus another 120 months for the firearms enhancement, for a total sentence of 240 months.

Ward filed a petition for judicial review of his sentence and the ADC conceded that the sentencing order was illegal on its face because it exceeded the maximum penalty for a first-time manslaughter conviction. But, the ADC argued – and the state Supreme Court agreed – it was powerless to modify a sentencing order imposed by a circuit court, and the vehicle that Ward chose to challenge his sentence was not the correct one to obtain relief.

The Arkansas Supreme Court then issued an unusual order affirming the dismissal of Ward’s petition by the Jefferson County Circuit Court, but remanding the case to the Mississippi County Circuit Court “to vacate the amended sentencing order within 5 days and notify the ADC of the change in Ward’s sentence.” Prison officials were also encouraged “to review [Ward’s] parole eligibility in light of this opinion.”

“Because the amended sentencing order had the effect of extending Ward’s parole eligibility date ... and in view of the fact that the ADC has conceded that the amended order imposed a sentence that exceeded the maximum statutory penalty, it is likely that Ward is currently being unlawfully detained,” the state Supreme Court wrote.

The Court held the imposition of an illegal sentence may be raised for the first time on appeal and cannot be waived by the parties, therefore it had authority to take action despite the dismissal of Ward’s petition. See: Ward v. Kelley, 2016 Ark. 471, 506 S.W.3d 224 (Ark. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Ward v. Kelley