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Convicted D.C. felon Cedric Stokes thought he was being treated unfairly when he was denied parole in 2000 and ordered to remain in prison another four years before seeking release again. So Stokes did what many other inmates do when decisions don’t go their way: He dashed off a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. His claim, filed in D.C.’s federal court, didn’t spring Stokes from jail, but it did spark a battle that pitted federal prosecutors against D.C.’s attorney general and defense lawyers over whether the more than 7,000 offenders convicted in D.C. Superior Court and incarcerated in federal prisons have a right to have their habeas claims heard in the District. This summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that Stokes and other D.C. offenders did not. Now, the D.C. Council is considering legislation that would attempt to override that decision by giving the District’s offenders the right to challenge their incarceration in D.C.’s courts. “We should always be very vigilant in preserving the rights of D.C. residents,” says Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, chair of the Judiciary Committee and author of the bill. Patterson says she plans to have the legislation ready for a vote by the full D.C. Council in December. Supporters of the legislation say that by mandating such cases be handled by local courts, the bill will improve the chances that D.C. law will be properly applied to prisoner cases. “This is the place where the litigation is going to be the fairest to everyone involved,” says Timothy O’Toole, chief of the Special Litigation Division at the D.C. Public Defender Service, which represents Stokes. “Here, you have a bench that understands D.C. law and defense lawyers and prosecutors that know D.C. law.” But at a D.C. Council Judiciary Committee hearing on the legislation last week, federal prosecutors warned that only Congress has the power to change the law governing federal habeas petitions. In addition, any change to D.C. law would, at most, push habeas petitions into D.C.’s federal court � not Superior Court, which some defense lawyers contend is the proper venue. “It is an undisputable fact that D.C. Code defendants are in federal custody,” John Fisher, chief of the Appellate Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District, said at the Nov. 15 hearing. “Any petition or writ directed to federal officials must be brought in U.S. District Court.” Patricia Riley, special counsel to interim U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein, testified at the hearing that D.C. offenders already have the right to challenge their conviction and sentence in D.C. Superior Court while incarcerated in the federal prison system. The PDS’s O’Toole acknowledges Riley’s point, but says under current law, a D.C. offender seeking to challenge federal agency decisions affecting his release dates � such as parole matters or credit for good behavior � must file a petition for early release in the federal district where he is housed. Patterson’s legislation would change that. Claims regarding prison conditions would still be brought in the federal court system where the prisoner is housed, O’Toole says. MASS CONFUSION Thousands of habeas petitions are filed in courts across the country each year � the bulk of them by the inmates themselves without the benefit of a lawyer. Most are dismissed without a hearing. In the criminal justice system, these petitions are the last chance for most offenders to challenge their confinement. They are usually filed once appeals and other attacks on the conviction or sentence have failed. By suing their captors, prisoners hope for one more chance that a judge will hear their case, give them what they want, and possibly set them free. While such petitions may be a critical tool for the prison population, the criminal justice officials who must deal with the pleadings dislike them. “It’s clear to me nobody likes these cases,” O’Toole says. “But some do have merit.” According to the annual report of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, there were 23,070 general habeas petitions filed in federal courts nationwide in 2003. And 23,000 petitions were closed out by the courts last year. Just 26 petitions made it to trial. Until around 2000, offenders sentenced in D.C. Superior Court could file habeas petitions with the local court. At the time, however, most D.C. offenders served their sentences at the Lorton Correctional Complex � a D.C.-owned prison in Virginia. The D.C. Revitalization Act changed all of that. The law, which transferred large portions of the city’s criminal justice system to the federal government, called for the closing of Lorton and the transfer of prisoners from the D.C. Department of Corrections to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The District’s parole board was disbanded as the U.S. Parole Commission took on the responsibility for D.C. matters. According to Deborah Golden, a staff attorney at the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, more than 7,200 offenders from the District are currently serving their time in more than 70 � mostly federal � institutions throughout the country. The vast majority of these offenders are housed in Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. But some are as far away as Texas and Kansas. Golden says her organization has heard from many D.C. offenders wondering where they should file their habeas petitions. “It’s confusing,” Golden says. “No one knows what’s going on.” STOKES’ CRIME The case that provoked Patterson’s legislation began in October 2000. At that time, Stokes was serving a 10- to 30-year sentence for a 1987 assault conviction. Under the federal parole guidelines, Stokes could have been released. But the parole commission departed from those guidelines, stating that Stokes was “an unusual risk to the safety of the community” because of the seven-month crime spree that landed him in prison. They told him he would have to wait another four years before applying again for early release. Stokes, who didn’t have a lawyer, believed that his rights were violated because the commission used guidelines that were not in effect at the time of his sentencing. He filed a habeas petition to that effect in D.C.’s federal court. The petition was quickly dismissed; the court said that Stokes, who at the time was being housed in a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio, had filed in the wrong jurisdiction. Stokes appealed, and the D.C. Circuit dismissed the appeal for the same reason. By that point, Stokes’ case had grabbed the attention of the D.C. Public Defender Service. With PDS lawyers, Stokes filed for a rehearing, which was granted in May 2003. D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that the D.C. Court of Appeals is “the final arbiter” of D.C. law. The brief notes that 29 states have agreed to certify questions regarding D.C. law to the District’s appellate court. “If the D.C. courts do not have jurisdiction over habeas disputes involving D.C. prisoners, the courts in the other 21 states are free to issue their own varying interpretations of D.C. law,” the brief states. Additionally, the brief points out, D.C. officials may be required to travel to other states to defend against certain prisoner actions brought by pretrial detainees or those jailed for misdemeanors. “If this court rules here that the district court had no jurisdiction in this case and Stokes should have filed his habeas claim in Ohio, the District could be faced with defending habeas cases in the courts of any and all states where the District contracts to house its prisoners,” the brief states. While Stokes’ case was being briefed in the D.C. Circuit, a similar case was making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. IMPACT OF THE WAR ON TERROR Jose Padilla, an accused al Qaeda operative, had challenged his detention in a New York federal prison. While motions were pending, President George W. Bush designated Padilla an enemy combatant and had him moved to a military prison in South Carolina. Padilla’s lawyer filed a habeas petition in the Southern District of New York, the jurisdiction where his case originated. The government moved to have the petition dismissed on the grounds that, since Padilla was now in the hands of the U.S. military and physically located in another state, the federal court in New York no longer had the authority to preside over his habeas claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ultimately found that the New York trial court had jurisdiction. The government appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Realizing that the Padilla case could affect the Stokes matter, O’Toole filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court. On June 28, the Supreme Court overturned the 2nd Circuit ruling. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that only the person who has custody over the prisoner can be named in a habeas petition. That person, according to the high court, is the official who can “produce the body of the prisoner before the habeas court.” Just two weeks after the Padilla ruling, the D.C. Circuit ordered that Stokes’ petition be dismissed. The Padilla decision may also complicate matters for any legislation allowing D.C. offenders to seek relief in local courts. Patterson, however, remains confident that her bill is sound. Either way, prosecutors say the result could lead to a flood of habeas petitions being filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “If this legislation is passed, it would have very little impact on the Superior Court,” Fisher said at the Nov. 15 D.C. Council hearing. “It will have a huge impact on the U.S. District Court.” Sheldon Snook, administrative assistant to U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, says the court is aware of the legislation, but has not taken a position. Patterson says her legislation is intended to settle the issue for D.C. offenders. But based upon what federal prosecutors said at last week’s hearing, it is likely to spur additional litigation. “This is one of those issues,” Patterson says, “that was never anticipated when the [D.C.] Revitalization Act was enacted, and probably should have been.”

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