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“Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1987. But all too often prison inmates lack the economic and political resources to render this noble statement anything more than a hollow promise. With the prison population in the United States now exceeding 2 million, prisoners’ rights are among the most important ends to which attorneys can direct their pro bono efforts. Four pro bono cases that King & Spalding has handled recently illustrate the impact that a single pro bono project can have, both on the lives of individual prisoners and on the American prison population as a whole. LEOCAL V. ASHCROFT In November 2004, King & Spalding won a Supreme Court victory for its pro bono client Josue Leocal, a Haitian immigrant and lawful permanent resident who had been deported from the United States. After a traffic accident in 2000, Leocal was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol and causing serious bodily injury. He served a two-and-a-half-year sentence for this offense. The Immigration and Naturalization Service instituted removal proceedings against Leocal before he was released from prison, on the grounds that his drunken driving conviction qualified as a “crime of violence,” and therefore an “aggravated felony,” under the Immigration and Nationality Act. The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether, in the absence of criminal intent, drunken driving is a crime of violence. The Supreme Court unanimously held that a drunken driving offense is not the type of crime of violence with intent to cause harm that should result in the deportation of a permanent resident. The decision opened the way for Leocal’s deportation order to be vacated. King & Spalding represented Leocal from his initial appeal of the Board of Immigration Appeals’ removal order through his Supreme Court victory. The case presented an opportunity both to help Leocal return from Haiti and rejoin his family in Florida and to ensure that similarly situated prisoners will not face deportation proceedings in the future. JOHNSON V. UNITED STATES In another case, which went before the Supreme Court in January, King & Spalding represented Robert Johnson in his appeal of the denial of his habeas corpus petition. In 1994, Johnson pleaded guilty to a single count of distribution of cocaine in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 841 and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Based on two prior state convictions, the District Court classified Johnson as a career offender and sentenced him to 188 months in prison. Without this enhancement, he would have received 110 to 137 months. On appeal, Johnson argued that he should not have been sentenced as a career offender because one of his prior state convictions was invalid. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument but said that Johnson could seek a vacatur of this prior state conviction in state court and then file a habeas petition in the federal District Court. The Supreme Court denied certiorari. On April 25, 1997, Johnson filed for an extension of time to file a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 habeas petition. This motion was denied by the District Court. On Feb. 6, 1998, Johnson sought state habeas relief on his prior state convictions, and the state court overturned these convictions on the grounds that they had been unconstitutionally obtained. Johnson then attempted to file a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 habeas petition with the federal District Court challenging the enhancements to his federal sentence. The District Court ruled that his habeas petition was barred under the one-year statute of limitations imposed by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Johnson case raised the question of whether the vacatur of a prior state conviction used to enhance a federal sentence is a “fact” supporting a prisoner’s habeas claim under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(4), a section that defines the latest date upon which the one-year statute of limitations begins to run. The Supreme Court agreed with Johnson that the state court’s decision to vacate his prior convictions was a “fact” from which the one-year statute of limitations begins to run. In a 5-4 decision, however, the Court also held that under the AEDPA’s mandate, the petitioner must exercise “due diligence” in discovering the fact (i.e., the state vacatur) underlying his claim. The Court concluded that Johnson was not entitled to relief because after final judgment was entered in his federal case, he failed to act promptly to obtain the vacatur of his prior state conviction and, therefore, he failed to meet the “due diligence” requirement. MEDELLIN V. DRETKE In November 2004, King & Spalding filed a brief amicus curiae with the Supreme Court in support of a petition for writ of certiorari filed by Jose Ernesto Medellin, a Mexican citizen who is on death row in Texas. After his conviction for capital murder, Medellin filed a habeas petition contending that Texas had violated his rights to consular access under the Vienna Convention. In March 2004, the Mexican government brought suit in the International Court of Justice, arguing that United States state courts had violated the Vienna Convention by failing to provide Medellin and 50 other Mexican death row inmates with notice of their consular rights. The ICJ held that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention and directed the U.S. courts to review each case in which Mexican nationals had been denied consular access. Despite the ICJ’s decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit denied Medellin’s habeas petition. After granting certiorari, the Court dismissed Medellin’s appeal as premature on the grounds that President George W. Bush, in a letter issued after certiorari had been granted, had ordered states to comply with the ICJ’s decision and review the Mexican nationals’ cases. (The Bush administration also announced that it was withdrawing from the provision of the Vienna Convention that gave the ICJ authority to hear cases involving the United States.) The Court reserved the right to hear Medellin’s appeal again once the case had run its course in Texas state court. The Medellin case has drawn international attention to the need for governments to provide fair treatment to foreign nationals imprisoned in their penal systems. The issue is also important to U.S. citizens traveling and working abroad. Medellin will now have this issue heard by the Texas court, with a possible further right to seek Supreme Court review if necessary. Oral argument before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is currently scheduled for Sept. 14. WILLIAMS V. CLINCH COUNTY In another recent pro bono matter, King & Spalding, together with the Southern Center for Human Rights, filed a federal class action on behalf of inmates forced to pay for their “room and board” at the Clinch County Jail in Homerville, Ga. Without any legal authority for its actions, the county forced the jail inmates to pay $18 per day in room-and-board costs. For some inmates, these costs totaled more than $4,000. Before being released from the jail, inmates — including those who were never convicted of a crime — were required to sign a contract in which they agreed to pay the fee regardless of their ability to pay. Former inmates who failed to pay the fee faced future incarceration. The two named plaintiffs, Willie Williams and Mickel Jackson, are both former inmates of the Clinch County Jail. Both are indigent, and both have been forced to pay hundreds of dollars toward their jail bill. Neither man has been convicted of any crime. Pro bono work has helped these men fight back against the county’s egregious violations of their civil rights. This case was filed in November; there has been little activity as of yet. These pro bono cases have involved a broad cross section of the law: King & Spalding has represented clients before tribunals ranging from administrative immigration boards to the U.S. Supreme Court. The questions it has confronted have ranged from the construction of habeas and immigration statutes to the protections of the U.S. Constitution and of international law, and the clients have ranged from a prisoner on death row to prisoners who were never convicted of a crime and were long ago released. In addition, King & Spalding is also pursuing many other prisoners’ rights cases. The firm is currently handling seven death penalty habeas representations and has also begun an indigent criminal defense program. All these disparate pro bono cases have one underlying goal in common — the vindication of the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves and who have been wronged by the criminal justice system.
Augusta Ridley is an associate in the Washington, D.C., office of King & Spalding.

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