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A third-year law student at Wake Forest University accomplished what no other criminal appellate lawyer in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has managed: She won a reversal of a 15-year conviction for a felon in possession of a firearm based on the defense the possession was justified. Although all eight circuits that have considered the issue have allowed “justification” as a defense to prosecution of felons found with guns, this is the first case in which the conservative 4th Circuit has overturned a guilty plea and allowed a defendant to seek a trial based the claim. U.S. v. Mooney, No. 06-7565. Meghan Poirier, 28, a West Point graduate and now a captain in the U.S. Army who is about to begin training in the Judge Advocate General corps, handled the appeal of John D. Mooney as part of an appellate clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law. She argued the appeal just two days after graduation in May, according to John Korzen, law professor in appellate writing who directed the clinic at Wake Forest, which is in Winston-Salem, N.C. “This was really exciting, especially after we worked on the case over the months and thought we had a chance,” said Poirier of Fort Campbell, Ky. The U.S. attorney’s office in Beckley, W.Va., declined to comment on the case or potential retrial of Mooney. Gun to the head Mooney of Huntington, W.Va., was charged as a felon in possession of a weapon, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. He seized a .38-caliber revolver from his drunken ex-wife as she held the gun to his temple, according to decision by Judge Paul V. Niemeyer. She had a “propensity to brandish and shoot guns at the men in her life,” he wrote. Mooney tried to call police to turn over the gun but his wife disconnected the 911 calls and Mooney, who worked at a nearby bar, ultimately called his boss to say he would bring it to the bar to turn it over to police there. When he arrived at the bar, police were waiting, tipped by his former wife, and he was arrested for possession. Although Mooney believed that his possession was justified under the circumstances, and that he “did the right thing,” his original attorney advised him to plead guilty because the government had to prove only that Mooney was a felon and had a firearm, according to Niemeyer. “Mooney told me that his appointed counsel had no criminal experience,” Korzen said. Mooney had three prior convictions dating back 25 years, including burglary, robbery and the last an attempted robbery in 1989. He developed the original motion in the federal district court seeking to reverse his 2003 guilty plea and that gave a very clear picture of what happened, Poirier said. Despite Mooney’s repeated attempt to protest his innocence when he appeared in court to plead guilty, and again at sentencing, his lawyer advised the court that the law did not allow a justification defense. “It was patently inaccurate for Mooney’s counsel to have advised Mooney and to have represented to the court that no such defense was ever available,” Niemeyer wrote. In the 4th Circuit, the court has recognized the plausibility of the justification defense, “but we have never had occasion to apply it because the criteria for its application have never been fulfilled,” Niemeyer said. Korzen said of Poirier, “She did it all. She did the research and drafting of the briefs. We had three or four practice rounds of oral argument.” Poirier called the 4th Circuit argument an “opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime.” Poirier spent three years serving in the military police in Germany before returning to law school at Wake Forest on an Army scholarship. She said she finished her bar exam last week and will know in a few months if she passed. Meanwhile, she begins three years with the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell this month.

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