Federal Court Overturns Firearm Convictions, Despite Leaving Life Sentences Intact

Even though a federal court upheld a prisoner’s life sentence for a RICO murder conviction, it still granted postconviction relief and vacated two illegal convictions for use of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, in light of some recent Supreme Court decisions.

Delroy Lee was convicted by a jury of numerous federal crimes, including attempted robbery and murder while using a firearm, under 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c) and 924(j). He was sentenced to multiple terms of life in prison without parole, plus two consecutive sentences totaling 30 years for two of the firearms convictions.

Mr. Lee lost his appeals but then filed a motion to vacate his § 924(c) convictions, under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, in light of a few recent Supreme Court cases. In one of those cases, United States v. Taylor, 142 S. Ct. 2015 (2022), the Supreme Court held that attempted Hobbs Act robbery was not a valid violent felony for purposes of § 924(c). The district court granted his motion and vacated the firearm convictions but left the life sentences on other counts intact.

Typically, a court will not disturb a conviction and sentence by granting postconviction relief if the end result does not shorten the person’s time in prison. This is called the “concurrent sentencing” doctrine, and it comes from the theory that an error in a criminal case need not be corrected if the outcome would largely be the same, i.e., it wouldn’t change the overall punishment. The sentencing judge, however, has discretion on whether to invoke the concurrent sentencing doctrine (and they usually do).

This case is surprising because the net effect of granting Mr. Lee’s § 2255 motion would not reduce his life sentence. While the court did not elaborate on why it was electing to ignore the concurrent sentencing doctrine and grant relief, I think a few factors played a role.

First, the court mentioned that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lora v. United States, 143 S. Ct. 1713 (2023), which held that convictions under §§ 924(c) and 924(j) were not required to run consecutively (as most courts had believed), did not require Mr. Lee’s similar convictions to run consecutively. Perhaps the judge wanted to fix that error.

Second, the two vacated sentences were running consecutively to the life sentences. Perhaps the judge felt that was enough to grant relief, in case those life sentences were later successfully challenged, and then Mr. Lee would be stuck serving 30 years on two convictions that were illegal. I think this should be the norm, and not the exception when it comes to postconviction relief, but the courts generally don’t go this route.

Third, perhaps the judge sees something in the record since sentencing that could result in an overall less severe sentence. Remember that postsentencing rehabilitation (i.e., good conduct in prison) can be considered during a later resentencing. See Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476, 131 S. Ct. 1229 (2011).

Whatever the reasons may be, I think this is the proper relief in this case, and I hope it prompts postconviction filers to challenge the concurrent sentencing doctrine’s bar on relief.

Lee v. United States, No. 07-CR-00003 (LAP), 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149989 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2023)

Dale Chappell is an expert on federal postconviction relief and the author of hundreds of articles and several books on challenging illegal and wrongful convictions and sentences. He is a former staff writer for Criminal Legal News Magazine and the author of the blog zenlawguy.com.

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