Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of Appellate Advocacy Clinic

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled in favor of George Allen Ward, an Appellate Advocacy Clinic client, in the case of Ward v. Stansberry. On July 27, the Court vacated a conviction of Mr. Ward’s and remanded his case for resentencing. Third-year students Caroline Payseur and Rich McPherson represented Mr. Ward, along with Professor John Korzen.

Ward was convicted back in 1994 of four counts, including one count of violating 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Section 924(c) prohibits the “use” of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime. Ward had receed a firearm in exchange for drugs. The count required a consecutive 60-month sentence in addition to the 160 months he was given for the other counts of conviction.

For years, Ward fought that conviction in pro se habeas corpus petitions, contending that one does not “use” a firearm in drug trafficking if one merely receives the gun in exchange for drugs. He was unsuccessful. Then, in December 2007, the United States Supreme Court agreed with his position, in Watson v. United States, 128 S. Ct. 579 (2007). Ward immediately obtained permission to challenge his conviction again, this time under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, however, denied his petition, holding that Watson does not apply retroactively to cases no longer on direct appeal.

Ward appealed to the Fourth Circuit, and on March 25, 2009, the Court appointed the Appellate Advocacy Clinic to represent Ward. Caroline Payseur researched and drafted the retroactivity issue decided by the District Court, while Rich McPherson researched and drafted an alternative issue raised by the prosecutor, which was that Ward could be guilty as an aider and abettor. The Clinic’s brief was filed on May 18. In it, the Clinic asked that the Court expedite its decision because Ward is less than 60 months from his release date. Alternatively, the Clinic asked for oral argument at the next available session.

The Court initially scheduled oral argument for Sept. 25, during its next oral argument session. The Clinic’s brief was so persuasive, however, that the prosecutor agreed that Ward’s conviction should be vacated without the need for oral argument. The Court then, on July 27, vacated the conviction on Ward’s section 924(c) count and remanded the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for resentencing. George Allen Ward, after fighting his conviction for more than a decade, may finally get some relief.

“This order from the Fourth Circuit is wonderful news for our client,” Payseur said. “Working on the brief was a great learning experience, and I’m glad the Court agreed to vacate his conviction promptly.”

Rich McPherson said, “Working on a Fourth Circuit appeal during law school was a special experience. I am very pleased that the Fourth Circuit vacated our client’s conviction.”

The Appellate Advocacy Clinic represents clients in all sorts of appeals, criminal and civil, in federal and state courts. It is open to third-year students who have taken Appellate Advocacy.