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U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rules in favor of Appellate Advocacy Clinic

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has reversed a lower court ruling and held in favor of the Appellate Advocacy Clinic in the case of United States v. Danny Thomas, in a published opinion decided on Dec. 29.

John Byron (’11) argued on behalf of Mr. Thomas at the Fourth Circuit courthouse in Richmond on Sept. 24.  Former Clinic member Caroline Payseur (’10) drafted the Brief of Appellant last spring, and current Clinic members helped Byron prepare for oral argument.

The issue in Thomas was whether the Supreme Court had to state explicitly that its statutory interpretation in United States v. Watson applied retroactively to cases on collateral review (that is, to defendants seeking habeas corpus), or whether the interpretation automatically applied retroactively without an explicit statement by the Court.  In other words, when the Supreme Court construes a criminal statute in a way that is favorable to criminal defendants, can defendants recently convicted also benefit from the favorable ruling even if the Court did not explicitly state the decision applies retroactively?  The statute in question, 18 U.S.C. 924(c), makes it illegal to “use” a firearm in furtherance of a drug crime.  In Watson, the Court held that a person does not “use” a firearm in a drug transaction if he merely receives the firearm in exchange for drugs.

Applying Supreme Court precedent and agreeing with the few other circuits to reach similar issues, the Fourth Circuit held that new substantive rules, including rules such as Watson that narrow the scope of a criminal statute, apply retroactively on collateral review without an explicit statement by the Supreme Court.

Before Thomas, the Fourth Circuit had only “assume[d], without deciding, that a circuit court can declare a new rule retroactive on collateral review,” in United States v. Sanders, 247 F.3d 139, 146 n.4 (4th Cir. 2001).  The Fourth Circuit also rejected the government’s alternative arguments against Mr. Thomas, remanding the case to the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina for further consideration of Mr. Thomas’ petition for habeas corpus.

After reviewing the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, Byron said, “I was honored to have the opportunity to argue on behalf of Mr. Thomas.  The published opinion sets a clear precedent for the Fourth Circuit and represents the strength of Wake Forest’s Appellate Advocacy Clinic.”

The Appellate Advocacy Clinic is a year-long Clinic for third-year law students who have demonstrated interest in LAWR I & II and Appellate Advocacy.  Contact Professor John Korzen for more information about the Clinic.