Death row inmate wins habeas relief on robbery conviction, sentence

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A federal death row inmate convicted in an Arkansas murder and robbery has secured habeas relief against his robbery conviction and one of his death sentences.

Jeffery William Paul — who is housed in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, where federal executions are carried out — won habeas relief on Tuesday against his conviction of use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, robbery, in violation of 18 § U.S.C. 924(c). Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the Indiana Southern District Court also vacated his death sentence, subject to a penalty phase retrial.

However, Paul’s conviction of aiding and abetting a homicide, for which he was also sentenced to death, was not overturned.

Paul was convicted in 1997 in Arkansas federal court of the robbery and shooting death of Sherman Williams.

According to Magnus-Stinson’s order, Paul and a man named Trinity Ingle followed Williams into Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where they took Williams’ wallet and keys, tied him up with duct tape and shot him in the head and shoulder. They then took $98 from Williams’ wallet and left his body in the woods before driving off in his car, which was later found in a pit in the national park.

Paul was sentenced to death for both convictions.

His convictions and sentence were upheld on appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and his collateral attack under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was denied. He then filed for habeas relief in the Indiana Southern District Court, which stayed the case to allow Paul to pursue a success § 2255 motion.

The 8th Circuit declined to authorize the successive motion, so Paul pursued habeas relief in the Indiana Southern District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, known as the savings clause. He argued that he is actually innocent of murder, that he is ineligible for the death penalty due to a severe mental illness and that his conviction under § 924(c) must be vacated because “robbery” is not a crime of violence.

Initially, Magnus-Stinson determined the actual innocence claim could not be raised under the savings clause, and even if it could, the claim would fail.

She also determined the mental-illness claim is not yet ripe given that Paul’s execution has not been  scheduled, and the Department of Justice has not indicated when it might resume federal executions.

Further, while the judge found that “neither the indictment nor the jury instructions properly set out the elements of (the robbery) offense,” she also determined Paul could have raised that issue in a § 2255 motion. But she noted that while his indictment contained language similar to 18 U.S.C. § 2111, it did not include any statutory citation for robbery.

Paul found success on his argument that his robbery conviction was not a crime of violence.

Specifically, Magnus-Stinson pointed to Borden v. United States, 141 S. Ct. 1817 (2021), which held that the phrase “violent felony” in 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(2)(B)(i) includes only offenses with a mens rea requirement of purpose or knowledge as to the violent actus reus.

Borden was handed down long after Paul’s first 2255 motion, Magnus-Stinson noted, and it is a substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review, thus satisfying two of three elements Paul had to meet to bring a savings clause petition. The judge then determined Paul had proven the third element: that “there has been a fundamental defect in the proceedings that is fairly characterized as a miscarriage of justice.”

Specifically, “neither Mr. Paul’s indictment nor his jury instructions required a showing that he knowingly used force during the course of a robbery. And in the circuit where Mr. Paul was convicted, the mens rea of knowledge did not apply to the force and violence elements of § 2111 robbery, which is the statutory robbery offense most resembling the conduct with which he was charged,” Magnus-Stinson wrote.

“For these reasons, the robbery underlying Mr. Paul’s § 924(c) conviction did not require a knowing use of force, so it was not a crime of violence under Borden,” she held. “And conviction of an offense that is not actually criminalized constitutes a fundamental defect and a miscarriage of justice.”

Magnus-Stinson then vacated Paul’s sentence for the robbery conviction, writing that “the jury was not asked to specify the offense or offenses for which it imposed the death penalty.”

“Without such information,” she wrote, “the Court cannot determine whether Mr. Paul’s § 924(C) conviction influenced his sentence.”

The case is Jeffery William Paul v. Superintendent, et al., 2:13-cv-00304.

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