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'USA Today' story uncovers problem with criminal sentencing

READ MORE: 'USA Today' story uncovers problem with criminal sentencing
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ELIZABETHTOWN, NC (WWAY) -- A recent change in federal law means some folks may be wrongfully serving time in federal prison. Our story stems from an investigation in "USA Today" centered around a man from Elizabethtown sitting in jail for a crime he did not technically commit.

"He was an alright fellow when he wanted to be," Debra Bellamy said of her ex-boyfriend Terrell McCullum. "He was alright."

McCullum is a man who is legally innocent yet still behind bars.

"I don't know if he was a convicted felon or not, but I know he had been in trouble with the law," Bellamy said.

McCullum has a long rap sheet ranging from small traffic violations to assault.

In late 2007, when he went to collect his things after he and Bellamy broke up, they got into an argument. Police were called, and they saw him with multiple guns. They charged McCullum with possession of a firearm by felon, which led to a federal sentence.

In August of last year, a federal court ruling changed the definition of a federal felon. That means McCullum is no longer guilty of possession of a firearm by felon

State prosecutors say this is not a question of innocence; it's about the proper venue for these cases to be heard.

"What we are talking about right now are not folks who have been exonerated by DNA or misidentified in a photo line-up," said Ben David, District Attorney for New Hanover and Pender Counties. "They are people that because of a legal technicality that's come about after a ruling, might be factually guilty but legally innocent of a federal felony possession of a firearm but still very much guilty under state law."

This situation particularly pertains to our state because North Carolina has what's called structured sentencing. That means criminals are sentenced based on their past record. But the Simmons case has changed how state sentencing impacts federal time.

"No longer are we going to look and see what the most any person could have received for that state conviction was," said Eric Placke, a federal public defender in Greensboro. "We are going to see what's the most this particular defendant could have received."

Just months after the federal ruling, the North Carolina General Assembly restructured sentencing guidelines so there is no longer gray area. The question now is whether cases like McCullum's should be looked at retroactively.

Public defenders are working to find the people this pertains to, but attorneys we spoke with say the US Department of Justice is reluctant to go back on their previous rulings.

Disclaimer: Comments posted on this, or any story are opinions of those people posting them, and not the views or opinions of WWAY NewsChannel 3, its management or employees. You can view our comment policy here.

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Gun laws

I can understand why pepole are upset by some of this,but there is alot more to it than just some bad guy with a gun,and yea I know anyone who commit's a crime is a criminal,and for those of you who run that stop sign when no one is looking that means you too,the word crininal needs to be defined,and not just by Webster,if someone tells a lie is he not a liar,even a little lie,one that you dont think will hurt anyone,you know what I mean,and what about the guy who walks out of the bank with one of thier ink pens does that not make him a thief,we need to but a little more thought into labeling these day's,how crimes have been committed with firearms by people who have never had a felony background,just one day decided to go out buy a gun and shoot the place up kill a few what the hay Im not a felon,BUT I do have some mental issues so I should be ok to go buy a gun,pardon me but Im more worried about those people than some of these others so labled,also just so you know the constitution state that although a person has been stripped there right to bear arms it has not totaly divested to have a firearm in his home or place of biz, look it up.

What a load of crap!

So the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has changed the definition of what constitutes a felony - BIG DEAL. They were felonies when the men were sentenced!

These men were sentenced when their records reflected felonies as the term felony was interpreted at that time. They need to serve the sentences that were imposed. We prohibit ex post facto laws to prevent the governmnet persecuting individuals: That should also prevent ex post facto judicial decisions that inhibit the right of society to be free of dangerous criminals.

What is most irritating is that these men are exactly that - dangerous criminals. They all had prior criminal records when they were popped with possession of a firearm. They need to serve their sentences, and people need to stop cheering for the bad guys.

Can't lump all felons in the same boat...

But how should that be applied to those that don't have VIOLENT records, or had youthful charges some time ago that didn't involve the most serious crimes against the public - but still termed a FELON?

In NC the term 'felony' covers a lot of ground...from murder, rape, possession of large quantities of drugs to rolling back an odometer (unlawful change of mileage), removing pinestraw from a commercial pinestraw farm, intentional losing of athletic contest or limiting margin of victory or defeat, organizing beach bingo with a prize of $50 or more.

Do persons that were at some time convicted of relatively minor crimes deserve to have their rights stripped? The common sense is lacking when a person is branded a FELON the rest of their life for committing petty crime.

Say a lady is convicted of the beach bingo charge. How does her affiliation with a bingo prize of $50 increase the liklihood that she will commit a violent crime against the public with a firearm? Yet she could face 10 years of federal prison if she were to be caught with a gun.

Current firearm restrictions on ALL FELONS is too restrictive. That's not PC to say because of the stigma attached to both guns and the broad term of 'felon'. Some people hear the word 'gun' and think 'weapon of mass destruction'. Similarly most hear the word 'felon' and automatically thinks 'dangerous thug', which is not always the case.

Both the federal and state systems have changed many historically known misdemeanors to felonies in the past two decades. NC's list of felony classifications is now 20 pages - http://www.nccourts.org/courts/crs/councils/spac/documents/2003felonyoff...

Sorry, no sympathy for the stupid

I sincerely believe that anyone who is convicted of a felony is likely too stupid and irresponsible to own a firearm.