It’s been nearly 10 months since Raymond Surratt Jr.’s unusual case was argued before 15 judges at a Richmond-based federal appeals court.
Surratt was serving a mandatory life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime, a penalty that his sentencing judge, prosecutors and defense team agreed was overly harsh but still could leave the 42-year-old North Carolina man locked up forever.
On Jan. 19, Surratt was left momentarily speechless by a call from one of his attorneys telling him that on Barack Obama’s last full day in office, the president had granted Surratt early release as one of the record number of commutations for inmates sentenced under severe mandatory minimum laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Obama’s order reduces Surratt’s life sentence to 200 months, leaving him with less than three years behind bars if he completes a drug rehabilitation program.
Still pending are his appeals case and the overarching legal questions Surratt brought to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit about how many times federal prisoners should be able to challenge their sentences — particularly when sentencing rules later become more lenient.
“Ray was literally the poster child for why Congress should not tell a judge exactly what they have to do,” said Surratt’s longtime attorney Tony Scheer, who cried when he learned Surratt was on Obama’s final clemency list.
When Surratt heard the news in a call, “I’m not sure he really believed it,” Scheer said Wednesday.
It is not clear how Surratt’s commutation affects his court challenge and the issues his case raises about revising convictions and correcting sentencing errors. At least 15 other federal inmates with similar North Carolina cases have been awaiting a ruling.
In general, the court would not dismiss an appeal until it heard from the two sides. Surratt’s appellate attorney, Ann Hester of the Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina, declined to comment Wednesday.
Surratt was sentenced to life in 2005 for his role in a cocaine-distribution conspiracy in western North Carolina.
Although sentencing guidelines recommended a maximum penalty of about 20 years, the sentencing judge said he had no choice but to impose a mandatory life term because of Surratt’s previous drug convictions. The judge called the penalty “undeserved and unjust.”
Six years later, judges on the 4th Circuit, which includes North Carolina, issued a decision overruling past practice. The decision corrected the way defendants’ previous state-level convictions in North Carolina are factored into a judge’s calculations for determining the length of prison terms.
For Surratt, the ruling meant his prior convictions should not have triggered a mandatory life term. He asked for a chance to be resentenced under the new rules.
The government and the defense agreed Surratt should have another shot. If Surratt were resentenced today, he would face a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years in prison, probably making him eligible for immediate release from a federal facility in western Virginia.
With the prosecution and the defense in agreement, the appellate court appointed Georgetown University law professor Steven H. Goldblatt to make the counterargument in the case.
An initial three-judge panel at the 4th Circuit agreed 2 to 1 with Goldblatt’s argument that there is value in having finality in the legal system and that Congress allows challenges on that matter in the narrowest of circumstances.
At oral arguments in March before a panel of 15 judges, many appeared sympathetic to Surratt’s case, but some also seemed concerned about opening the door to a flood of similar inmate challenges.