I wrote this past year about the obstacles that prisoners filing pro se face when challenging their convictions and sentences. The Seventh Circuit’s opinion today in United States v. Wyatt kind of typifies the problems inherent in a system that requires uneducated prisoners to fend for themselves and learn the law within a year in order to meet the statute of limitations for filing post-conviction motions.

Mr. Wyatt was sentenced as a career offender on the basis of a prior walkaway escape from a federal halfway house that the sentencing court erroneously concluded was a crime of violence. By applying the career offender sentencing provision, the court increased the Wyatt’s sentence by possibly 8 or more years. 

Although Wyatt had a legitimate claim at resentencing, his defense attorney failed to file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court that could have led to a resentencing (this the court admits). And once on his own, Wyatt made the mistake of characterizing his claim for resentencing as an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. This happened most likely because Wyatt filed as a pro se petitioner and he was expected to learn the law within a year’s time in order to meet the filing deadline imposed by Congress.

You know the decision is going to go bad when a court starts the opinion like this:

John M. Wyatt is caught in a procedural mess from which we cannot extricate him.

After denying Wyatt’s request begging for relief, the court finished with this paragraph:

Wyatt would not be sentenced as a career offender today and likely would receive a substantially lower sentence; the taxpayer is footing the bill to keep Wyatt in prison far longer than Congress or the Sentencing Commission intended, but there is no longer any judicial procedure to remedy the situation. At this point, only the executive branch has the authority to grant Wyatt the relief he seeks. As matters stand now, Wyatt’s claims are being batted back and forthbetween two circuits with differing views of how (and perhaps whether) he may be heard on the merits of his claim. This is an untenable and unseemly waste of judicial resources. The pending motion and the Petition for Rehearing are DENIED.

I wish I could fault the court, but like Wyatt, these are the rules they have been dealt by a Congress that simply does not understand the realities of the criminal justice system. As usual, it is the prisoners, their family, and the American taxpayer who suffers as a consequence.